Posted: July 13, 2011, 5 a.m. EDT
Q: We bought three young gerbils seven months ago. We really only wanted two, but I felt badly to leave one behind. I have three cages for them, so they will not get bored with just one. I have a safe open area where the gerbils get to play some every day. I also give them a variety of food and LOTS of chew toys. I think the gerbils are pretty spoiled.
We have Brownie (the biggest and sweetest) and two gray-colored gerbils, Boo Boo and Coo Coo. They have gotten along great until just recently. The smallest gerbil, Boo Boo has been not being very nice to Brownie. He chases him frequently, and I feel sorry for Brownie. I do find all three gerbils sleeping together some, but I think Brownie feels as though he is an outsider now. I hate to think of having Brownie live alone, as I know gerbils are very social.
Do you have any ideas why all of the sudden Boo Boo is not being nice to Brownie? Do you think this behavior will stop?
A: Keeping a trio of gerbils can work out, but sometimes is more complicated than keeping gerbils in pairs. The two pieces of important information that usually come into play when a gerbil trio starts to not get along are the age of the gerbils and the environment.
Typically, this sort of bickering occurs when the gerbils hit full maturity at about 6 to 10 months of age. At this point, a gerbil with lower status in the clan may decide he wants to move up. So, it might, for example, be the number two and number three gerbil that are having issues. Almost always the third gerbil in the trio gets along fine with both the other two.
The second factor is the environment of the gerbils. With a gerbil trio, offer a spacious but simple environment. Gerbils do better in a tank/aquarium with a mesh wire lid, which has room and allows having a couple of inches of litter at the bottom which gerbils need to dig and burrow in. A 20 gallon, long tank/aquarium is a nice size for three gerbils. If you have them in a 10-gallon tank/aquarium, make sure it has a stimulating environment.
Give your gerbils communal toys that all three can enjoy together. Think about if you had three children and you gave them one shiny bike versus a basketball. Which would encourage fighting each other versus playing together? A few things gerbils like to use together are a climbing branch from the reptile section of a pet store, a dust bath to roll in, Timothy hay to nibble and cardboard tubes to gnaw up.
Give your gerbils one toy or activity at a time rather than cramming the tank/aquarium with too much. It is important that the gerbils have only one nest box in one corner big enough for all three gerbils to sleep in. This encourages the gerbils to bond; they have to snuggle together or sleep out in the open, alone and exposed. Do not have separate boxes or any plastic tubes or multiple rooms or sections in the gerbils’ housing, otherwise the gerbils will set up their own territories.
As far as playing outside the tank/aquarium, sometimes this puts an unfamiliar smell on gerbils. If you find Boo Boo chasing Brownie more right after they are out and are then put back in the housing, try putting Brownie back first with a shallow bowl of chinchilla dust and Boo Boo a few minutes later. This will make Boo Boo less territorial and rolling in the dust will help distract him. Plus all three will all get coated with each other’s scent.
Also, when male gerbils hit 6 to 10 months of age, they bulk up to their full size. People sometimes think they are getting fat and feed them less. Actually, gerbils need plenty of food at this life stage. Being hungry and thirsty can make them stressed and competitive, causing them to squabble.
I think your gerbils will be able to work out their new social structure with your help. But if blood is drawn, keep the more bossy gerbil (Boo Boo) with the uninvolved third party (Coo Coo) and find a new friend for the less pushy one (Brownie) using a “split cage” introduction. Good luck!
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