The gerbil is one of the newest of small pets and most fascinating they are, too, particularly for people who like something out-of-the-ordinary. They are bright, active and very inquisitive little creatures, with little smell. Once they have become accustomed to new surroundings and to their owner, they display a lack of fear which is part of their charm. They are scarcely, known to bite and, should they do so, it seems to be more of a warning nip ! This is interesting behaviour because it is uncommon for an animal so recently domesticated to be so friendly and it predicts a bright future. The hamster was not so friendly in the very early days.
Fully grown gerbils are larger than mice and more thick-set. They are about 3 to 4 inches long, with a handsome furry tail of about the same length. The fur on the back is tawny or yellowish-brown, ticked with black and a blue-grey undercolour. The belly is white or light grey. The head is less pointed than a mouse, with appealing black eyes. The hind legs are long and ideal for leaping and jumping. A typical posture is to stand high on the back legs, increasing their height surprisingly, turning their heads this way and that, eyes alert for sudden movements and ears twitching for unfamiliar sounds. Their running is swift and “bobbing”, very much like a squirrel, and small obstacles are taken in single bounds. If startled, they are capable of leaping agilely into the air.
It is best to buy a young gerbil of between four to eight weeks of age. In choosing a gerbil, always look for an animal with a bright eye, sleek coat and inquisitive nature. Refuse listless looking specimens. The most important reason for starting with young gerbils is that adults, which have not been kept together, rarely take to one another but fight viciously until one dies. Gerbils pair for life and the easiest way to keep them is to buy a young male and female. Usually, these will settle down happily and, once they have been seen to groom one another, it is unlikely that they will ever quarrel. If you do not wish to be bothered with the arrival of young, a pair of males will usually live together contentedly. A solitary gerbil often looks forlorn but either sex will make an equally delightful pet.
Most pet shop owners will gladly explain the difference between the sexes and make certain that you are making a suitable choice. The male has a more pointed posterior than the female and has a dark coloured pouch just in front of the tail. The two vents in the female are sited more closely together. The adult male has a conspicuous gland in the middle of the stomach which is less noticeable in the female.
Gerbils make scarcely any noise. They do, however, emit a high pitched squeak, rather like the chirp of a young nestling bird. The room has to be very quiet however, before one can be sure of hearing it. The gerbil also communicates by rapid stamping with his back feet and vibrations of his tail on any surface upon which he is standing. This is known as “drumming” and is a form of warning, for gerbils indulge in drumming whenever they are agitated or frightened and during periods of mating. It is interesting to watch the way in which other placid animals, upon hearing the drumming, will immediately become alert and stand on their hind legs, peering around for signs of danger. Rabbits make a similar noise, by rapid stamping of their hind legs, as a warning of possible danger.
There are a fair number of different gerbils, mostly found in the more dry, desert regions of the world, such as North Africa, the Middle East and central Asia. The various wild species are known as jerboas, jirds or desert rats. The little gerbil (pronounced JURbill by the way) of the pet shop is the Mongolian gerbil and is a descendant of a number of animals trapped near the Amur river in Eastern Mongolia in 1935. These were sent to Japan, where they were bred successfully, stock being despatched to the U.S.A. In 1954. A few years later, the little animal arrived in Britain where its quaint and friendly behaviour soon captured the hearts of pet lovers everywhere.