Veterinary Care

Gerbils

Gerbils are burrowing, social animals who are active both day and night. These rodents are curious, friendly and nearly odorless, making them very popular pets. They rarely bite or fight, are easy to keep clean and care for, and are relatively easy to handle. The average life span of a gerbil is 2 - 4 years. The following information is designed to help you take the best possible care of your pet.

DIET
Gerbils eat approximately 1/4 ounce of food daily, eating both day and night. However, it is necessary to fill bowls with more than this quantity daily because of waste.

Pellets or blocks - It is recommended that you feed your gerbil rodent ration containing 20 - 22% protein. These rations are typically processed as dry pellets or blocks.

Seeds - It is okay to feed your gerbil seeds, but only as a supplement to the pellets. Seed diets fed alone can cause obesity and potential nutritional deficiencies.

Supplemental foods - The following foods are fine to feed your pet to supplement his pelleted diet, but are to be fed in moderation. They include: sugarless breakfast cereals, whole wheat breads, cooked pastas, cheeses, fresh fruits and vegetables.

Water - The average adult gerbil drinks approximately 1 tablespoon of water daily. Inadequate water consumption can lead to dehydration, lower body weight and eventually death. Water must always be available and changed daily. The container should be a water bottle equipped with a sipper tube. The bottle needs to be positioned low enough to allow the pet easy access.

ENVIRONMENT
Cages - Several types of cages suitable for housing gerbils are available. Many of these units come equipped with cage "furniture" such as exercise wheels, tunnels and nest boxes as added luxuries. Such accessories, as well as sufficient litter depth within which to burrow, are desirable for the pet's psychological and physical well-being. Adult gerbils require a minimum floor area of 36 square inches each and a cage height of at least 6 inches.

Routine cleaning is necessary. The frequency of cleaning depends on the number of animals in the cage, the type of bedding used and the cage design. Cages should be sanitized at least weekly with hot water and nontoxic disinfectant; then thoroughly rinsed. Water bottles and food dishes should be cleaned and disinfected daily.

Bedding - Gerbils thrive in solid-bottom cages with deep bedding and ample nesting material. Bedding must be clean, nontoxic, absorbent, and relatively dust free. Shredded paper or tissue, pine shavings and processed ground corn- cob are the preferred types of bedding. Wood shavings and corncob bedding must be dry and free from mold, mildew or other contamination. Cotton and shredded tissue paper make excellent nesting materials. At least 2 inches of bedding in the cage allows normal burrowing behavior. Do not use cedar shavings because they may harm your pet.

Temperature - The optimal temperature range for gerbils is between 65 and 85 degrees F.

Lighting - Gerbils are equally active day or night, but should have light in cycles--12 hours of light and 12 hours of dark within each 24-hour period.

Multiple Gerbils - Gerbils are social animals who tend to cohabitate well together. However, gerbils may become aggressive toward intruders and may fight when crowded or mixed as adults. Gerbils typically form life-long, monogamous pairs. It is best to provide numerous sources of food and water when multiple animals are caged together. Breeding is highly discouraged! It is best to have your gerbils spayed or neutered or only house same sex companions in cages together.

HANDLING
The gerbil's natural curiosity and friendly disposition makes him fairly easy to handle. Picking rodents up by the scruff of their necks is not recommended. Most gerbils will approach a hand introduced into their cage and can be easily scooped into the palm of the hand. The animal should be held in one hand, covered with the other hand to prevent jumping, and held against your body.

HEALTH & MEDICAL PROBLEMS
Gerbils have adapted well to captivity and are relatively free of naturally occurring infectious diseases, though they do have a few common medical problems.

Epilepsy - The gerbil has a genetic tendency to develop epileptic-type seizures. The occurrence rate for the general gerbil population is 20 - 40%. These seizures may be initiated by fright, handling or exposure to a new environment. The attacks can be mild (slight shaking) to very severe (violent convulsive body jerking, erratic movements and collapse). The convulsions appear not to have any long-term effects, though, in some cases, death may result following very severe seizures, but this is rare. Frequent handling while young, a stable environment, and a complete, balanced diet can help suppress seizures in genetically predisposed gerbils.

Tail sloughing - Improper handling of gerbils can result in the loss of fur from the tip of the tail. This is usually the result of the tip of the tail being grasped or pulled. The skinless tail then dies off and sloughs, with the stump usually healing without complications. Though, in some instances, the tail may need to be amputated.

Nasal dermatitis - Gerbils commonly develop hair loss on the nose and muzzle with open lesions and crusting. This condition is usually attributed to abrasions from coarse bedding or rough surfaces within the cage or environment, but a gland may be involved. This problem tends to affect young mature adults most often. In severe cases, secondary bacterial infections may occur. If treated early in the course of the disease this condition often resolves. If not attended to, your pet may require surgery.

Cancerous Tumors - Gerbils have a relatively high rate of cancer after they reach 2 years of age--with ovarian and skin cancers being the most common. With ovarian cancer, or cystic ovaries, the only symptom you may notice is an extended abdomen. Skin cancer develops most often around the ears, feet, mid-abdomen, and base of the tail, appearing as a lump or abscess. Where possible, early surgical intervention is the treatment of choice.

Tyzzer's disease - This is the most commonly reported infectious disease in gerbils. Often caused by stress or bacteria because of poor sanitation, this disease will cause nonspecific symptoms, such as ruffled fur, lethargy, hunched posture, poor appetite, diarrhea, and often death. If you have other gerbils in the same cage with the affected one, they will all need to be treated. See your pet's veterinarian right away for diagnosis and treatment. It is recommended that a new pet be isolated until you are sure he is free of disease.

(Some information within taken with permission from "Care of Gerbils,"
Midwest Bird and Exotic Animal Hospital, Illinois.)