Gerbils can be good starter pets for children eight and up and families without a lot of space. They are energetic, usually friendly, seldom bite and love exploring. They aren’t for everyone, though. Here are questions to answer before you decide to get gerbils and tips on how to go about it.

Get gerbils, not a single gerbil

First off, gerbils need companions. Unlike hamsters, they are not happy alone. So if possible, get a pair of gerbils. And because male-female pair will quickly have babies (and then more babies, and then even more babies), be sure to get a male-male pair or a female-female pair. Normally, the pair should bond and share a nest, sleeping side by side. Do not keep more than three gerbils together since this could lead to territorial behavior and fighting.

Try to adopt first

Check with local shelters and small animal rescues to see if they have gerbils you can give a home to. If you must go to a pet store, check to make sure their gerbils look healthy, show no wounds from fighting and are not scared if you put your hand in their cage. Try to get two gerbils from the same littler, if possible six to eight weeks old. A good store should have knowledgeable staff who can identify which of their gerbils are males and which are females (hard to determine this except during a short window of time after they are born). Also, check to make sure that if the store gives you a male-female pair by mistake, they will be willing to take back the babies who are born once you have identified a male-male or female-female pair you want to keep.

Are you a light sleeper?

Gerbils are active during the day but really come alive at night. They don’t need for you to play with them then, but they will make noise. So be prepared to hear them running on their excise wheel or chewing or digging if the cage is in a bedroom. Or consider putting the cage somewhere else where it is not out of the way but where people do not sleep. Some people choose the living room.

Not for little kids

No matter how much they might want handle these cute, furry animals, children younger than eight should not be allowed to pick up gerbils. Younger children lack the fine motor control and self-restraint to safely hold gerbils and let them move from one hand to another, as these animals like to do—they are always in motion. Young children could drop them or hold them so tightly gerbils will bite. They could accidentally squeeze gerbils to death. Handling gerbils safely requires coordination and a gentle touch. Put your hand flat on the cage floor and let the gerbils get used to is and come to you. Or open the door of the cage and let them choose to come out. Never pick them up by the tail.

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Chores and play

The main task with gerbils is cleaning their cage. Once a week, remove the old bedding, clean off anything stuck to the bottom of the cage with water and paper towels, and put in new bedding and nest materials.

Most of the day, gerbils will amuse themselves, building nests, running on wheels, chewing, burrowing and climbing. But they also should be taken out of the cage daily. They love to run. Find a small room, close the door and take them out (make sure no dogs or cats of small children are around). If you can supervise them closely, put them on top of a bed and let them explore, making sure they do not fall off the edge of the bed. You might want to put an old blanket on the bed to protect it (gerbils pee little and their poops are dry but they enjoy chewing everything, including fabric). Another option is getting one or more large cardboard boxes or constructing a “play pen” and letting them run around inside. You might give them sand to bathe in. Or cardboard paper towel tubes to crawl through.

What to budget

It costs little to adopt or buy a pair of gerbils, but you will need to purchase the following equipment and supplies, which will cost several hundred dollars. (After that first investment, you will not spend much.)

  • Aquarium with mesh lid or wire topper (20 gallons or larger), or similarly sized wire cage or modular habitat
  • Exercise wheel 8 inches in diameter or larger
  • Bedding and nesting materials, such as aspen and kiln-dried pine chips, oat or timothy hay, paper bedding, cardboard and toilet paper
  • Chew sticks and other materials to gnaw on—gerbil’s teeth grow continually and must be worn down
  • Water bottle
  • Gerbil food (placed directly on bedding)
  • Gerbil treats such as small amounts of alfalfa cubes or hay, unsalted pumpkin seeds and cashews, dried apples and pears or peas and green beans.

Preparing for loss

Gerbils live only two to three years. When one member of a bonded pair of gerbils dies, the survivor, grieving, often dies soon after. If you have gerbils as pets, you must expect to lose them within a few years and to have any children in your family experience that loss.

Do you live in Hawai'i or California?

If so, it’s against the law for you to own gerbils. In California if these desert-dwelling rodents escape, they could easily become an invasive species in dry parts of the state, reproducing unchecked and damaging crops and ecosystems. In order to protect its fragile native ecosystems (and crops), Hawai'i prohibits the import of many non-native species.