Milk forms the basis of a baby gerbil’s diet. After weaning, gerbils get their calories from solid food, and don’t need milk. But some gerbil owners wonder if they can give their gerbils cows’ milk.
Milk isn’t healthy for gerbils. It can upset gerbils’ stomachs, causing pain, diarrhea, and weight loss. This is because gerbils are lactose intolerant. Gerbils can eat small amounts of dairy products that are low in lactose, like hard cheese. However, it’s not necessary if they’re getting protein from other sources.
We’ll explore why baby gerbils need milk, and whether milk has any nutritional benefit for adult gerbils. We’ll discuss the symptoms of lactose intolerance in gerbils, and safe dairy products.
Do Gerbils Need Milk?
Milk is a highly nutritious liquid produced by mammals to feed their young. Every mammal makes milk, including gerbils.
Baby gerbils consume nothing but milk during their first few weeks of life. It provides all the nutrients that they need, and it’s the only thing they can digest. Gerbils are unable to eat solid food until they reach around 3 weeks of age.
At 5-6 weeks of age, baby gerbils stop drinking milk, and move on to a completely solid diet. This process is known as weaning.
This process happens in people, too. At about 12 months, most babies stop drinking breast milk and formula. But most people continue to consume cows’ milk and dairy products throughout their lives.
Adult gerbils don’t need milk, and certainly not milk made for baby cows. Gerbils over the age of 6 weeks get all their nutrients from solid food.
There’s no need to feed your gerbil milk, unless it’s under the age of 5 weeks.
What Is the Nutritional Value of Milk for Gerbil?
Milk is intended to be the only food a baby mammal needs for the first part of its life. It’s exceptionally nutrient-rich, and calorically dense. Milk contains the following nutrients, in varying proportions:
- Proteins, the most abundant of which is casein
- Fats (saturated and unsaturated)
- Carbohydrates, including a sugar (lactose)
- Vitamins, such as C and B6
- Minerals, such as iron, calcium, and zinc
All mammals have different nutritional requirements, so not every type of milk is the same. For example, human milk contains more carbohydrates and less protein than cows’ milk.
As gerbils are rodents, their milk is quite different from milk intended for hoofed herbivores. Cows’ milk is not suitable for gerbils of any age.
If a baby gerbil is orphaned before weaning, it should be fed KMR (kitten milk replacer). KMR replicates cat milk, but is similar in composition to gerbil milk.
Adult gerbils do not need milk of any kind. Though it contains lots of nutrients, adult gerbils can get all of these from solid food. And one particular nutrient, lactose, is bad for adult gerbils.
Are Gerbils Allowed Milk as Adults?
As well as being unnecessary for adult gerbils, milk can be harmful. This is because most gerbils are lactose intolerant after they’ve been weaned.
Lactose is a type of sugar that is found in milk. It doesn’t occur in any other foodstuff that we know of. Between 2% and 8% of milk is made up of lactose.
To digest lactose, baby mammals produce an enzyme called lactase. Lactase breaks down lactose, allowing it to pass through the intestinal walls and be absorbed into the bloodstream.
At about three weeks of age, baby gerbils begin to explore solid foods. They are weaned at 5-6 weeks of age, and at this point, they stop producing lactase. It’s no longer needed once they’ve stopped drinking their mother’s milk.
Without lactase, it’s impossible to digest milk. So gerbils that are older than 6 weeks of age cannot drink milk of any kind.
According to Physiology & Behavior, adult gerbils instinctively avoid lactose. If given a choice between pure water and a sugar solution containing lactose, they’ll choose water.
If you were to offer your gerbil milk, it would probably drink it. That’s because gerbils are attracted to the high levels of fat and protein. But though they might like the taste, milk is unhealthy.
What Are the Signs of Lactose Intolerance in Gerbils?
Tiny amounts of milk won’t do your gerbil much harm. But if a gerbil overeats dairy, including cheese, it will display signs of digestive upset.
This is because there is no lactase present to break down the lactose, and absorb it into the bloodstream. Instead, it ends up in the colon, where it ferments, causing an excess of gas and pressure. If your gerbil is lactose intolerant, it may display the following symptoms:
- Bloating of the abdomen
- Symptoms of pain: lethargy and/or aggression
- Lack of interest in food
- Loose stools (diarrhea) in the cage
- Feces stuck to the fur surrounding the anus
Over time, if continually fed dairy products, a lactose intolerant gerbil may become dehydrated and lose weight. This can eventually result in death, if untreated.
A common sign of lactose intolerance in humans and other mammals is vomiting. But gerbils, like all rodents, cannot vomit. According to PLoS One, rodents won’t vomit even when fed emetics (vomit-inducing chemicals). They lack the brain structure to do so.
Can Gerbils Eat Dairy Products with Low Lactose?
Not all dairy products are high in lactose. Depending on how the food is made and processed, lactose levels can vary. If the food contains little or no lactose, your gerbil won’t exhibit the adverse side effects. So, which dairy products are low in lactose? Examples include:
- Yogurt, especially full-fat yogurt, and Greek yogurt
- Aged hard cheeses, e.g. Swiss, Cheddar, and Parmesan
- Heavy cream
- Specially made lactose-free dairy products, sold under brands, such as Lactaid
Usually, the higher the fat content of the dairy product, the less lactose there will be. This is because lactose is found in whey – the watery, low-fat part of milk.
Hard cheeses don’t contain much lactose. During the aging process, bacteria turn it into lactic acid. However, just because a product is low in lactose, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for gerbils.
Most dairy products are high in fat, especially saturated fat. A gerbil’s diet should only contain between 3% – 9% fat. A high-fat diet could cause health problems such as obesity and heart conditions.
Dairy products also contain a protein called casein. While gerbils need protein in their diets, casein is not the healthiest type of protein you can offer. The Journal of Nutrition found that gerbils fed casein had higher LDL cholesterol than gerbils fed soy protein.
What Dairy Products Can Gerbils Eat?
Gerbils can eat small amounts of low-lactose dairy products from time to time, and still be healthy. But dairy should not form a substantial part of your gerbil’s diet.
The healthiest protein foods for gerbils are nuts, seeds, and insects such as crickets. If you choose to feed your gerbil dairy products, offer them sparingly.
Choose plain dairy products that have as few additives as possible. Steer clear of added flavorings, colorings, sugar, or preservatives. Ideally, choose a product that doesn’t contain any herbs or spices.
The best dairy products for gerbils are full-fat Greek yogurt and hard cheese. A small cube of cheese or teaspoonful of yogurt once per week is more than enough.
You can also get yogurt drops designed for small animals. These usually have the lactose removed, so they are safe. But they should still be given sparingly, as they are often high in other sugars.
Can Gerbils Drink Anything Other than Water?
Gerbils over 6 weeks old, that have been weaned, do not need milk. They don’t need any liquids other than water.
Water’s only purpose is to keep your gerbil hydrated. Adult gerbils receive all their nutritional requirements from solid foods, such as grains, seeds, and vegetables.
Drinks enjoyed by humans, such as soda, juice, cows’ milk, and plant-based milk contain calories that gerbils don’t need. They are often high in sugar, and additives such as preservatives and artificial sweeteners, which can be harmful.
Additionally, consuming too much liquid of any kind can wreak havoc on a gerbil’s digestive system. Their bodies are built to survive droughts, so gerbils need less than a tablespoon of water per day.
If your gerbil drinks too much of anything, it could cause diarrhea. It’s best not to offer your gerbil any unnecessary liquids – just plain water, refreshed each day.
If you’re worried your gerbil may be dehydrated or undernourished, talk to an experienced veterinarian. They’ll advise you of any changes you might need to make to its diet.