What Is A Gerbil?

Gerbils are increasingly popular pets here in the UK. However, for non-gerbil keepers, there is a common question asked.

What exactly is a gerbil?

A gerbil is a small, rodent-like animal which has been specially adapted to living in arid conditions. In the wild, this means they are found in desert-like conditions in Africa and Asia.

But of course, if kept as pets, gerbils should have been bred in the UK and will be more used to non-arid homes. Gerbil keepers should however try their best to replicate their natural habitats as much as possible.

Gerbils have long hind legs, a furry tail and thick fur. Some coats can be rough, and others can be quite soft. The fur can also be different colours and markings.

Gerbils are wonderful pets to keep, but you need to be clued up on what they need and how to care for them. You may be considering a gerbil as an alternative to a similar rodent, such as a hamster or rat. If so, read on to find out some more information.

Gerbils as pets

The Mongolian Gerbil is the most commonly kept subspecies in the UK. There are many members of the subfamily Gerbillinae, however.

They can live for 3-4 years and are found in large groups in the wild. This means you can’t just keep one gerbil on its own; a minimum of two is required. A suitable gerbilarium is needed to house them; it needs to be large, tall and a suitable material that means they won’t chew it or scatter their bedding out of it.

You need to think about how the gerbils get on together as they live so close. Mixed sexes can cause fighting, and could also mean you’re overrun with baby gerbils – a sexually mature female has a gestation period of just 24–26 days.

How much is a gerbil?

As they are very productive breeders, adopting a gerbil from a breeder will often only cost between £5 and £20. Only responsible breeders should be considered, so you know they are coming from good care conditions.

Many people do buy gerbils without knowing how best to care for them, though. This means adoption centres, such as the RSPCA, can commonly have gerbils so we would always advise checking here first. Most will have bonded groups or pairs, too, making your job a bit easier.

Females also tend to be more aggressive than males, particularly if young are introduced to the group. Therefore, beginner gerbil keepers may be best if owning males. It can also be difficult to introduce new gerbils to the group or pair, so you need to try and adopt pairs which are already bonded.

Gerbil in human hand
Gerbils are larger than hamsters, rats and other rodents, but smaller than guinea pigs

Understanding a gerbil’s needs

Gerbils are commonly kept as pets by children as they can be colourful creatures. But most don’t like being handled too much, so you really need to ensure any children are gentle, understanding and aware of what they are responsible for.

Read our gerbil care guide to understand more about their behaviour, diet and overall needs.

Gerbils in the wild

Found in Africa and Asia, as well as India, gerbils are used to desert conditions. This means high temperatures are the norm for them. However, they will dig and burrow underground to stay cool.

Digging is also a way for them to stay busy, so pet gerbils will do the same. They will also gnaw to cure boredom.

In terms of their conservation status, they are of the least concern. Their low gestation periods, and relative unpopularity as a pet, means they aren’t commonly taken from the wild for the pet trade.

They can feed on insects, worms, bird nestlings and other weaker gerbils in the wild, but don’t worry; grasses, bulbs, fruit, berries, nuts, leaves and herbs are the largest makeup of their diet. They’re omnivorous so eat anything they come across in the wild, but those bred for keeping as pets are fine eating non-meat items.

This means that, when kept as pets, gerbil pellets and other commercial foods are fine. Just check they have everything your gerbil needs; stick to well-known brands if in doubt.