Mites in Gerbils

Catherine Gose, CVT
By Catherine Gose, CVT. Reviewed by Melissa Witherell, DVM on May 22, 2023
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What Are Mites in Gerbils?

Gerbils are susceptible to small external parasites, or mites. Mites can live on the fur, skin, or in the hair follicles and can cause itching and skin irritation. Gerbil mites can usually be avoided with proper care and good hygiene. However, if a new gerbil is introduced into the home–he may bring an infection with him or if a gerbil is sick or stressed, mites can become a problem.

The most common mites that effect gerbils are:

Demodex: a non-blood sucking mite that normally lives in the hair follicles of all mammals.  A healthy immune system keeps the mites under control, but when a gerbil is sick or stressed these mites can flourish and cause skin irritation or infection.

Blood sucking mites (also known as Tropical Rat Mite, Spiny Rat Mite, House Mouse Mite): are considered zoonotic, which means they can live on and bite people and other animals. They are hardy arachnids and can live without feeding for up to 6 weeks. They can also travel several hundred feet when seeking hosts. These mites most commonly feed on your gerbil at night and hide in cracks, crevices, and bedding during the day.

Symptoms of Mites in Gerbils

Mites are very small and can be difficult to see with the naked eye. You may notice white or dark colored specs of dust on your gerbil's fur, or tiny red bugs may be visible. In addition, you will most likely see the following signs:

  • Relentless itching and scratching

  • Red, inflamed skin or small red bumps

  • Dry or flaky skin

  • Alopecia (hair loss) particularly over the back, rump, and tail

  • Weakness or anemia due to blood loss

Causes of Mites in Gerbils

Blood sucking mites are opportunistic parasites, meaning they will take any blood meal they can find. These mites pass easily from one gerbil to another during play, grooming, sleeping, fighting, or mating. Before a new gerbil is introduced to the habitat, inspect their skin and fur closely for evidence of mites. Never place objects such as sticks or twigs from outside in your gerbil’s enclosure.  

An unsanitary environment can also lead to a mite infestation as mites will thrive on debris found in dirty bedding. Overcrowding can contribute to a mite infestation, but even a solitary gerbil can have a mite issue if his immune system is weakened from advanced age or an underlying illness. 

How Veterinarians Diagnose Mites in Gerbils

Diagnosing mites begins at home when you first observe clinical signs of itching. A dampened white paper towel or tissue can be used to detect mites by dabbing it against suspicious areas on your gerbil.  If you see black dots or tiny red mites on the paper, save it to show the veterinarian. When you take your gerbil to the veterinarian, be prepared to discuss their diet and habitat, as well as your cleaning routine. A veterinarian will start by examining your gerbil and may recommend diagnostic testing to identify the mites.

A skin scrape test can be performed to identify microscopic evidence of mites.  This is a non-invasive test where a blade is used to scrape skin cells and hair follicles onto a microscope slide. Microscopic examination of the sample may reveal adult mites or their eggs, allowing the veterinarian to properly diagnose the presence of mites.

A tape prep test is sometimes used as well. This test is done by placing a strip of clear tape on your gerbil’s fur or skin. Mites and residue will stick to it, then it can also be examined microscopically.

Treatment of Mites in Gerbils

Proper cleaning is essential to treating your gerbil's mite infestation.

Begin by removing all the bedding and chew toys from the cage and toss everything out in a sealed plastic bag. It is also recommended to throw out and replace any plastic cages or accessories. Plastic is porous and will absorb bleach and other cleaning agents, making it dangerous for your gerbil to chew on even after it is rinsed and dried.

Steam clean remaining items or wash them in hot soapy water, then rinse and dry. A 1:10 solution of unscented bleach in water will kill mites if sprayed liberally in the cage and allowed to sit for at least 10 minutes. Mite killing sprays and dusts containing pyrethrin, bifenthrin, or permethrin are also available. Rinse the cage and dry thoroughly before placing new bedding in the cage. Make sure there is no residual odor from cleaning chemicals before your gerbil is re-introduced to his fresh habitat. Keep in mind that bleach can cause metal to rust, so it is best to replace metal exercise wheels, water bottle holders, and food bowls.

Gerbils can be treated for mites topically with medicated dusts, sprays, topical preventatives like selamectin, or treated internally with ivermectin. Ivermectin can be injected by a veterinarian, but it is most commonly given by mouth at home. Ivermectin solutions can be added to drinking water or administered orally by a syringe for 1-2 weeks. 

Recovery and Management of Mites in Gerbils

It is vital to monitor your gerbil closely when dealing with a mite infection. Weakness, lethargy, or decreased appetite are signs that your gerbil may be anemic from blood loss due to a heavy parasite load. Some debilitated gerbils need supportive care such as fluid injections and syringe feedings until they are feeling better and eating on their own again. Allow your gerbil to rest during treatment and keep handling to a minimum except for feeding and administering medications.

Prevent future mite infestations by keeping your gerbil’s cage clean and replacing bedding often. Avoid wood-based bedding as it can be more difficult to keep clean. Instead use paper-based substrate such as Carefresh Small Animal Bedding.

It is always a good idea to quarantine new gerbils for 1-2 weeks before introducing them to your existing gerbils. During the quarantine period observe the new gerbil(s) for signs of mites such as hair loss or itching and treat accordingly before placing them in the combined gerbil habitat.

Mites in Gerbils FAQs

How do I get rid of mites on my gerbil?

Gerbil mites are best treated by a veterinarian with prescription ivermectin or topicals like selamectin. Anti-parasitic sprays or dusts can also be used. Habitats should be replaced or cleaned with a 1:10 solution of bleach and water, then rinsed thoroughly.

Do gerbil mites bite humans?

While animals are their preferred host, gerbil mites are opportunistic feeders. This means they will take a blood meal from any source they find, including humans.

What are the tiny red bugs on my gerbils?

Tiny red bugs on your gerbil are likely infectious skin mites. Gerbil skin mites are usually transparent and can be difficult to see. However, when they bite and feed on an animal, their body will appear red from the blood meal.

Featured Image:

Catherine Gose, CVT


Catherine Gose, CVT

Veterinarian Technician

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