Gerbils are excellent family pets, being easy to care for, easy to tame and easy to keep clean. They are very active and sociable, so are best kept in single-sex pairs or groups to avoid them developing behavioural problems. They will live for up to four years.
A plastic cage with good ventilation is ideal, the more spacious the better, with a deep layer of bedding provided for tunnelling. It should be located in a draught-free place where an even temperature can be maintained. Modular units such as are made for hamsters can be used, but must be escape proof; gerbils love to chew through many materials. A small dish filled with sand will allow the gerbils to 'bath' and keep their coats clean.
A complete gerbil diet can be fed, supplemented with small amounts of fruit and vegetables; and vitamin and mineral supplements can also be given. Overindulgence with fatty, starchy foods or too much fresh greens can cause stomach upsets, and care must be taken to provide sufficient fibre in the diet. As a gerbil's teeth are constantly erupting, they need to be kept in wear by the provision of wooden toys or branches for gnawing on.
Attention to diet and hygiene can help gerbils to lead healthy lives, but some of their common ailments are listed here.
- Epilepsy: Spontaneous epileptic seizures occur in some genetic lines from 2-3 months of age, becoming more severe up to 6 months old. The 'fits' generally occur as a result of handling or a change in environment, and it is thought that this behaviour may have originally developed as a survival mechanism to deter predators. Frequent handling of gerbils in the first 3 weeks of life appears to reduce the incidence of this type of epilepsy.
- Gastrointestinal upsets: Dietary indiscretion, bacterial infection and parasitic infestation can all cause diarrhoea. Avoid feeding too much fresh greenery, and increase the fibre in the diet. If this does not help, veterinary advice should be sought as antibiotics or wormers may be needed.
- Head tilt: Older gerbils will often develop a head tilt, and this may be due to generalised bacterial infection, polyps in the ear or ear infection. Veterinary advice and treatment should be sought.
- Mouth problems: As with other rodents, gerbils' teeth continue to grow throughout life, and a high fibre diet is essential to keep the teeth in wear. Overgrown teeth can cause difficulties with eating, and mouth ulcers or abscesses may result if the problem is left untreated.
- Respiratory disease: Common symptoms of respiratory problems include nasal discharge, sneezing and breathing difficulties. There may also be anorexia and weight loss. Some infections are highly contagious, so any gerbil showing these signs should be isolated in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease to others in the group. Some conditions are caused by viruses, but secondary bacterial disease can be treated successfully with the correct antibiotics.
- Tyzzers disease: This is a very serious condition affecting gerbils and it can prove fatal. Usually there is inappetance (with weight loss), diarrhoea, weakness and lethargy. Incoordination and head-tilt may be complicating symptoms. Predisposing factors for this condition are poor hygiene, overcrowding and concurrent ill-health, so keeping the cage clean, providing fresh food and water, and using lots of good quality bedding/nesting material should all help.