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October 21, 2009

Gerbil Housing

Intrepid explorers in search of a home

The Humane Society of the United States

gerbil in house

istockphoto

Think of your gerbils as intrepid explorers armed with a strong pair of hind legs and a sturdy set of incisors. These rodents are born to dig, jump and chew, and their housing must meet these challenges. Aquariums fit the bill well, offering better safety features, escape deterrents and overall tidiness as compared to wire cages and plastic modular habitats.

Still need convincing? Let's look at each housing option as it relates to a gerbil’s natural tendencies.

Digging

Gerbils love to dig. In their natural desert habitat, they create complex, interconnected tunnels and burrows that provide shelter, protection from predators, food storage, and a secure place to raise their young.

Wire cages have bases too shallow to hold enough bedding for gerbils to indulge their burrowing instincts, and the open sides mean that a lot of bedding gets kicked out of the cage.

On the other hand, a large aquarium with its solid siding accommodates plenty of bedding for enthusiastic digging and tunneling and keeps the surrounding area tidy.  It also lets in light; gerbils are diurnal animals, meaning active during the day, so need to be placed near a window (but not in direct sun) so they can  experience cycles of day and night.

Chewing

Gerbils are chewers. In fact, their health depends on it. As with all rodents, their teeth must be ground down regularly, and this occurs in the wild by virtue of the foods they eat. A gerbil’s front teeth grow continuously throughout his life, so regular wear and tear is important; however, in captivity a gerbil’s food may not do an adequate job, so gnawing is a normal activity for them.

Gerbils are such insistent gnawers that they can destroy a plastic habitat. Chewed plastic pieces can also present health and safety risks if they are ingested. Gerbils may also chew so much on the bars of wire cages that they get sores on their noses.

The glass siding of an aquarium, however, is practically indestructible.

The great escape

Gerbils test their enclosures constantly. They are curious animals who are eager to see what’s around the next corner, even if it means temporarily leaving the comfort of their homes. Their small size and powerful back legs that aid in jumping and digging make them clever escape artists.

Wire cages offer tempting spaces to squeeze through (gerbils can fit through openings as small as half an inch), and plastic habitats are susceptible to damage from chewing.

But an aquarium prevents breakouts as long as it has a well-fitting mesh cover.

Privacy please

Gerbils are understandably wary of sudden intrusions into their space, as well as potential predators such as the family dog or cat. For this reason, aquariums are an especially good choice for gerbil owners with young children or pets. The solid siding prevents poking from small fingers and it blocks access by other pets. In addition, the transparency of the glass allows for easy viewing of gerbil activity.

Aquariums: what to look for

Many pet supply stores don’t market aquariums specifically for gerbils, but you can usually find them in the fish and aquatic sections of these stores or online. The Internet is also a great place to locate secondhand aquariums for sale.

Size: Aquariums should be no smaller than 10 gallons, and the rule of thumb is that bigger is better. Consider not only size but also shape—a long aquarium is preferable to a tall aquarium with unused height.

Since gerbils are very social animals who do best when housed together, remember to provide a larger aquarium for groups larger than two.

The American Gerbil Society offers these guidelines for the ratio of gerbils to aquarium size:

Two gerbils: 10-gallon aquarium
Three gerbils: 15-gallon aquarium
Four or five gerbils: 20-gallon aquarium
Six gerbils: 30-gallon aquarium

Look for: Well-fitting cover with durable wire mesh (gerbils are varsity-level chewers who can easily gnaw through thin screen).

Price: $25 and up for a basic 10-gallon aquarium. The mesh covers are often sold separately.

Caveats

Aquarium housing is the right choice for gerbils, but it's not perfect. One of the main drawbacks is poor ventilation, which can have a big impact on temperature and air quality. To address this issue, take these preventative steps:

  • Place the aquarium away from strong heat sources such direct sunlight, wood stoves, fireplaces, or heating vents.
  • Select a location that's draft-free (e.g. away from doors and on an elevated surface).
  • Maintain a room temperature of 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Be a stickler about weekly cleaning; trapped ammonia fumes from your gerbil’s soiled bedding are unpleasant and can cause respiratory problems if allowed to build up.
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