Posted: August 27, 2010, 5 a.m. PDT
Q: My gerbil, Ronnie, is a 1-year-old female with symptoms of what seems to be a bacterial infection: wet tail, lethargy, loss of appetite, dingy coat, etc. She has been showing these symptoms for about three days, though, being the idiots we are, we thought she was pregnant for the first few days and didn't take immediate action. After a debate with my boyfriend over whether the cost of the vet visit was worth it (which, of course, I won since I couldn't stop crying) we were able to schedule a vet appointment to get antibiotics and hopefully save her. The problem is, the soonest appointment time anyone had is not until about six hours from now. As per the advice of the Internet, we have been giving her DriTail drops with an eyedropper, as well as keeping her hydrated with water and Pedialyte in the same manner. She seems vaguely interested in food, but unable to eat solid things.
I am extremely worried about her because she appears so weak, so here are my questions: Is hydration enough to keep her alive until we can get some antibiotics in her, even when she won't eat a thing? Is there some kind of liquid nutrition I can feed her with the eyedropper to keep some calories in her system? Baby formula or baby food, maybe? In desperation, I gave her some syrup from a can of peaches last night to get some sugar in her; it made her more energetic and stronger for a while, but I don't know if heavy syrup like that is truly helpful or harmful.
I am a first time gerbil mama and have no idea what I'm doing except what the Internet told me, so I would really appreciate some help with this! I am determined to do anything not to lose my baby.
A: The signs (we call them signs in animals, symptoms in people) that your gerbil is showing are considered “non-specific.” This means that they do not point to any specific disease. A loss of appetite, a poorly kept haircoat, loose stools and dehydration are all signs that can be seen in gerbils that are sick with many types of diseases. These signs can be seen in bacterial diseases, viral diseases, organ diseases, and even toxin ingestion.
We treat non-specific signs with non-specific treatments. That means we use treatments that are not designed for any specific disease. So, giving your gerbil hydration is non-specific but a very important thing to do for a gerbil that is not eating well, not drinking well and losing fluids through soft stools. That one act could save your gerbil from dying from dehydration, no matter what the original problem was.
Rehydrating with water is great and using a solution that has electrolytes, such as Pedialyte, is also a great idea, too. Adding some sugar to the solution as you did with syrup gives some needed energy to your gerbil.
If your gerbil is not eating, there is a great need for calories in a patient this small due to the very fast metabolism of small mammals. So this is why the sugar is helpful, but we would rather try to get in more complex foods than simple sugars.
Your next step is to visit the veterinarian. Although we cannot do as many tests on gerbils as we might be able to do on rabbits, we can still do a physical examination and look at any stool specimens. You also may receive from the veterinarian medications that are specifically designed for small rodents, rather than generic products. These medications are safe to use and your veterinarian can help make sure that the right dose and frequency is given to your gerbil.
See all of Dr. Rosenthal's Critter Q&A articles>>