Rodents as Pets

The Mongolian gerbil is increasing in popularity as an easy care, affectionate and playful pet. The gerbil is a rodent and native to Northern China and Mongolia. It frequents a harsh, extreme environment of semi-desert and steppe country. It has several common names including desert or sand rat and clawed jird.

The GerbilCredit: Wikimedia

The Mongolian gerbil is quite similar to a mouse but with smaller ears and a back that is somewhat arched. It has a total length of about 10cms with another 10cm being the tail. The males are generally a little bigger than the female weighing about 60 to 85 grams. Pet gerbils may increase in size to around 115 grams. The short, broad head has a pointed nose. There is a small tuft at the tip of the furred tail.

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The gerbil has long thin nails which it uses for digging and burrowing. The front legs dig out the dirt which is then kicked out of the way by the hind legs. The gerbil is well camouflaged with the natural colour being a light brown with black tips. The undersurfaces and paws are paler. The gerbil has a gland on the belly called the Harderian gland. Secretions from the gland are used to groom the coat, contributing to the shiny appearance. The oil from the gland is also used to mark the animal's territory and others of its group. There is no odour associated with the Harderian gland.

The gerbil's four incisors grown constantly and they need to gnaw almost continually to keep the incisors at a healthy length. If the incisors get too long, the gerbil finds it difficult to eat properly. This fact needs to be borne in mind when setting up a home for a pet gerbil.

In the wild, Mongolian gerbils tend to rest in their burrows during the hottest and coldest times of the day. In captivity they are more active during the day, snatching a catnap here and there.

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Gerbils may thump with their hind legs to communicate danger to others. When attacked they leap high in the air to avoid attackers or will hurriedly dig burrows.

Gerbils are basically vegetarians but are not averse to supplementing their diet of seeds, vegetables and roots with insects. Adaptations to their desert environment include the ability to retain water in fat cells, and the production of very little urine and very dry faeces.

The gerbil is only fertile for a little under a year. It can breed by 9 to 12 weeks of age but will be infertile by 14 months of age. The lifespan is 3 to 5 years and the average litter size is 4 to 5.

Gerbils were imported to Japan in the 1930s and to the United States in 1954. From there they were taken to the United Kingdom and they have now spread to most countries.