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Making a Great Bed for Your Gerbil

By: Jackie Roswell

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Gerbils love to burrow and, of course, to sleep. It's up to you to provide them with the best materials, but the choices aren't easy. Here's what you need to know to create a fun and cozy environment for your pet.

The Best For Burrowing

  • Peat and straw. These materials are among the best for burrowing and allow gerbils to readily form nesting chambers within the tank. They have the added advantage of absorbing a great deal of moisture and odor, thus reducing how often you must clean the cage.

    The problem with peat and straw is that it can be difficult to get the consistency right. If the materials are too damp, they get dusty and can give the gerbils chest complaints or fungal infections. Leftover seeds may also begin to sprout. If the bedding is too dry, the gerbils' burrows collapse. Being the expert diggers that they are, they can usually burrow their way out, but this may not be the case with any babies caught in the burrows. Peat and straw can also stain the gerbils' coats, a problem if you show your gerbils.

  • Paper-based cat litter. This litter absorbs all odors and small amounts of liquid, but it can harden, making it difficult for gerbils to burrow. Providing the amount needed for burrowing can also get expensive. Additionally, it is poor cosmetically. The dark litter makes it look as if the tank is always in need of cleaning.

  • Sawdust. Gerbils can burrow and create chamber systems in hard-packed sawdust. It is also relatively inexpensive to buy. The problem with sawdust is that it's very fine and often leads to eye and nose irritation. Some sawdust can also cause allergic reactions. Sawdust made from cedar or other strongly smelling woods can cause irritation and illnesses.

  • Wood shavings. Inexpensive to buy, wood shavings have bigger particles than sawdust and less likely to irritate your gerbil. Creating chambers may be a little more difficult, but if you add lots of toilet roll tubes and tissue boxes your gerbil will chew these up to enable him to bind the substrate together and create wonderful burrow systems. If these collapse, the material should be light enough to allow your gerbils to easily dig their way out. Always look for dust-extracted and well-aired softwoods, and keep aspen high on your list. Here, too, avoid shavings from strongly smelling woods, especially cedar, because of their tendency to irritate and lead to illness.

  • Corn cob. Many people have had a lot of success using small dried particles of corn cob. Very absorbent, corn cob also has a reputation for being very safe. The only drawback is the difficulty of digging burrows with small particles.

  • Sand. If you want your gerbils to look their best, sand helps keep their coats grease free and makes them look glossy and sleek. It also looks more like the gerbil's natural environment. It rarely needs changing since it can be sieved to remove waste and uneaten food. Sand has several drawbacks. It must be kept damp to allow gerbils to burrow in it and prevent fine grains from irritating a gerbil's eyes. And some gerbil owners have complained about the noise a gerbil makes when he's scratching around on sand covered glass. It can sound like fingernails being drawn across a blackboard. Sand can also make a cage extremely heavy to move.

    Your choice of materials may depend on where and how you keep your gerbils. If you want to show them, it is best to avoid materials that will stain them. If you want them to burrow you need a material like wood shavings or peat. If you are worried about irritating your gerbil, avoid sawdust. It may be a good idea to combine the advantages of two or more types of bedding. For example, you could place a barrier or bricks or tiles across one end or a corner of a tank and place sand in the enclosed area for the gerbils to dust bathe and groom their coats, then in the rest of the tank place wood shavings to allow them to burrow safely.

    If your gerbils show signs of trouble, a sore nose with a red discharge or a red discharge from the eye, try an alternative bedding. Even changing from one brand of wood shavings to another can make a difference.

    Nesting Material

    Many products are sold for small animal nesting material. These range from paper strips to woolly cellulose fibers. You can also give gerbils hay for nesting. Unfortunately, none of these is ideal.

    Gerbils, especially young gerbils, have been known to lose limbs when they have gotten tangled in paper strips. For this reason you should never give your gerbil any fibrous material including cotton wool or pieces of cloth. The only exception is burlap, which can be used safely. The fluffy bedding material often sold in pet shops has been implicated in intestinal disorders in hamsters so should be avoided. While hay can make a good warm nesting material it can stain the gerbil's coat. More, it is often a source of parasites such as mites, or fungal infections such as ringworm.

    Experienced gerbil keepers know that none of these products beats a simple and cheap alternative – toilet tissue. Give a few sheets of toilet tissue to your gerbil and in no time it will have chewed and fluffed it up into an incredibly warm, soft, and safe nest.

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