It’s not as familiar locally as, say, the Syrian hamster or other small creatures people think of as “cute” pets offered as alternatives to the usual cat or dog. But the Mongolian gerbil— which accounts for almost all the pet gerbils in the world—is popular among small rodent keepers as they are low maintenance pets. As they are desert animals, built for harsh conditions, they only need 4 milliliters (mL) of water and a small amount of food per day. Since they drink less, they produce less waste—and less waste means less odor.
Interesting and interactive, gerbils are also helpful to humans in stress relief as household pets and in the field of science for research purposes, particularly for cholesterol metabolism, neurophysiology, epilepsy, oncology (cancer studies), and parasitology (the study of parasites). They have very good thermoregulation and their hormones can be regulated in laboratory conditions in ways which are highly observable.
The ease with which gerbils can be handled makes it easier for scientists to gather data during research. Since gerbils are highly intelligent animals, they are also good models for behavioral research.
Meriones unguiculatus originated from the dry highlands of inner Mongolia, with extreme temperatures reaching -40 degrees Celsius in the winter to 50 degrees Celsius during summertime. Gerbils live in burrows in families or small groups; they look out for each other and warn each other about approaching predators by stomping their feet.
In the wild, gerbils breed between February and October, but in captivity, they are able to breed all year round when specific conditions are met and the pair is able to breed. Sexual maturity begins at 65-85 days old, but gerbils may prefer to breed at an older age or once they bond with their mate.
After mating, the gerbil will be ready to give birth in about 25 days. The Mongolian gerbil can continuously breed in the wild until they reach 20 months of age, but in the wild, the average lifespan of the Mongolian gerbil is only 3-4 months. In captivity, they can live a longer and happier life under the care of humans.
INTERVIEW WITH THE KEEPERS
Who better to talk about what it’s like to keep a Mongolian gerbil than those who have kept and bred it? Animal Scene sat down with experienced gerbil keepers Nani Rivera and Vrian Sierra to find out more about caring for this interesting creature.
Animal Scene (AS) Which trait of the gerbil do you like most?
Nani Rivera (NR): Their temperament.
Vrian Sierra (VS): [They are] probably the most hygienic of all the local pet rodents available here in the Philippines.
AS: How did you learn about gerbils? How were you convinced to keep them?
NR: I bought a pair at a pet shop and instantly fell in love.
VS: My interest in gerbils started when I first saw them at a pet store during my grade school days. The price back then was R800-1,000 per pair, too much for me…until my college days, [which was when I] got my first pair from Sir Nani…beautiful golden ar-gente gerbils.
AS: In your experience, how are gerbils different from rats, mice, and hamsters?
NR: They don’t stink.VS: When it comes to shedding…hair, gerbils shed a lot [compared] to [hamsters], mice, and [rats]. They are the most hygienic [rodent-type pets] for me because they pee less, so they smell less.
AS: What is your most memorable experience in keeping gerbils? Is there any specific behavior or personality trait your gerbil displays that you find unforgettable?
NR: I gained more friends locally and abroad who are also into gerbils.
VS: [My] most unforgettable experience [with] gerbils is when they got out of their cage and still [stayed] nearby… because I thought they [had gotten] out of our house and [been] eaten by [rats] or [cats].
AS: Are gerbils clean animals?
NR: Yes, they are clean animals because they don’t smell bad, unlike other rodents.
VS: Gerbils are definitely clean because they pee less, so they smell less, as I said earlier. Because gerbils originally [come from] the dry lands of Mongolia, they… adapted to [their] environment and [learned] to conserve…water inside their [bodies].
AS: What are the challenges in keeping gerbils?
NR: Since they are easy to breed, sometimes it’s a challenge to control their population, [especially] for newbies who don’t have breeding programs for their pets.
VS: One challenge in keeping…gerbils, for me, is pairing, because you cannot just introduce a new cage mate and leave for they are highly territorial rodents and can kill each other on a fight.
AS: In the Philippines, how long do gerbils live? How old is your oldest gerbil pet?
NR: 5-6 years. My oldest [reached] 4 years [of age]
VS: The oldest gerbils I have [are] a 4-year-old pair.
AS: Why aren’t gerbils popular pets in the Philippines?
NR: Because people think they smell bad and [that] they bite like rats.
VS: The answer lies [in] their tail; many dislike it, [the way they dislike it in] their close relatives, rats. Some always say “Uy, dagang costa? Kadiri naman, parang daga (A white rat? Disgusting, it’s just a rat).” (laughs)
AS: Are gerbils difficult to keep or care for?
NR: No, but you have to learn the basics [of] how to care for them
VS: Gerbils are very easy to keep and care for. Just give them plenty of [cardboard] to gnaw, and they will turn [these] into beddings almost instantly.
AS: How do gerbils breed? What breeding habits do they have that you’ve observed?
NR: You have to be sure you have a male and female [gerbil and they should be] more than 4 months old. They will groom each other, and males will sometimes thump their feet.
VS: Gerbils breed like any other [rodent]; you just need a healthy, [mature] pair. [They] are very good [parents]; in a colony, females usually [take] turns [when it comes to] feedings, and you do not need to remove the [males] for they are [predisposed] to [help out when it comes to raising] pups. They help the female and [take] turns caring for the pups when the other one is eating or [resting].
AS: Are gerbils good parents?
NR: Yes, especially if you breed them at the right age. [Males] will take care of the pups when [the mother] is resting or eating.
AS: Should the breeding pair be separated upon the birth of their offspring?
AS: Are gerbils seasonal breeders?
NR: No, they breed all year round.
AS: Do you have any tips for breeding gerbils?
NR: Plan your breeding; choose the best pair. Read, read, and read about gerbils before ever trying to breed them.
VS: Gerbils breed all year round; they can breed monthly, but do not breed them three consecutive times. After 2 consecutive [breedings], let the female rest for a few months by removing the male [from] its cage until the female has physically recovered.
AS: Can several gerbils be kept together in a communal set-up?
NR: Yes, for [the] same [gender] and [if they are] properly introduced.
VS: Gerbils can be kept together [especially if] they [were] raised together [from] a young age. Just like [with] other colonies, they are headed by an alpha.
AS: What is the best gerbil diet that you can recommend which is available in the Philippines?
NR: [Give them a] hamster diet mixed with bird seeds. [You can give them] veggies as treats.
VS: [The] best gerbil diet is dry seeds; you can [make] your own mix of dry seeds [at] a poultry shop. [Your mix] can consist of bird seed, oats, sunflower seeds, and some dry chicken feed mix. You can give your gerbils [vegetables] but only a small amount because [these] can cause…diarrhea. Hamster feed mix is a popular staple food for gerbils; you can buy [this at] your local pet supply store.
AS: How often does a gerbil bite? Or do they give playful nibbles? Generally, when feeling threatened, will a gerbil flee or bite?
NR: [Gerbils] normally do not bite. They will only bite if [threatened] or your hands [smell] like food. [When feeling threatened], they’d rather flee than bite.
VS: Gerbils rarely bite, but [will] sometimes [nibble] on your fingers, tasting the remains of [food or seeking the source of the] scents [of] the last food you handled. Always wash your hands before handling them. When threatened, they usually thump their [hind] legs, signaling [to] others that there are intruders. [They would] rather flee [than] bite.
AS: Are gerbils difficult to tame?
NR: No, since they’re naturally friendly.
VS: Being social creatures, gerbils [are] easily [tamed]. They have…pretty agreeable [temperaments] and are generally only inclined to bite if feeling threatened.
AS: Any tips for taming a gerbil?
NR: Hold them regularly when [they’re] young.
AS: What are the best tips and recommendations that you can give to aspiring gerbil keepers out there?
NR: [Do your] research [about gerbils] before getting a pair. Start with a pair [of] the same gender, so you can learn about them little by little without breeding them yet.
VS: [The] best tip is to have one, and experience the joy of owning gerbils; you will never regret it.
AS: How do you know when a gerbil is healthy?
NR: They are tough animals. Give them the right diet and the right cage size, and they will live longer and happier.
AS: What tips can you give for selecting a healthy gerbil from a pet store?
NR: As much as possible, don’t buy from [a] pet store. Choose the gerbil that is lively and will come to you when you put your hands inside their cage. Check the eyes and bottom. If both are wet or teary, it means the gerbil is sick.
VS: A healthy [gerbil] has a shiny coat and [is] energetic. [It’s easy to choose] one [at] a pet store…just look for [one which has a shiny coat and is] energetic. And only buy from a reputable breeder and pet store.
This appeared in Animal Scene’s February 2017 issue.