Posted: December 13, 2009, 5 a.m. EST
Q: I am in middle school, and I recently got two pet gerbils from the pet store. They don't seem to have the best temperament, and I hope you can answer my questions about them. My first gerbil (Boo) was the runt of the litter, and he bites me all the time. He also is very shy and not very fun to play with. Why do you think this is? Do you think it's because he's a runt?
My second gerbil (Peanut) used to be friendly. He enjoyed it when I held him a lot, and he always looked at me. (I got him from the pet store after I got Boo, although he is from the same litter.) But today, my mom fed him a macadamia nut and some oatmeal, and I fed him a little tiny lima bean. I noticed while he was eating it that his food dish was nearly empty, except for some little seeds and pellets. After I fed him the lima bean, he bit me. Hard. I had to shake him off! His little teeth had drawn blood. Now whenever he sees me, he follows me around, hoping for a bite. Is this just because he didn't like his remaining food and was hungry? Or do you think I spoiled him beyond repair? Or do you think he was just tired of me for the day?
I don't know how old my gerbils are, and I'm not even positive on their genders. I am really confused and scared. I am afraid to go near my gerbils’ cages now.
A: Typically gerbils’ temperaments will be similar to what you see when you adopt them with some improvement with gentle and consistent handling.
Gerbils are very small creatures that need to be handled gently at all times no matter what. Shaking a gerbil could kill it, cause brain damage or break its spine. The best way to detach a gerbil should it bite is to put its feet on the ground, be very still, wait a few seconds or give a quick puff of air in its face. It takes a lot for a gerbil to bite, so look out for the warning signs and respect them.
Your description of events makes me think that rough handling might be the issue here. If you start over making friends with your gerbil pair, you should be able to restore Peanut to his old friendly self and perhaps have Boo come out of his shell a little bit.
Here is the step-by-step process to do this:
Step 1: Make sure the gerbils have a proper, interesting and clean housing setup. I recommend a 10 or 20 gallon tank with a mesh wire top, a mesh wheel hung from the top, a nest box, deep litter, plenty of cardboard, and chinchilla dust in a shallow bowl every few days. Give the gerbils a handful of quality food every day; the food mix should have rolled oats as the first ingredient with seeds and nuts and dried veggies. It shouldn’t have much corn or pellets. Make sure the water bottle is always filled and working. Clean out and scrub the setup every two weeks and spot clean as necessary in between cleanings; remove any wet, smelly bedding immediately.
A good environment makes for happy and stress-free gerbils.
Step 2: Open the lid of the tank and just talk to the gerbils for a few days. Leave presents like a paper towel tube or a pumpkin seed, but don’t hand-feed them yet. Make sure to talk softly. Gerbils have excellent hearing. Move slowly around the gerbils without making any sudden movements or loud noises.
These actions will make the gerbils trust you and enjoy having you around.
Step 3: Wearing thin gloves (an inexpensive pair of driving gloves works well) take all the stuff out of the tank so that you become the most interesting plaything. Wearing long sleeves to provide traction, rest your hand and arm in the tank and let the gerbils explore you. Don’t move a muscle. If they nibble or bite your gloves, don’t move! Give them a quick puff of air in the face or say “Hey” or “No” sternly but not loudly.
Over time a gerbil or two should be climbing into your hand and up your arm.
Step 4: When a gerbil sits in your hand for a while (or climbs onto your shoulder) slowly lift it out of the tank. (If the gerbil jumps off your hand, rest it on the bottom of the tank again and wait.) When you get the gerbil out of the tank, give it a reward. The best reward for a gerbil is running and exploring, so a fenced-in area or a big box with things to climb on and investigate is a big hit. When gerbil playtime ends, wait until the gerbil goes into a tube or box and then put the gerbil and the tube/box back into the tank.
Never to grab, shake or constrain your gerbils. Let the gerbils perch and crawl on you, but do not hold them still. If your gerbils seem to be frustrated and have had enough, e.g., by head butting or nibbling you, put them back in their tank right away.
You need to find out if your gerbils are boys or girls, so check the National Gerbil Society website for details about this. If you have one of each, set up separate tanks for them, otherwise you will soon have dozens of gerbils!
One last thing, when two gerbils are separated after a while, they will forget each other. If you separate your gerbils do not let them play together, or they will fight. For more information on gerbil taming, behavior and care, visit the American Gerbil Society’s website.
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