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Is a gerbil the right pet for you?

The Humane Society of the United States

gerbil standing


It can be tempting to acquire a gerbil on impulse. After all, these little guys are the picture of cuteness: small, furry and inquisitive. Watching a gerbil nibble a sunflower seed or give a friendly wink might make you throw caution to the wind.

A great starter pet, right? Not necessarily. Here are some important questions to consider before you dive headlong into a relationship.

Adopt, don't shop

Instead of purchasing a gerbil from a pet store, which creates demand for breeding more, please adopt a gerbil…or gerbils…from your local animal shelter.  Small animals are frequently brought to shelters when other people give them up, and you will be saving lives by adopting from a shelter.

How much time do you have? 

Although gerbils are fairly independent and can entertain themselves for extended periods of time, a happy, well-adjusted gerbil is one who receives daily handling and interaction.

Keep in mind that gerbil aquariums need to be thoroughly cleaned every week. Gerbils are especially clean animals. Evolving as desert animals, gerbils use water very efficiently and pass only a few drops of highly concentrated urine each day. But they can't clean the tank themselves. That's still your job.

Do you have young children?

On the positive side, gerbils are likely to be awake and alert when your children want to play with them. Unlike hamsters who are nocturnal, gerbils have alternating periods of activity and rest throughout the day and night. However, gerbils also present special challenges for children.

  • Young children lack fine motor control and may inadvertently drop a gerbil, squeeze him, or scare him into biting. A gerbil can also suffer serious injury if he is picked up by the tail. Therefore, we recommend that children under the age of 8 not handle gerbils without adult supervision.
  • Gerbils require a gentle touch and may be easily startled by sudden movement and loud noises.
  • Young children are also at greater risk for zoonotic diseases (diseases that can be passed from animals to humans) because of their immature immune systems. They also tend to forget to wash their hands after handling a pet. (click here for more information on gerbils and zoonotic diseases)
  • Gerbils carry a very small risk of salmonella, which are intestinal bacteria that can wreak havoc on a child’s digestive system. Although there are no reports of humans getting salmonella from gerbils, the American Academy of Pediatrics cautions against gerbils as pets for children under 5 years of age.

Are you pregnant? Do you have a weakened immune system?

Gerbils carry a very small risk of salmonella, a type of intestinal bacteria that causes short but intense bouts of sickness in healthy adults. Salmonella can produce more severe problems if a pregnant woman passes the bacteria to her unborn child. Salmonella can seriously sicken a person who’s already in a weakened state from other health problems.

What's your budget?

Owning gerbils is not as expensive as owning a cat or dog, but that doesn’t mean you won't spend money. The adoption fee or purchase price for gerbils (they should generally be housed in same-sex pairs) will typically be minimal, but there are startup costs and ongoing needs to anticipate. 

The initial investment in your gerbil's supplies is likely to cost more than $100. A new 10- or 15-gallon aquarium with a fitted cover can run $25 to $40 (you may be able to find a gently used aquarium online for a lower price), and you'll want to outfit your gerbil’s house with the basics plus some fun extras.

The initial purchase of equipment and supplies includes:

  • An aquarium that's at least 10 gallons large with a well-fitting mesh cover
  • Bedding and nesting material
  • Nesting box
  • Water bottle and holder
  • Food dish
  • Gerbil chow
  • Exercise wheel
  • Sand bath
  • Toys 
  • Treats

Gerbil Supplies on Amazon.com »

You'll also spend a few hundred dollars per year on bedding and food, both of which average about a bag per month depending on the number of gerbils. Wood pulp bedding like Carefresh costs about $20 per bag and a high quality gerbil chow such as Gerri Gerbil runs about $5 per bag.

It's also important to budget for unanticipated veterinary costs related to medical emergencies or minor but fairly common services such as tooth trimming.

Consider lifespan

A gerbil's lifespan is about 3 to 4 years. Gerbils live longer than mice, not as long as guinea pigs, and about the same number of years as hamsters and rats.

Gerbils and other small animals have a much shorter life expectancy than dogs and cats, but they still require a commitment. Three or four years is a significant period of time; if your kids are promising to take care of the gerbils, ask yourself the following questions:

Is my child prepared for this commitment?

Am I willing to assume responsibility for the gerbil's daily care if my child loses interest?

Finally, if you have young children and aren't prepared for them to experience the death of a pet, you may prefer a longer-lived animal.

Do you live in California or Hawaii?

It's not legal to own gerbils as pets in these states. Why? The climate is very similar to a gerbil's natural desert habitat, and agricultural and environmental officials have expressed concern that released or escaped gerbils could establish wild colonies and damage crops and native plants and animals.