best gerbil substrate
Care Guide

What is Safe Bedding for Gerbils? (9 Best Substrates Compared)

There are dozens of gerbil bedding options. But not all substrates are safe or suitable for gerbils. Good bedding for gerbils is non-toxic, digestible, dust-free, and can be used for tunneling.

The best gerbil bedding is a combination of hay, aspen shavings, and paper-based bedding (such as Kaytee Clean & Cozy). A mixture of materials helps gerbils to build sturdy tunnels. Provide your gerbil with at least 6 inches of substrate, and spot-clean weekly. Fully replace the bedding every 3-4 weeks.

We’ll discuss why gerbils need bedding, and share the best gerbil substrates. We’ll look at the pros and cons of each, how much to use, and how often to replace them.

Why Do Gerbils Need Bedding?

Gerbil bedding, or substrate, is the layer of material that lines the bottom of the gerbilarium. There are many reasons why gerbils need substrate in their tank or cage:

  • It provides a comfortable surface for your gerbils to walk on.
  • It soaks up any urine, feces and spilled water, keeping the cage dry.
  • Gerbils use substrate to help line their houses and nests. It helps to keep them warm and cozy while asleep.
  • If your gerbil falls off of anything in its enclosure, the substrate provides a soft landing for them.
  • Gerbils have a strong instinct to dig tunnels. A thick layer of substrate allows them to build burrows, as they would in the wild.

For gerbils, the most critical function of a substrate is to serve as a tunnel-digging medium. Gerbils spend almost all of their waking hours digging and scampering through homemade burrows.

Some substrates, even those designed for small animals, aren’t suitable for tunnel digging. When considering what kind of bedding for gerbils, keep this in mind. A gerbil that can’t burrow may become bored, anxious, or depressed.

Some substrates may also be toxic or unsafe for gerbils. Certain materials can cause allergies, irritation, or digestive problems when swallowed.

What Is the Best Gerbil Substrate?

There is a huge number of gerbil bedding options. However, not every substrate option is equal. They all vary in price, and have different advantages and disadvantages.

Good bedding for gerbils is made from wood/paper pulp, or other natural materials. Many gerbil owners make their own bedding, as this can be cheaper.

Bedding TypeProsCons
Aspen ShavingsNatural, visually appealing. Pleasant scent. Absorbent. Inexpensive.Some brands can be dusty, causing irritation.
CarefreshHighly absorbent. Available in various colors.More expensive than aspen. Quality control issues – some batches are dusty.
Kaytee Clean & CozySoft, ideal for nesting. Cheaper than Carefresh. Mostly dust-free.Not as absorbent as Carefresh.
HempNatural. Completely dust-free. Highly absorbent. Mixes well with other substrates.Expensive due to production costs.
Corn CobNatural and compostable. Dust-free. Cheaper than hemp bedding. Great odor control.Must change regularly to prevent mold growth. Not suitable for burrowing.
HayCheap, edible, and dust-free. Keeps gerbils warm. Pleasant scent.Non-absorbent. Not suitable to use as the only substrate.
Shredded PaperCheap or free to acquire. Dust-free.The ink from printed paper can be dangerous. Non-absorbent. Visually unattractive.
Potting Soil / PeatGreat for building sturdy, deep tunnels. Looks natural and attractive.Heavy and cold. Moist, so can grow mold and fungus. Makes gerbils look dirty. Tunnels can collapse if the soil dries out.
SandClosely mimics gerbils’ natural environment. Good for dust bathing. If kept damp, can be used for burrowing.Hard work to maintain. Tunnels can collapse if dry. It can be cold if damp. Poor odor control.

Most of the above substrates, except soil and sand, will not hold tunnels on their own. But if used together, they can be chewed and combined to make sturdy building materials. So, it’s advisable to use a combination of different substrates in your gerbilarium.

The best bedding for gerbils to burrow is a mixture of plant-based bedding (wood or hemp), paper, and hay. There are various brands and types.

Is Aspen Bedding Safe for Gerbils?

Aspen bedding is made of shavings from aspen tree logs. A good brand is Small Pet Select Aspen Bedding.

Because it’s wood-based, aspen is compostable and safe for gerbils to chew. It’s visually appealing, and has a pleasant woody smell. It has good absorbency, and conceals odors reasonably well.

Gerbils love to spend time chewing aspen shavings into wood pulp, to build tunnels with. Aspen shavings won’t hold tunnels well unless combined with paper bedding and hay.

Unlike other woods, aspen is not oily. This means that it won’t cause health concerns associated with phenols (compounds found in tree oils).

Some brands of aspen can contain dust. All aspen shavings should be sifted to remove dust before placing it in the gerbilarium. Dust can cause irritation to gerbils’ eyes and noses.

Aspen is one of the more affordable bedding options, and it’s widely available.

Is Carefresh Bedding Safe for Gerbils?

Carefresh Small Pet Bedding is one of the most popular gerbil bedding options. It’s made using paper fibers that are processed into small chunks.

The main benefit of Carefresh bedding is its absorbency. It’s over twice as absorbent as wood shavings, and has great odor control abilities. It can prevent odors for up to 10 days.

Carefresh comes in many colors, including natural (brown), white, and confetti (multicolored). It’s dyed with natural materials, so the colored pieces are safe for your gerbil to chew.

As with most beddings, your gerbils will struggle to burrow in Carefresh alone. But it can be combined with hay and other substrates, such as aspen, to form sturdier tunnels.

The main downside to Carefresh is that some batches fall victim to quality control issues. Some bags contain a significant amount of dust. If you get a dusty bag, most stores are happy to exchange it.

Carefresh is also considerably more expensive than aspen. But as it’s so absorbent, many gerbil owners consider it worth the cost.

Is Kaytee Bedding Safe for Gerbils?

Kaytee Clean & Cozy Small Pet Bedding is another popular brand. Like Carefresh, Kaytee Clean & Cozy is made from paper fibers and boasts high absorbency.

Most gerbil owners find that Kaytee Clean & Cozy is slightly less absorbent than Carefresh. For that reason, you might need to change the bedding slightly more often. However, it still absorbs twice as much liquid than aspen shavings.

During production, Kaytee bedding goes through a rigorous dust extraction process. It is 99% dust-free, and does not seem to have the same quality control issues as Carefresh.

As its name suggests, Kaytee bedding is soft and cozy for your gerbils. Comparing Kaytee and Carefresh directly, Kaytee seems softer and fluffier. It’s great for lining gerbils’ nests.

Kaytee Clean & Cozy is slightly cheaper than Carefresh bedding, though more expensive than aspen shavings.

what kind of bedding for gerbils?

Is Hemp Bedding Safe for Gerbils?

Hemp bedding is an alternative to traditional wood shavings, and boasts several useful properties.

Being more absorbent than wood, hemp can absorb four times its weight in liquid. It controls odors well, but the bedding itself is scentless.

In the wild, Mongolian gerbils eat hemp plants as part of their natural diet. So, hemp bedding is entirely safe for them to digest, should they inadvertently swallow it.

Hemp substrate is naturally dust-free, making it a safer option than paper or wood beddings. It is good for burrowing, as it can be chewed up and mixed with other materials.

The downside of hemp bedding is its cost. It is much more expensive than aspen or paper bedding, and harder to find. Many pet stores don’t stock it, as it’s relatively new on the market.

The main reason for this is that hemp growing used to be heavily restricted in the US. But in 2018, according to Congress.gov, a bill was passed removing industrial hemp from the controlled substances list. This means that in the future, we may see hemp bedding drop in price.

How Safe is Corn Cob Bedding for Gerbils?

Corn cob bedding is another natural alternative to wood and paper beddings. It’s made from the inner core of an ear of corn. This part of the plant is tough, but also absorbent.

Because it’s completely natural, corn cob bedding is digestible and safe to swallow. It is usually used in bird cages, but has recently become popular with small mammal owners.

Corn cob bedding is particularly good at controlling odors. It is dust-free, and safe for gerbils’ respiratory systems. A popular brand is Kaytee Kay-KOB.

Unfortunately, there are three major drawbacks of corn cob bedding:

  • It’s tough and difficult to chew. It can be painful for gerbils’ feet, and hard to burrow in. Most gerbils don’t bother trying to make tunnels out of it.
  • It is more expensive than paper or wood-based bedding.
  • Corn cob bedding can grow mold.

If you use corn cob bedding, you’ll need to replace your gerbil’s bedding frequently. You’ll also need to use it mixed with a different substrate so that your gerbil can dig tunnels.

Is Hay Good Bedding for Gerbils?

Hay is usually used as food, as it forms a significant part of many small animals’ diets. Gerbils don’t normally eat hay, but they enjoy chewing on it, as it helps file their teeth down.

Hay is also invaluable as a tunnel building material. Gerbils can’t tunnel in hay alone, but they use it to help strengthen the walls of their burrows. They chew it up and mix it with other materials, such as paper and wood.

Another benefit of hay is that it helps your gerbilarium stay smelling fresh. It is not absorbent, but it has a pleasant scent that can mask other smells. It is warm, and great for lining gerbils’ nests.

Most gerbil owners use hay as an addition to the regular bedding, to help bulk it out. You can place it on top, or layer it with other substrates. Your gerbils will pick bits out as and when they need them.

Any hay sold for animal use is safe for gerbils, such as timothy, orchard, and alfalfa hay. The most economical is meadow hay, which is quite cheap, especially when bought in bulk.

Is Shredded Paper Good Bedding for Gerbils?

By far the cheapest gerbil bedding is shredded paper. It’s a great option for gerbil owners on a budget. All you need is a ream of cheap printer paper and a paper shredder. The quality and thickness of the paper doesn’t matter.

Used on its own, shredded paper isn’t ideal. It doesn’t absorb liquid or contain odors well, so you’ll need to replace it frequently. It also doesn’t look the nicest in your gerbilarium.

However, gerbils love paper. They like to chew it into a pulp and mix it with other materials to form tunnels. So, shredded paper makes a great addition to bulk out the existing substrate.

Use paper designed for printing or writing on. Toilet paper gets wet and smelly extremely quickly, so it doesn’t work well as a gerbil substrate.

Is Soil Safe Bedding for Gerbils?

If your gerbils love burrowing, you might consider using earth as a substrate. Potting soil and peat are popular choices for gerbil substrate.

The main advantage of using earth is that it looks natural, is absorbent, and can hold tunnels well. It is also inexpensive to buy.

Unfortunately, there are many downsides to using soil or peat bedding for gerbils:

  • It’s messy, and will make your gerbils dirty, as well as everything else in the tank.
  • It’s cold, heavy, and difficult to maintain. It requires a lot of effort to clean and replace.
  • Soil and peat need to be kept moist, so that tunnels don’t dry out and collapse. Because of this, mold may grow, and seeds from your gerbil’s food may germinate.

Most gerbil owners find that their gerbils love the soil, but it requires too much effort to maintain.

Can You Use Sand for Gerbil Bedding?

Gerbils originate from the sandy deserts of Mongolia. Some gerbil owners prefer to use sand as gerbil bedding, as it replicates their natural environment.

Sand is safe for gerbils, as long as it’s sterilized and isn’t dusty. Most gerbils enjoy bathing and burrowing in the sand, and it’s good for making tunnels.

Unfortunately, there are many downsides to using sand as a substrate.

Because sand is so fine, it gets kicked everywhere and can get into tiny cracks and crevices. This makes the gerbilarium difficult to clean. Sand is not great at controlling odors, either.

Moist sand can be too cold, but if warmed up, it could dry out and tunnels could collapse. It’s difficult to get the balance right.

Instead of using sand as gerbil substrate, consider offering your gerbil a small bowl of sand to bathe in. It’s much easier to maintain than a whole tank full of sand.

Which Substrates Are Unsafe for Gerbils?

There are some substrates that can’t be used in gerbil enclosures. This is because they are toxic to gerbils, indigestible, unsuitable for burrowing, or cause irritation.

Perfumed Bedding

Some brands of bedding are highly perfumed with chemicals designed to mask odors. They may be labeled as “deodorizing” or “scented.”

While this may seem appealing to us, perfumed beddings do not mix well with gerbils.

Gerbils have extremely sensitive noses. They use scent trails to find their way around their enclosure, and identify one another. Highly-perfumed substrates can interfere with this.

Perfume and deodorizing chemicals can also cause eye irritation and respiratory issues. Living in an enclosed tank with restricted air-flow can make the effects even worse.

best bedding for gerbils to burrow

Pellet Bedding

Some animal bedding comes in the form of small, hard pellets, made of compacted paper or wood. It’s the preferred substrate for horse stables, rat cages, and chicken coops.

Pellet bedding is made out of natural materials, and is non-toxic. Because it is available in large bags, it is usually quite cheap.

Unfortunately, pellet bedding isn’t suitable for gerbils because it cannot be used for burrowing. The pieces are too large, and cave in when gerbils try to tunnel in it.

Pellet bedding also can’t be chewed into smaller pieces, to mix with other substrates. When gnawed on, it dissolves into sawdust. This dust can then be inhaled and can cause respiratory issues.

Cat Litter

Cat litter is designed to be highly absorbent and control odors. For this reason, you may wonder whether you can use cat litter for gerbil bedding.

Unfortunately, though, most cat litter is unsafe to use as a gerbil substrate.

  • It is often dusty, especially when chewed up, which is dangerous for gerbils’
  • It is usually made out of a substance like clay or silica gel, both of which are unsafe for gerbils to eat.
  • Most cat litter is highly perfumed, as it’s designed to mask strong scents. Perfumed bedding can irritate gerbils. Some deodorizing chemicals can also be toxic to swallow.

Unscented and non-clumping cat litters, made of recycled paper, may be safe.  But most are still unsuitable for burrowing, as they’re formed of pellets which can’t hold tunnels.

Cedar and Pine Wood Shavings

Certain types of woods should not be used for gerbil bedding, as they contain toxic chemicals.

In particular, steer clear of oily or highly aromatic wood, like cedar and pine. These woods contain compounds called phenols, which have been proven dangerous for small animals.

The highly-scented oil can negatively affect respiratory function in the same way as perfumed beddings. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, long-term inhalation of phenols can also cause heart, kidney, liver, and lung damage.

Another wood-based substrate to avoid is sawdust. The small particles can cause lung problems in gerbils.

Inked Paper (Newspaper and Magazine)

It’s perfectly acceptable to make your own gerbil bedding out of shredded paper. However, avoid using newspaper, or any heavily inked paper.

Some types of ink are toxic. Gerbils will instinctively chew their bedding, so using heavily inked paper can be dangerous.

Ink can also stain gerbils’ fur. It can rub off while they’re burrowing, and leave blue or black marks.

If you source your shredded paper from an office, also check for strips of plastic (such as envelope windows). Plastic is inedible and can cause obstructions in your gerbil’s gut.

Cotton and Polyester Wadding

Wadding is the white, fluffy material used to stuff pillows and quilts. It is usually made out of cotton or polyester.

Because wadding is soft, it is ideal for human bedding. However, wadding is extremely dangerous for gerbils, because it is inedible.

Gerbils naturally chew their bedding, and will occasionally swallow some of it. If your gerbil swallows cotton or polyester, it won’t be able to digest it.

Wadding could get stuck in your gerbil’s gut, causing an obstruction. If left untreated, this could quickly lead to death.

Landscaping Bark and Tissue Paper

Craft materials designed for human use, such as tissue paper, are not suitable to use in gerbilariums. This is because they are often treated with chemicals to bind, color, or varnish them.

Landscaping bark, designed for use in yards and playgrounds, is also unsuitable for gerbils. As well as being treated with chemicals, the pieces are too large and sharp. They may hurt your gerbil when trying to burrow.

Substrate Collected from Outside

Whatever substrate you use for your gerbil, always buy it from a reputable source, such as a pet store. Never collect substrates from outside, such as hay, grass, earth, or sand.

This is because it may contain contaminants, such as pesticides. Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology found that a common pesticide (mevinphos) produces symptoms such as convulsions, incoordination, and death in gerbils.

Bacteria and insect eggs may also be present. Rarely, this can also happen with store-bought substrates. To be on the safe side, freeze gerbil bedding overnight before putting it in the gerbilarium.

Do Gerbils Eat Their Bedding?

No matter which bedding you use, your gerbil will chew it. This is perfectly normal behavior and is nothing to worry about.

Gerbils routinely chew up their bedding and spit it out again. Chewing helps to break down the substrate into smaller pieces, and moisten it. This creates a more sturdy material for tunnel-building.

If you use multiple types of substrate, you’ll also notice your gerbils mixing the chewed materials together. This makes tunnels less likely to collapse, compared with using one substrate.

Gerbils also chew their bedding to help keep their teeth filed down. Gerbils’ teeth grow continuously, so they need to grind them down by chewing.

Most gerbils don’t deliberately swallow their bedding, but some could get swallowed accidentally. For this reason, use a non-toxic substrate that won’t cause harm if ingested.

How Much Bedding Should Gerbils Have?

Whichever bedding you choose, your gerbils need a deep layer to burrow in. The substrate should be at least 6 to 7 inches thick.

Once you’ve chosen which substrates you’ll use, you can either mix them together, or place them in layers. Your gerbils won’t mind either way.

Your gerbils will naturally kick up the substrate and rearrange it how they like it. So don’t place anything heavy, such as food dishes or houses, directly on top of the substrate. Use a cage topper or shelf.

Some gerbils may love one bedding while another won’t like it. Most gerbil owners use a trial-and-error method to discover which works best.

If your gerbil isn’t interested in tunneling or chewing the bedding, to try a different type. Similarly, switch substrates if your gerbil is experiencing an allergic reaction, such as redness around the eyes.

How Often Should I Change Gerbils Bedding?

How often to change gerbil bedding depends on which substrate you use. Change the substrate when you notice the gerbilarium beginning to smell.

Some beddings, like Carefresh, are good at controlling odors and won’t need to be changed too often. Others, such as corn cob bedding, must be replaced frequently as they can grow mold.

Most gerbil owners do a spot-clean once or twice per week. Gerbils usually go to the toilet in the same place each time, so replace this area of bedding frequently.

The majority of substrates require a complete replacement around once every 3-4 weeks. This can be stressful for gerbils, as it involves ruining all of their tunnels and scent trails.

For this reason, consider replacing a fourth of the bedding every week or so. This will keep the gerbilarium clean, without putting your gerbils through too much stress. Only remove the entire substrate when you need to clean the tank itself.