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Understanding Your Gerbil

By: Talia Starkey

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Gerbils may not be very vocal, but they have other interesting ways of communicating with each other. They recognize each other's scents and can pass along a warning by beating their back legs against the ground. If you spend time with your gerbils, you will come to recognize these and other common gerbil behaviors. Here's a list of some of the goings-on you might witness in your gerbil cage.

Burrowing and Scratching

Notorious diggers and scratchers, your gerbils may never seem to tire of burrowing in the same corner of their enclosure. It's for this very reason that most owners do not recommend housing your pets in a plastic cage. The thin sides are vulnerable to assault by your gerbil's strong claws. As long as you have provided your gerbil with plenty of exercise alternatives – like a hard-floored exercise wheel, and branches to climb – don't worry about his digging. In the wild, he would spend his days digging elaborate underground burrows for his family. Your domestic gerbil just hasn't kicked the tunneling habit.

Noises From Your Gerbil Cage

Gerbils are generally very quiet pets. Young pups may call their mother with a high-pitched squeak that sounds more like a bird chirping than a rodent noise. Older gerbils may squeak in protest when they're fighting or squabbling. But while very few complaints will be vocalized in your gerbil cage, you will hear your pets thumping the ground with their back legs. This fast-paced staccato is usually a warning signal, not unlike a beaver thumping its tail. Your whole colony may perk up and repeat this sign. Drumming can also indicate sexual excitement.

Social Grooming

If you observe your gerbil colony carefully, you will see your pets grooming each other during their quiet moments together. This is a very relaxing activity for your pets. You may see your gerbils run their paws over each other's noses and ears in a very affectionate manner. If there's a litter of pups in a group cage, other females may assist the mother in cleaning and caring for the babies.

A well-defined social structure exists within each gerbil community. Dominance struggles are not uncommon, but they're usually solved without too much violence. Four-week-old gerbils may spar with littermates to determine the hierarchy within their group, but fights between clan members rarely lead to bloodshed.

Problems With Newcomers

Gerbils do not welcome newcomers to their cage. The cage inhabitants are likely to attack any gerbil whose scent they do not recognize and may even reject a gerbil that once lived among them but was removed for a period of time because of illness. The gerbil's territorial nature makes breeding problematic, but it can also be difficult for a casual owner to replace a member of his gerbil clan who died of old age or illnesses with a new pet. If you must add a new gerbil to the cage, dust your pets with talcum powder (avoiding their heads and eyes) to disguise their natural scents and supervise the introduction.

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