Gerbil Care Sheet

Maria Zayas, DVM
By Maria Zayas, DVM on Mar. 21, 2023
Gerbil in sand

In This Article


Gerbil Overview

Native to the deserts of Africa, Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent, gerbils are small rodents with big personalities! While there are 87 known species of gerbils, the Mongolian gerbil (also called the desert rat) is the species most often kept as pets. The Mongolian gerbil’s scientific name, Meriones unguiculatus, translates to “little clawed warrior.” Despite their fearsome name, in reality most gerbils are quite docile and outgoing when properly socialized. 

As social animals, gerbils are highly communicative and use a range of non-verbal signals to let others know how they’re feeling. Gerbils have been known to: 

  • Wink at their pet parent to show pleasure, happiness, or gratitude 

  • Purr when they’re comfortable and content 

  • Thump their hind legs to signal fear or sexual arousal

  • Greet other gerbils by touching their noses to each other 

Over time, gerbils learn to trust their owner and learn to enjoy daily handling. When holding a gerbil, gently cup the animal in your hands. If the gerbil needs to be restrained from running away, it should be held gently by the scruff of the neck. Gerbils should be handled over a soft surface to prevent them from injuring themselves if they jump or fall. Never grab a gerbil by its tail—they're delicate and can break or tear easily

Children of all ages should be supervised by an adult while handling a gerbil. All small animals are potential carriers of infectious diseases that can infect humans, such as rat bite fever and the Salmonella bacteria. Pet parents should always wash their hands before and after handling their gerbil or its habitat’s contents.  

Gerbil Characteristics

Difficulty of Care 


Average Life Span 

Up to 5 years with proper care 

Average Adult Size 

4 inches long, not including tail 



Minimum Habitat Size 

18” L x 30” W x 12” H 

Gerbil Supply Checklist

To keep a gerbil happy and healthy, pet parents should have these basic supplies on hand: 

  • An appropriately-sized habitat 

  • High-quality pelleted gerbil food 

  • Treats 

  • Bedding 

  • Nesting fluff 

  • Food bowl/water bottle 

  • Exercise wheel 

  • Hideaway place 

  • Toys 

  • Wood chews 

  • Dust and dust bath 

  • Chew tubes 

Gerbil Habitat

Choosing the Right Enclosure 

Despite their small size, gerbils are active animals that need a spacious habit to run, climb, and explore comfortably. Ideally, gerbils should be housed in a glass tank secured with an escape-proof mesh lid to allow for proper air circulation. The enclosure should be at least 20 gallons for a pair of gerbils. Always provide the largest habitat possible. 

Wire enclosures, though well-ventilated, are not recommended. Gerbils are natural burrowers, and the wire used to make these habitats can injure gerbils' teeth and noses as they try to dig through the bottom. If a wire enclosure must be used, the spaces between the habitat’s bars should be around 3/8-in apart or smaller to prevent the gerbil from escaping or getting stuck.

Plastic habitats should be avoided, as gerbils can chew through them. 

Recommended Products

  • Glass Enclosures 

  • Wire-Based Enclosures 

Setting Up Your Habitat 

Gerbils are comfortable in average household temperatures, and don’t thrive at temperatures greater than 80°F. Gerbils are sensitive to extreme temperature changes, so habitats should be kept in a draft-free area that’s not close to an air conditioner or in direct sunlight. Make sure the habitat is kept off the floor and is not accessible to other animals, like curious cats and dogs. 

Due to their sociable nature, gerbils can become depressed when kept alone. Since gerbils can become territorial as they mature, it’s best to adopt gerbils in same-sex pairs from the same litter when they’re around 5 to 6 weeks old.  

Gerbils kept together in the same habitat should be watched for aggressive behavior. If the two gerbils fight, they should separated. Pet parents should never keep different species of animals in the same habitat. 


Pet parents should offer two types of bedding in their gerbil's habitat: an absorbent substrate to line the bottom of the enclosure, and a fluffy nesting material they can use to make a cozy burrow. 

Add 1–2 inches of high-quality, paper-based bedding or crumpled paper to the bottom of the habitat. 

Paper-based bedding should be used instead of wood shavings or chips of any kind. Unlike wood, paper is low-dust and digestible, meaning it won’t obstruct a gerbil’s gastrointestinal tract if ingested. 

Avoid cedar-based and pine bedding products. These products have aromatic oils that can irritate gerbils’ skin and sensitive respiratory tracts. 

Recommended Products

Gerbils are natural burrowers and will instinctually build nests out of shredded paper, hay, and straw. Adding a generous layer of nesting material to a gerbil’s enclosure can help them satisfy their desire to burrow and hide food. 

Recommended Products

Décor & Accessories 

Hideout box: Pet parents should provide each gerbil with at least one hideout box for privacy. If you have multiple gerbils in a habitat, each gerbil should have their own hideout. Ideally, hideout boxes should be made from chewable materials, like hay or wood.  

Plastic hideouts are durable and easier to disinfect, but they should be removed from the gerbil’s enclosure if the animal begins to chew on them. The broken plastic pieces can obstruct a gerbil’s gastrointestinal tract if ingested and cause serious injuries. 

Recommended Products

Running wheel: Daily exercise is vital to a gerbil's overall health. An appropriately-sized running wheel is a convenient way to satisfy a gerbil’s natural need to run. Each gerbil should have its own running wheel. Ensure that the wheel’s running surface is smooth and won’t trap a gerbil's feet or toes, causing injury. 

Recommended Products

Toys: Because gerbils’ front (incisor) teeth never stop growing, they should have access to chew toys that encourage gnawing so they can wear down their teeth gradually as they grow. 

Climbing ladders, cardboard or PVC tubes, and branches all make excellent additions to a gerbil's habitat. 

Recommended Products

Cleaning & Maintenance for Gerbils

Pet parents should spot-clean their gerbil’s enclosure daily, removing any soiled material and uneaten food. The entire habitat and its contents should be cleaned and disinfected at least once a week.  
 To clean a gerbil’s habitat: 

  1. Move the gerbil to a pet-safe temporary enclosure and remove any old bedding or litter from the habitat. 

  1. Use a small animal habitat cleaner or 3% bleach solution to wash the habitat and any accessories. The bleach solution should stay on the habitat for at least 10 minutes to ensure that the surfaces are properly disinfected. If using a commercial habitat cleaner, such as the Kaytee Clean Cage Small Animal Habitat Deodorizer Spray, follow the manufacturer's instructions. 

  1. Rinse the habitat and accessories thoroughly with water, making sure to remove any trace amounts or residual smells left by the cleaning agent or bleach solution. 

  1. Allow the habitat and its contents to dry completely before placing new bedding and clean accessories back into the habitat. 

  1. Return the gerbil to the clean habitat. 

Gerbil Diet & Nutrition

Gerbils enjoy a diet of high-quality rodent lab blocks or pelleted food, supplemented with limited amounts of grains, vegetables, fruits, hay, and treats. Gerbils should always have access to clean, fresh water.  

A nutritious and well-balanced gerbil diet consists of: 

High-quality gerbil lab blocks or pelleted food that’s formulated especially for gerbils. Gerbils should be fed daily. 

Recommended Products

Grains, vegetables, fruits, hay, and treats can be offered in limited quantities (no more than 10% of a gerbil’s daily diet). Gerbils enjoy a variety of fruits as treats, including small amounts of pear, apple, banana, strawberry, blueberry, kiwi, and melon. Fruits and vegetables should be cut into small, bite-sized pieces before serving. Since fruits are naturally high in carbohydrates, they should be fed in more limited quantities than vegetables to prevent unhealthy weight gain. 

Recommended Products

Fresh, clean water; water should be changed daily and offered in a shallow, chew-resistant bowl or water bottle. Pet parents should regularly clean and thoroughly rinse their gerbil’s water bowl or bottle to prevent bacteria from forming. 

  • Water bottles should be checked regularly for clogs or leaks. 
  • Bowls should not be too deep, as the gerbil may slip into them and get trapped. 
  • Make sure the bowl is tip-resistant and sturdy enough to not be knocked over by an excited gerbil. 

Recommended Products

Do not allow gerbils to consume chocolate, caffeine, or alcohol, as they are all toxic and can cause death or serious illness. Sugar and high-fat treats should also be avoided because they can cause digestive upset. 

Pet parents should discard any uneaten fruits and vegetables after 10 hours, as they may spoil and cause infection if eaten. 

Gerbil Grooming & Care

Gerbils are self-groomers and rarely need baths, but pet parents can spot-clean their little ones with a damp washcloth or unscented baby wipes, as needed.  

Gerbils should have access to weekly dust/sand baths to remove oil and dirt from their fur. Pet parents can add a shallow dish of bathing sand, like Tiny Friends Farm Small Animal Bathing Sand, to their gerbil’s habitat for them to roll around in. When selecting a bathing dust, make sure the product is suitable for gerbils. The dust bath should not be left in a gerbil’s habitat for more than 12 hours at a time.  

Nail Care: Most gerbils will not need to have their nails trimmed regularly, as they wear them down with daily use. If a gerbil’s nails begin to curl, or if they start leaving scratches on themselves during self-grooming, they should be taken to a veterinarian for trimming. 

Dental Care: Gerbils’ front (incisor) teeth grow continuously, so pet parents should give them safe wooden toys, mineral blocks, or other chewable items to encourage gnawing and help keep their teeth at a manageable length.  

The enamel of a gerbil’s incisor teeth darkens and turns orange-yellow as they age. This is not a sign of poor hygiene—it's normal! Consult a veterinarian if a gerbil’s teeth seem too long, if they are drooling excessively, or if they are dropping food when they eat. 

Gerbil Veterinary Care

Annual Care

Gerbils should be seen once annually by a veterinarian. It is recommended to use a smaller transport cage for the trip and take pictures of their enclosure, diet, treats, bedding, etc., to show the veterinarian all aspects of their care.

Signs of a Healthy Gerbil

  • Smooth and shiny hair coat

  • Bright and clear eyes

  • Clean nostrils

  • Clean anus

  • Straight, properly aligned, and not overgrown teeth

  • Formed stool

When to Call a Vet

  • Hair loss, rough hair coat, scratching

  • Eye discharge

  • Nasal discharge

  • Unformed/soft stools

  • Inappetence

  • Difficulty chewing, uneven teeth, or overgrown teeth

  • Seizures

  • Lumps/bumps/growths

  • Episodes of trauma, especially with any wounds

Common Illnesses

Gerbil FAQs

Is it hard to take care of a gerbil?

No! Gerbils are great beginner pets. They rarely bite, can be trained to rest in your hands, have very little odor, don’t need a lot of space, and are active at difference times of the day. They are a great fit for lots of different people with different lifestyles.

Do gerbils need to be kept in pairs?

Yes—gerbils should never be kept alone. Make sure that either all the gerbils in your care are the same sex, or that they’ve been fixed by a veterinarian, as gerbils reproduce very quickly, with large litter sizes.

Are gerbils easier to care for than hamsters?

Both gerbils and hamsters are good beginner pets, but one species might work better for one household than another. Hamsters live alone and have less space requirements but are more likely to bite and less likely to enjoy staying in your hands. Research the needs of both species and choose the one that fits you and your family best.

How long can gerbils be left alone?

You should handle your gerbil every day. They are social and curious creatures and will enjoy seeing you regularly. In the event you need to travel, they can be left with enough food and water to last about 2 days between check-ins.

Featured Image: Kenny

Maria Zayas, DVM


Maria Zayas, DVM


Dr. Zayas has practiced small animal and exotic medicine all over the United States and currently lives in Colorado with her 3 dogs, 1 cat,...

Help us make PetMD better

Was this article helpful?

Get Instant Vet Help Via Chat or Video. Connect with a Vet. Chewy Health