Many species of gerbil have been kept as pets, but of all the different kinds it is the Mongolian gerbil, with its distinctive black claws, that has established itself as a very successful pet.
ACQUIRING A GERBIL
Gerbils are born after a pregnancy of twenty-four days. The young are very immature and small with dark red skin. Both parents stay with the young who are suckled for three to four weeks. They can be rehoused between the seventh and tenth weeks, at which time they have to be paired, for if adult gerbils are introduced later than this, serious fighting can break out. A breeding pair, housed before ten weeks of age, will live together for life. If this is undesirable, two females from the same litter will also live together companionably for life.
Mainly herbivorous, these little rodents need a diet of mixed canary seed, sunflower seed, wheat, oats, maize and barley. They may be expected to take a tablespoonful of this cereal mixture each day. In addition some will eat small amounts of animal protein, such as hard-boiled eggs. Fresh fruit and vegetables is another daily necessity, and raisins are a favourite titbit for hand-feeding.
It is quite often said — and erroneously — that desert animals such as the gerbil and hamster do not need to be given water to drink. This is not the case and tests have shown that, given the choice, gerbils will drink about a teaspoonful of water daily, unless they are old, ill or pregnant, in which cases they drink far more. Although this seems to be only a small amount, it is very important to realize that daily drinking water is absolutely essential to gerbils. They will of course, use it economically, practising survival techniques evolved under desert conditions. They do not waste water by sweating and their urine is highly concentrated.
The most satisfactory type of cage for a pair of gerbils is a roomy box cage with ramps and ladders leading to a galleried upper storey. This greatly increases the floor area and the opportunity for movement within the cage.
In the wild, gerbils spend much of their time underground in burrows, and the opportunity to dig in deep litter and retreat from the light, is essential to their welfare.
A far better way of providing gerbils with an underground retreat that approximates, albeit on a very small scale, to their natural environment, is to convert a tank into a gerbilarium.
Use as big a tank as possible and fill it with a mixture of Irish moss peat mixed with chopped straw. This is just right for burrowing. The mixture needs to be compacted down and possibly covered with grass turves. A pair of gerbils will busily dig tunnels that will hold their shape and will soon have built a network of underground burrows.
Clean kitchen paper may be offered as bedding and, although a nocturnal creature such as the hamster would spend all day underground, gerbils are active during the day and not lost to sight.
Since gerbils urinate so little and the peat mixture is so absorbent, the gerbilarium needs cleaning only two or three times a year. Gerbils do not hoard food in captivity and although some is inevitably buried when they dig, decaying food is not normally a problem. For this reason, fresh foods, that would rot down quickly, must be removed daily.
The gerbilarium will need to be fitted with a ventilated cover to prevent these highly agile creatures escaping. It is usually convenient to fix the water-bottle to an attachment in the cover.
The gerbilarium enables the gerbils to move around the tank as they would move around their own burrow system in the wild. Those which allow themselves to be handled may be brought out for a period of exercise each day, but it will need to be supervised since they are quick moving and liable to escape.
Caged gerbils can use a wheel for exercise, but as their long tails can become caught up in a spoked wheel, a solid one is to be preferred.
All caged gerbils should be taken out of their cage for a period of exercise each day. Since there is scope only for limited movement within it.
A pair of gerbils will groom each other and need no help from their owner. They do not smell unless kept in very inadequate conditions.
Mongolian gerbils have teeth which continually grow, as is common to all rodents, and they must be allowed wood or big nuts, such as Brazil nuts, to gnaw on. They are able to keep their teeth in perfect trim this way.
Mongolian gerbils are known for their curiosity and friendliness to humans, and most will walk onto an outstretched hand with no fear.
Those less reluctant to do so may be picked up by cupping them in the hands, and tamed over a period of time by hand-feeding.