Irritation of the Face and Nose in Gerbils


PetMD Editorial

Published Jul. 18, 2010

Porphyrin Deposits in Gerbils

Porphyrin is a pigment, a component of blood cells that functions to bind metal in the blood cells such as iron and magnesium). It is also recognized for being the major component in the the coloring of blood, as porphyrin is a deep purple pigment. In gerbils, in times of stress, the unbound porphyrin can leave deposits in the tear ducts, causing red colored stains around the eyes and nose as the tinted tear fluid leaves the eyes. These stains are often mistaken for blood, and must be differentiated.

Porphyrin deposits cause skin irritation and the gerbil may scratch incessantly to relieve the itching. The causes for porphyrin deposits are related to stress and nutrition, which can generally be easily remedied, but complications can arise due to secondary bacterial infections that result from scratching at the skin until it is bleeding, leaving open sores.

Symptoms and Types

  • Reddish-brown deposits of porphyrin around the eyes and nostrils (may be mistaken for blood)
  • Skin irritation
  • Constant scratching of the face
  • Hair loss on the affected area
  • Red and inflamed skin around the face
  • Scabs/sores on the face
  • Bleeding from sores due to severe scratching
  • Secondary infections of the sores


  • Environment stress – not comfortable due to location; sudden move in location; temperature (too high or low) or light related
  • Humidity higher than 50 percent in the living area
  • Nutritional deficiency
  • Underlying illness
  • Inability to get along with cage mates – due to either incompatibility or aggression
  • Overcrowding – cage is not large enough, or there are too many gerbils in the same living space


Your veterinarian will perform a thorough physical exam on your gerbil, taking into account the background history of symptoms and possible underlying or environmental conditions that might have led to this condition. You will need to provide a thorough history of your gerbil's health leading up to the onset of symptoms. If secondary skin infection is present due to scratching induced sores, your veterinarian will need to take fluid and tissue samples for bacterial cultures in order to identify the specific bacteria for treatment.


Your veterinarian will begin by cleaning the porphyrin deposits and irritated parts of the face and applying topical medications to encourage healing. If your gerbil has scratched to the point that there are lesions, further treatment will be necessary. Unless veterinary treatment with antibiotic therapy is given to your gerbil, infections will progress, becoming more severe and possibly life-threatening. Sores can be treated with local antibiotics for the infected site, and with systemic antibiotics to either treat the body if the infection has spread, or to prevent it from spreading.

Living and Management

It is important to provide appropriate and stable humidity and temperature at all times to prevent stress or other conditions. Your gerbil should be provided a stress-free environment in which to recuperate and heal. This may mean removing the gerbil from the company of the other gerbils. Other factors that will need to be taken into consideration are whether there is inter-gerbil aggression or lack of space. Additional cages and separating some of the gerbils from each other can remove the stress.

You may also need to make dietary changes while your gerbil is recovering. Talk to your veterinarian about supportive diets, and if your are uncertain about it, how much space each individual gerbil needs to be comfortable.


Keep the humidity levels below 50 percent and the ambient temperature between 60-70°F, feed your gerbil a nutritionally balanced diet, and provide clean, sufficient living space and compatible cage mates. Simple management techniques like these can help to prevent irritation of the face and nose due to porphyrin deposits in your gerbil.

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