All pets have five welfare needs which must be met to ensure their wellbeing. In fact, in the UK, owners have a legal duty to meet these needs under the Animal Welfare Act. These five needs are:
- Environment – the need for a suitable place to live
- Diet – the need for a suitable diet
- Behaviour – the need to be able to express normal behaviour
- Companionship – the need to live with, or apart from, other animals
- Health – the need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease.
Each pet’s exact requirements will differ, so it’s important for owners to make sure they fully understand what their pet’s needs are, and how to meet them.
The ideal home for gerbils is known as a gerbilarium – it is a large tank that can be filled with a burrowing material (such as potting compost), with a wire caged area above it. The tank provides them with plenty of room for digging, which is important as they are naturally burrowing animals that need to dig tunnels.
They also need plenty of room above this, as gerbils often stand on their hind legs. They will need a nesting box and bedding material, which you can buy from pet shops. Shredded white kitchen roll is also suitable.
The gerbilarium should be as large as possible and should be kept indoors, out of draughts and direct sunlight – a temperature of around 20-22°C ideal. They should be kept away from busy or noisy areas, such as near a TV or stereo, as the noise and vibrations can be very stressful for animals.
Gerbils need constant access to water – a water bottle with a metal spout is ideal as this prevents accidental spillages. They should be fed a commercial gerbil mix containing seed, grains and nuts. Half a tablespoon morning and evening should be plenty for most gerbils, and remember to remove any uneaten food. Fresh fruit and vegetables can be given occasionally, such as small pieces of apple and carrot. Gerbils like sunflower seeds and peanuts but these are high in fat so should only be fed occasionally, as treats.
Gerbils need plenty of exercise, and having things in their cage that they can explore and climb on will encourage activity. An exercise wheel (one without gaps between the rungs), tunnels, cardboard rolls and boxes are all great, and pet shops often sell additional toys such as seesaws and ladders especially for small pets. Digging is important behaviour for gerbils and they love to tunnel, so housing them in a gerbilarium with a tank mostly filled with potting compost will give them plenty of opportunity for this.
Gerbils also need a dust bath to keep their fur in good condition, so provide chinchilla sand in a shallow bowl. Provide this a few times a week, for 10 minutes at a time (if you leave it for longer they are likely to use it as a toilet).
Gerbils are very social and need the company of other gerbils. Keeping two or three littermates that have grown up together is ideal and minimises the chances of them fighting. Don’t mix males and females together as they can breed from around 10 weeks of age and it can be difficult to find homes for the young.
Like any animal gerbils can become ill, so it’s important to look out for any changes in their behaviour, appearance or appetite that could suggest a problem. You should check them every day for signs of illness, such as runny eyes or nose, overgrown teeth, diarrhoea, limping or a change in appetite or drinking habits. If you notice anything that concerns you, or you are unsure about, make an appointment with your vet straight away.