Posted: August 15, 2013, 2:25 p.m. EDT
Gerbils who nip might be excited, afraid or confused, but training to prevent nips only takes observation, patience and consistency.
Q: I have two gerbils, and one keeps biting. It’s not a hard bite, and I don’t think he is frightened at all. He seems to do it more because he gets excited. He tends to nibble as he runs over my hands, particularly if he runs between my fingers, or between my finger and thumb, and gives little nips right between, which can be quite painful even though the bite is not hard. How can I get him to stop?
A: First off, it is very good that you have two gerbils. Gerbils should be purchased and kept in pairs because they are social animals that in the wild live in small clans. Sometimes gerbils that are alone feel nervous or irritable and nip. But that is not the case here. As you say, it sounds more like the gerbil is excited and may be confusing your hands with food to taste or cardboard to gnaw on.
Keep a bottle of hand sanitizer near the gerbil housing and, before you handle your gerbils, wash your hands. This will ensure you don’t smell like food and are not yummy to taste. Also it will remove any smell, like that of another animal, which your gerbil may be reacting to.
As soon as your gerbil nips, give him a quick blow of air in the face — as though you were blowing out one birthday candle. If you aren’t in a good position to do so, say the work "Awk” in an unhappy tone. Soon your gerbil will learn that a nip leads to a slightly unpleasant result, and he should stop the behavior.
Finally, your gerbil may be feeling nervous and want to go back home. It is important not to put a gerbil back in his home right after he nips, or you will be rewarding his behavior. You don’t want to teach him that a nip is his way of communicating "go home.” Rather, count to 10 and then put him back. See if you can observe a behavior that comes before the nip, like digging in your hands. That can be his new signal for "I want to go home” instead.
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