What you need to know

What To Know Before Adopting A Gerbil

Anaëlle Laurent
By Anaëlle Laurent. March 19, 2020
What To Know Before Adopting A Gerbil

Gerbils are small rodents with long furry tails that are now common house pets. This is due to their playful and curious character, as well as their great intelligence.

If you're interested in adopting a gerbil as a pet, continue reading this AnimalWised article. Here we will help you know how to take care of a gerbil and understand all of their needs.

You may also be interested in: What to Know Before Adopting a Stray Cat
  1. Origin
  2. Characteristics of pet gerbils
  3. Character of pet gerbils
  4. Do gerbils bite?
  5. How to care for a pet gerbil
  6. What do gerbils eat?
  7. How to care for a gerbil's cage
  8. Social needs for pet gerbils


Gerbils are a species belonging to the suborder of myomorphs, in which the hamster, rats, mice and voles also belong to. Within this classification, hamsters, rats, mice and voles are from the dipodidae family. Unlike the gerbils, who belong to the muridae family.

Originally, gerbils were used as laboratory animals in the 1950s. However, due to their docile nature, they were gradually adopted as companion animals. In the wild, there are nine different known varieties of gerbils. They are distributed in the northern part of Africa and Asia. The specie of gerbils that we have as domestic pets is the Egyptian variation.

If you like rodents, you may also be interested in our article on the types of domestic rats.

What To Know Before Adopting A Gerbil - Origin

Characteristics of pet gerbils

Gerbils are also commonly called desert gerbils or desert rats. This is due to the fact that they are commonly found in the desert. This is because gerbils are able to quickly adapt to this type of environment. Other physical characteristics of gerbils are:

  • Brown or gray fur: gerbils usually have a coat with a sandy or grayish and white at the bottom color. This is key for them to be able to camouflage themselves in their environment and hide from predators. However, as domestic pets, they come in different colors of coats.
  • Size: gerbils are physically similar to a mouse. Their bodies can measure between 3.9 to 4.7 inches (without tail).
  • Tail: their furry tails measure around 4.7 inches
  • Big eyes and ears: gerbils have large eyes that allow them to see at night. Their large ears allow them to have great hearing and also to regulate their temperature.
  • Long hind legs: these small rodents differ from mice due to their long hind legs. They have fur on their legs and fingers. This facilitated mobility in sandy terrain, allowing them to jump with great ease and agility.

How long does a pet gerbil live?

Although gerbils are very resistant animals in nature, capable of living in extremely high temperatures, they don't live for many years. Domestic gerbils have a life expectancy of 3 to 4 years when being well cared for.

To learn more about animals that live in the desert, read our article to see the complete list of desert animals.

What To Know Before Adopting A Gerbil - Characteristics of pet gerbils

Character of pet gerbils

In general, gerbils are very affectionate, sociable and clean animals. They are known for the following characteristics:

Wild gerbil's character

Due to their prey nature, these animals often dig burrows. They live in these burrows and use them to protect themselves from predators and to avoid high desert temperatures. They are also usually rather nocturnal animals to avoid the desert heat. Now, by living with us as domestic animals, they can adapt their schedule and be active both day and night.

Gerbil's curiosity

These small rodents have a very curious character and, for this reason, they are constantly exploring everything around them. It's normal to find them in an upright posture, stretching their two hind legs in order to observe their environment.

Social and friendly

Gerbils are social and friendly animals. They usually live in communities within burrows and sleep together. When a gerbil is frightened by a predator, they usually hit the ground with their hind legs to alert other gerbils. It's important to remember that gerbils have very good hearing and communicate especially through high frequency, these are sounds that humans cannot perceive.

Differences between female and male

Females are known to be more temperamental than males. This is especially true during being in heat as they see other females as their competition.

Another peculiar behavior, more common in males, is crawling on their gut to mark their territory. This is due to the fact that gerbils have scent glands in their gut with which they can leave their scent.

Personal Hygiene

Gerbils have very marked hygiene habits. In their habitat, these rodents tend to groom themselves by rubbing themselves with sand. They will also wash other members of their group. In the wild, they are known to do their necessities (urinate and discharge feces) in the same place, always away from their food and resting places.

What To Know Before Adopting A Gerbil - Character of pet gerbils

Do gerbils bite?

Gerbils do not bite. However, when playing they may nibble. When gerbils are scared and defend themselves from what they perceive as danger, they will try to escape the situation and perhaps nibble aggressively. However this is very rare as by nature they are very docile animals. If we are bothering our gerbil too much, they may nibble on us to ask us to stop. This is especially true when it comes to lifting our gerbil up into the air. Especially if not accustomed to this, they will be very scared. This is because, in nature, only their predator will raise them up from the ground.

To avoid your gerbil being scared of this, it's important to socialize them from a young age. Allow them to be around children and adults so that they understand that they are not a threat. Also, keep in mind that they have very sensitive ears, so it'll be best to talk to them in a soft voice.

Another important thing to keep in mind is to not grab your gerbil by the tail. This will scare them and they will get rid of their tail as a defense mechanism. Unlike lizards, their tails won't grow back.

If you're wondering what pet to get your children, gerbils are a great option. You can also read more on our article what is the best pet for a child.

What To Know Before Adopting A Gerbil - Do gerbils bite?

How to care for a pet gerbil

Pet gerbils don't require a lot of care, in comparison to a dog. They are rather independent animals that don't require a lot of attention. Nevertheless, we must provide them with their basic needs in order to have healthy and happy animals. These factors include:

  • Adequate food
  • Cage with everything they need
  • Social needs

Below, we will explain each of these points in more detail.

What do gerbils eat?

Gerbils do not need a large intake of food. In their natural habitat, they usually eat all kinds of foods within their reach, such as:

  • Flowers
  • Herbs
  • Fruit
  • Seeds
  • Tubers
  • Insects
  • Bird eggs

To ensure your pet gerbil has a complete and balanced diet, it's best to provide them with natural foods such as fruits and vegetables, scattered around their cage. It's also recommended to leave them some hay, this will add great fiber to their diet. Remember to give them food in small amounts.

When it comes to water, we advise you put a tank with clean water so they can drink from it when they feel the need to do so.

Banned food for gerbils

On the other hand, never give your gerbil:

  • Onions
  • Rhubarb
  • Food in poor condition
What To Know Before Adopting A Gerbil - What do gerbils eat?

How to care for a gerbil's cage

Firstly you will have to choose a type of cage for your gerbil. It can be:

  • Glass terrarium: these cages are inexpensive, easy to clean and allows you to observe your gerbil. They will keep them safely inside and works well for different climates. Glass terrariums are one of the most popular choices.
  • Wire cages: these cages offer plenty of airflow but can be quite messy as some of the bedding will spill out. Make sure to get a wire cage where your gerbil cannot escape.
  • Plastic cages: these cages are available in plastic and plastic-and-wire combinations. These types of cages can be fun, especially for kids, because they come in different shapes, sizes and colors. However, it's not recommended to be the primary housing for gerbils as these rodents tend to nibble on the cage when they are bored.

When it comes to choosing the substrate for the cage, we recommend using megazorb, carefresh, fitch bedding, shredded card or similar materials. The best nesting material is hay, as it is the most natural and gerbils love to chew on it. Avoid using the material sawdust.

Next, you will choose the size of the cage. When getting a gerbil you must take into account that these are social creatures. It's recommended to adopt them in pairs, so that they are happier with the company of another gerbil. That being said, the size of their cage will need to be enough for both of them to play, run and create burrows. You can also consider getting a multi-deck cage for you gerbils.

An estimated guide in choosing the size of your gerbil's cage is 5 gallons of space per gerbil. However, if you have the space and can opt for a couple more gallons, that would be even better.

Finally, it's time to choose toys and decoration for your gerbils to have an enriched environment. When choosing toys for your gerbil, remember that some materials such as plastic or toys with ink, are toxic to gerbils. Instead, opt for toys made with natural materials. Here are some great ideas you can add to your gerbil's cage:

  • Climbing structures
  • Wooden nest box
  • Mesh Wire Wheel
  • Chewing toys
  • Sand bath with chinchilla dust
  • Ropes

Next we will talk about cleaning your pet gerbil's cage. It's recommended to clean their cage every two to three weeks. To do this, you will dump out all the contents except for a handful of substrate from their nesting corner. Then, wash the cage with warm water and white soap. You can let it air-dry or dry it with a towel. Then, refill with two to three inches of substrate. Add the handful of substrate you have saved back to their nesting corner so that their scent remains in their cage.

Lastly, remember to allow their cage to have good air circulation. The best temperature for the, is around 64ºF to 82ºF.

What To Know Before Adopting A Gerbil - How to care for a gerbil's cage

Social needs for pet gerbils

As we've previously mentioned, gerbils are social creatures that live in communities when in the wild. For this reason, it's recommended you have at least two gerbils. It would be ideal if they meet each other when they are both young, to avoid any fights they might encounter. Once they're used to each other's scent, they will feel well accompanied and protected.

If you want to read similar articles to What To Know Before Adopting A Gerbil, we recommend you visit our What you need to know category.

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  • Wilson, D. E. & Reeder, D. M. (editors). (2005). Mammal Species of the World. A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference (3rd ed).
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What To Know Before Adopting A Gerbil