There are a vast variety of rodents on this planet – some we regard as a pest – such as rats, after all the black rats did bring us a little thing call the plague! But rodents can also come in the cute and cuddly variety – think of the dormouse, the field mouse, the harvest mouse -ah! I hear you utter. Maybe it was this cuteness that encouraged us to begin keeping some rodents as our pets.
Back in the 1950s, Gerbils were first brought into the USA for laboratory work (eek!) but they soon won over the hearts of the laboratory workers, who thought them so endearing that they adopted them as pets and pet gerbils were here to stay.
I was the proud owner of a little gerbil myself when I was a girl. I called him Midge, after that iconic children’s TV programme – Mary, Mongo and Midge (only the more senior readers will recall this). Midge brought much pleasure into our lives – he was such a character and we cherished him.
My husband boasts having kept a number of gerbils – Morecombe and Wise were the first two, followed later on by three cuties, simply named The Lads. The story was he was only intending on buying two, but there were three left in the store and he couldn’t bear to leave one its own – hence he acquired three.
Gerbils can be fascinating to watch – I remember finding myself engrossed in their exploits – they’re great entertainment. This is especially so if you keep them in a gerbilarium – a tank rather than a more typical rodent cage. If they can be supplied with a tank and bedding material that they are able to dig into, then they throw themselves into the excavation of tunnels that weave around their enclosure. It’s interesting to watch them digging – they work as a team, with one at the coal face, one shovelling the loose material back and one on the surface to spread it out! Construction workers eat your heart out!
Gerbils seem to have a strong character – they know what they like and what they don’t like. They’re credited with having a sweet tooth and seem to love raisins, sweetcorn, melon and apple – but the latter has to be cut into tiny pieces for them – they simply reject any pieces that are too large by treating the owner to a hard stare and then, when they’re sure the owner is watching, tossing them aside!
Gerbils love to chew – in fact they need to chew to keep their teeth worn down. They appreciate wood or cardboard – toilet roll insides were never wasted. They also like to chew up paper for their bedding and a whole piece of tissue would only take minutes to be reduced to a fluffy mound of shreddings on which to get a good night’s sleep.
They can be quite cany when it comes to escaping, so they need a secure home. Imagine your surprise to come home and find a gerbil standing at the top of the stairs to greet you – “hi honey I’m home!”
Gerbils are friendly pets too and they tend not to be aggressive if carefully handled regularly and they’re credited as being intelligent and playful. They also adapt their sleep patterns to the home where they live, so they’re active when you are.
Gerbils originate from Mongolia and Northern China – there are many different species, but the two that are kept as pets and that are familiar to us are the Mongolian Gerbil and the unfortunately named Fat Tailed Gerbil (these critters are able to store fat reserves in their tails that they can draw on when times are hard – smart!)
Other species that are not usually kept as pets include, the Pale Gerbil, Shaw Jird, the Great Gerbil (aptly named as it comes in at around 20cm in length), the North African Gerbil, the Tamarisk Jird and the Guinian Gerbil – although there are many more.
In the wild, most gerbils live in social family groups, lead by a dominant breeding pair (like Meerkats do). They favour dry and arid conditions and are adapted to these by being able to survive with minimal fluid intake, hence their nickname – dessert rats.
Having been a proud gerbil owner myself, I can highly recommend them as pets, but would suggest they are kept in pairs or groups and that they’re provided with a gerbilarium so that they can get their burrowing paws on – you’ll find yourself watching them rather than the TV – honest!