The main reason for the gerbil's popularity as a pet is its cute nature, and willingness to socialize. In their natural environment, they live in underground cavities connected by tunnels with the others, and enjoy being part of a large family. They easily accept humans as alternate companions.
Gerbils, once vaguely known as 'desert rats', are mammals, and belong to the order Rodentia. The gerbil subfamily, Gerbillinae, encompasses at least 100 species of rodents of African, Asian, and Indian origin. Mongolian Gerbil (Meriones unguiculatus), Great Gerbil (Rhombomys opimus), Egyption Gerbil (Gerbillus pyramidum), Hairy-Footed Gerbils (Gerbillurus), African Gerbils (Gerbilliscus), Jirds (Meriones), Somali pygmy Gerbil (Microdillus), Large Naked-Soled Gerbils (Tatera) and Small Naked-Soled Gerbils (Taterillus) are a few examples of the commonly seen types.
Pets for Kids
Pet gerbils are very inquisitive and playful. They will easily lift your and your children's spirits.
You can easily keep them as pets, because they are quiet creatures, and are small in size, a fact which sometimes matters most. A typical adult gerbil is between 6-12 inches long, and has a tail that is approximately half the length of the rest of its body. The great gerbil, however, can grow to more than 16 inches long.
They are industrious, and can tear and chew waste paper into small bits. By letting these chewed paper bits to accumulate into a heap, you can allow your pet gerbils to tunnel into it and fashion their own playground.
As they are desert rodents, they consume little water and produce minimal waste. So, you can ideally only remove waste once in a fortnight.
Normally, gerbils don't bite unless provoked, and it is easy to train a baby in getting rid of the habit. An additional fact that can help you in deciding whether it is right as a pet for children is that they don't 'smell unclean' like other rodents.
How To Care For Gerbils
Babies, not unlike the adults, are bundles of energy, and like to stand on their hind legs and use their paws against each other. This harmless act gives the impression as if they are having a mock boxing bout, and is quite an amusing scene.
This playful and harmless paw-work can be serious and can turn deadly if the participants are adults. Adults try to go for the jugular of the opponent. More often than not, their fight ends with the victorious party getting rid of the opponent forever. If you want to break the fight and separate the warriors, then be sure to wear thick hand gloves or mittens. These cuteys have sharp teeth that grow all the time, as with all rodents.
You can't keep a single gerbil as a pet, because of their need to socialize with the other members of their species. The best approach you can adopt is to make sure that your would-be pet, whatever their numbers, are on talking terms with each other, so to speak.
Cramped living environment and space can easily frustrate gerbils, and can set them fighting against each other, which may lead to unnecessary bloodshed. All of this can be avoided by providing ample space, providing enough cages for your pets, and providing timely, quality food. This will also help in maintaining your pet's health and may allow it to live out its complete life span, which in this case is 3-5 years.
Use clean aspen bedding 2-3 inches deep, and change it weekly or as required. Inspect its fur for bare patches and keep a lookout for slackened activity level, lethargy, weight loss, and loss of appetite. Discharge from its eyes, nose, or the mouth may indicate that something is wrong with your pet.
Birds of prey and snakes are their natural enemies. Even if your gerbils haven't lived in the desert, hiding and avoiding its natural enemies as a part of the daily routine, it has inherited knowledge about them and their methods of attack. So, avoid approaching them with swooping or slithering movements of your hands.
Some Interesting Facts
Never lift a gerbil by its tail, because it may detach itself from its trunk as part of an inherited defense mechanism.
You must be aware that rodents must keep on gnawing because of their continuously growing teeth. Being rodents, gerbils must do the same, or else their overgrown teeth may inflict injury to them. Offer them treat sticks and chews, which will help in trimming and maintaining their teeth.
When it senses danger to itself or to their clan, they thump the nearest one with their hind legs in order to set the warning signal buzzing.
They are omnivorous and can eat almost anything. However, they are partial to pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and peanuts. They also favor vegetables and fruits like carrots, oats, and apples.
Special treats from pet shops along with pet food for rabbits, rats, guinea pigs, and unsweetened dog biscuits can also serve as food. They also love to eat grasshoppers, locusts, and crickets.
Keep lettuce and sugary food out of their food bowl. Nitrates in the lettuce can prevent blood oxygenation, which may lead to asphyxiation. Sugar promotes decay of their teeth, and is difficult for them to digest.
These are creatures of the desert and if you want them to take a bath, then you must provide a small bowlful of cool sand. A sand-bath does wonders for their fur by making it smooth and shinier.
Gerbils can be trained to do tricks, but need to be handled constantly to get them used to humans. They need to be observed for teeth problems, diarrhea, epilepsy, tumors, Tyzzer's disease, deafness, and respiratory problems, which may plague them from time to time. Any of the above problem can easily be dealt with by availing the services of a veterinarian.