Relatively unknown in the pet world until the 1950s, the gerbil has become the first pet of choice in homes and school classrooms around the world. Larger than mice, smaller than hamsters, lively, curious, easy to house, feed, and handle, these animated relatives of hamsters, kangaroo rats, and lemmings seem to enjoy performing. Best kept in pairs, they will groom each other, burrow together and sleep cuddled together. When excited they will get up on their hind legs, balance on their long tufted tails and thump their feet. When pleased they will let out tiny barely audible squeals.
In their dry native habitats of Asia and Africa gerbils have few natural enemies and seem more curious than fearful of humans. The Mongolian gerbil, the most common species sold in stores, is a born burrower and will develop networks of tunnels with food storage, nesting, and sleeping sites. Gerbils are four to six inches long excluding the tail and have a life span of three to five years.
Over the years, some two dozen hybrids and color variations have been developed. The original brown or gray coated animal now comes in black, lilac, chocolate, cream, nutmeg, blue, among other colors, some with red eyes, some with black. Some rarely imported species, small Egyptian gerbils, Indian (pink-footed) gerbils, and Libyan gerbils known as jirds, now appear in shops. All are gentle, hardy pets.
Good gerbil housing provides them with the space and means to pursue their most basic urge: burrowing. They do this with abandon, digging with their front feet and then kicking out what they’ve just dug with their back feet. A cage is fine as long as you don’t mind debris flying through the bars. A box is fine, but it keeps you from appreciating the performance. Best then is an aquarium, at least 10 inches high by 18 inches long by 10 inches wide. Fit it tightly with a mesh top – gerbils are big hoppers – and cover the bottom with a 6- to 8-inch deep layer of burrowing material. This can be a combination of straw and peat or soft sawdust or wood shavings. Provide a couple of gerbil-sized tubes of PVC piping for them to dive in and out of, and a drip water bottle (they’ll turn over any bowl) and that’s pretty much it.
Cleanliness (odorlessness) is another distinction that makes gerbils so popular. Clean out the aquarium every six to eight weeks. If you have a cage with a litter tray, clean out the tray once a month.
As with housing, feeding gerbils is fairly straightforward. Feed grain and seeds supplemented by pelleted food. To keep your pet trim, use fatty sunflower seeds and peanuts only as a treat. Feed the gerbils only what they’ll eat at the time, although this can be difficult to ascertain since they will take much of their food and bury it around the cage. Gerbils enjoy fruits and vegetables: try pears, apples, carrots and lettuce. And supply some untreated wood for them to chew.
When you bring your gerbils home, allow them a few days to themselves in their new accommodations. Then, beginning once, maybe twice a day, take them out and handle them gently to allow them to get used to you. Soon, their own curiosity will bring them out.