Gerbil 101 – Everything you Need to Know About Gerbils!

Everything you Need to Know About Gerbils

Small pets are increasing in popularity and one option available is the gerbil. This small creature has many attributes that make it an ideal pet. If you think you might like to keep gerbils, it is important that you understand this animal and find out as much as possible about them. Knowing about gerbils means you will have a clear understanding of their care needs so you can keep your pet healthy and happy. The following is an overview of gerbils to help you learn more about these amazing creatures.

What is a Gerbil?

Gerbils were formerly known as desert rats and they are small rodents that live in arid habitats in the wild. Some species are most active during the day, while others are nocturnal animals. They usually measure between six and 12-inches, but this depends on the breed. They are close in appearance to rats and mice as they have a long tail, small ears, and a pointed face. Mice, rats, and gerbils all come from the same rodent family, Muridae.

Where Do Gerbils Come From?

In the wild, gerbils live in arid areas, usually either in the desert or in the surrounding area. The parts of the world where gerbils are found in the wild are Africa, Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. They display natural burrowing behavior and live in the burrows they create in small groups, known as their clan.

What Does a Gerbil Look Like?

Gerbils are a small, furry animal and their fur is usually either light brown or gray, although some have white markings. Their facial features are like a mouse or rat, with beady eyes, a pointed nose, and small, rounded ears. They also have long, pointed tails like mice. Unlike rats who have naked tails, the tail of a gerbil is fur-coated.

How Big is a Gerbil?

The size of a gerbil depends on the variety. Most gerbils measure between six and 12-inches, not including their tails. However, there are some species that are significantly larger. For example, the great gerbil, which is originally native to Turkmenistan, can grow to a whopping 16 inches.

Types and Breeds of Gerbil

In the wild, there are 110 known breeds of gerbils. However, there are only two breeds of domestic pet; the Mongolian gerbil and the fat-tailed gerbil. The Mongolian gerbil is the most common of these as fat-tailed gerbils were only introduced to the pet market in recent years. The Mongolian gerbil comes in several varieties, including golden agouti, black, Burmese, and Schimmel.

  • Fat-tailed- The fat-tailed gerbil is smaller than the Mongolian gerbil and measures just under four inches, not including the tail. They have a longer lifespan than Mongolian gerbils as they live for between five and seven years. Their coat is speckled yellow and gray. Unlike other breeds of gerbils, and as its name suggest, these gerbils have a short, fat tail.
  • Golden agouti Mongolian- In the wild, all Mongolian gerbils are golden agoutis. This is also the most common breed of gerbil kept as a pet. The hairs of this gerbil’s fur are gray at the base with a gold middle and black tips. This gives the coat a brown coloring with black ticking. Their bellies are creamy white and they have black eyes.
  • Black Mongolian- This breed is predominantly black, but some have a white line that runs down their chin and white paws.
  • Burmese Mongolian- Burmese Mongolian hamsters are a chocolate color. It has darker points around the tips of its ears, its feet, its nose, and its tail. These darker points start to develop at around eight weeks of age. Some have a white bib or white paws. When light shines in this breed’s black eyes, the pupil reflects red.
  • Schimmel Mongolian- This is a rather unusual breed as it changes color. When they are born, these gerbils are an orange color. They begin to molt at around eight weeks and the fur that then grows on their back is creamy white. Their fur gradually lightens throughout their life until it is mostly creamy white. Some parts of the body retain the orange color, including its tail, nose, feet, and the tips of its ears. Some Schimmel gerbils have red eyes and these are known either as a red-eyed Schimmel or a ruby-eyed Schimmel.

Common Characteristics

Although there are some variations in the characteristics of gerbils from one species to another, there are many common characteristics that gerbils share. These include:

  • Tail- Like most rodents, gerbils have a long tail. This is usually covered in the smae colored fur as their bodies.
  • Eyes- Gerbils have small, beady eyes that are black and shiny.
  • Ears- These animals have small rounded ears that prick up when they are listening. The sense of sound is important to wild gerbils as noises alert them to danger.
  • Size- Gerbils are generally larger than mice and smaller than rats, though the exact size varies from one breed to the next.

Lifespan of Gerbils

Depending on the breed, gerbils can live for between two and eight years. However, the most common type of gerbil kept as a pet is the Mongolian gerbil and these have a lifespan of three to five years with an average lifespan of four years.

Gerbils as a Pet

The first Mongolian hamster was captured and taken from China to Paris during the 19th century. It wasn’t until 1954 that Dr. Victor Schwentker brought these hamsters to the United States to use in his research. Gerbils did not become domestic pets in the United States until 1964. Their popularity as pets has grown rapidly and they are now one of the most popular rodents to keep as pets in both the United States and the UK. It is important to note that it is illegal to import, buy, or keep a gerbil in the state of California in the United States as they pose a threat to existing agricultural operations and the indigenous ecosystems of the state. The same rules apply to importing and keeping these animals in New Zealand for the same reasons.

Why Pet Gerbils?

Gerbils have many attributes, and this is the reason they have grown in popularity. Some of the reasons you should consider keeping these animals as pets are as follows:

  • Pleasant nature- Some rodents, such as hamsters, are prone to aggression and biting. This is not the case with gerbils as these animals will not bite unless severely provoked or stressed.
  • Sociable- Gerbils enjoy the company of humans and other animals. They are easy to handle and enjoy interacting with their owners.
  • Low odor- While some pets smell, a gerbil is a low-odor option. Gerbils have adapted their kidneys to conserve their bodily fluids. This means they do not excrete lots of waste. As a result, they are very clean animals and their habitats do not have a bad smell.
  • Easy care- Gerbils are an easy pet to care for compared to many other pets.
  • Low cost- Gerbils are cheap to buy and to keep, once you have paid the initial outlay for the habitat and accessories.

How Much Are Gerbils to Buy and Keep?

Gerbils are an affordable pet as they usually cost between $5 and $20 to buy. However, you must also keep in mind that there is the initial outlay of its habitat and accessories, such as the water bottle, feeding bowl, and toys. However, these are items that you will only need to pay for once. The two ongoing costs are bedding and food. However, these are not a big expense as they are cheap to buy and last for a long time. You can buy both online for discounted prices at sites such as Amazon.

Where Can You Buy Gerbils?

Most people would buy a gerbil from a pet store as these animals are widely available. Another place you can buy a gerbil is directly from a gerbil breeder. A further option is to adopt a gerbil from a rescue center.

Overall, gerbils are a great pet option for many types of people. They come in a range of varieties and colorings, they are easy to care for, they do not cost much to keep, and they enjoy interacting with humans. Each of these attributes means they are a good choice for a first-time pet owner.

About the author


Liz Flynn is a mum of four with a background in education. An animal lover, she has owned everything from dogs to tarantulas and animals of all sizes in between and loves to write about them.

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