When a gerbil dies, it’s sad for the owner, and its bonded gerbil partner. If your pet seems sad, depressed and lethargic, you may think that it’s grieving.
Gerbils grieve when a bonded partner dies. This bonded partner could be a breeding partner or a same-sex sibling. A grieving gerbil will be lethargic, i.e. not move much, and will eat and drink less. This can last for months. You can assist with the mourning process by cleaning its tank and introducing a new gerbil through the split cage method.
You should some additional time with your gerbil to help it through a difficult period emotionally. Doing so is likely to help take your gerbil’s mind off its recent loss.
Do Gerbils Mourn?
Not all animals are sad when they lose a partner. But not all animals are social like gerbils. Gerbils do grieve, to a surprising extent. You may notice that your gerbil:
- Sleeps more than it did previously
- Doesn’t come out of its burrow as much
- Doesn’t eat or drink as much
- Isn’t excited to play or explore
These are all classic signs of unhappiness in gerbils. The root of a gerbil’s grieving is that it mates for life. This is the core of the gerbil social group. A mating pair will get together and stay together until one dies. This pair will have several litters, which will each leave the pair as they come of age.
Other animals don’t do the same, instead of mating and then leaving each other. So, gerbils have an evolutionary interest in forming a strong bond. The end result, if one dies, is grief.
Gerbils can also live in same-sex pairs. In the same way, when one dies, the other will grieve. The reason why this occurs is less clear, because the gerbil isn’t losing a mating partner. But you will notice your gerbil being more lethargic and depressed than usual.
Do Gerbils Grieve for a Bonded Partner?
The pair’s bond is the foundation of gerbil social groups. This applies both in the wild and in captivity. Every group has a breeding pair, which are the dominant gerbils, a male, and a female. The rest of the group are the pair’s young.
Gerbils have a stronger pair bond than most other animals. They often mate for life, such as the strength of this relationship. The same pair will have many litters throughout their lives.
When one of these gerbils dies, the other will grieve for its loss. It will be sad. Again, this applies both in the wild and in captivity. So, if you have a breeding pair of gerbils and one dies, you’ll see the other one grieving.
Gerbil Grieving the Loss of a Sibling
Gerbils often live with their siblings. They do for the first few weeks of their life, as they grow larger, before they wean. They may also live with an opposite-sex sibling as a bonded pair when they become independent.
Gerbils will certainly grieve if they lose a sibling after their pair has bonded. These pair bonds are strong like those between a mating pair.
Do Gerbils Grieve for Humans?
A gerbil can become upset if its owner dies. You will notice similar symptoms to the grief that occurs when another gerbil dies.
However, this grieving isn’t as deep as that for another gerbil. While gerbils are social with people, they have unique social bonds in their groups. These bonds are what the gerbil grieves for.
You may also notice that a gerbil is upset if its owner leaves it, i.e. gives it to somebody else. However, it will quickly recover if it has the company of another gerbil and owner.
How Long Do Gerbils Grieve?
The length of your gerbil’s grief depends on how much or little you help it. If you leave it alone, it will take a long time to get over its lost friend. It can take months, if you don’t clean away the smell of the deceased gerbil from its cage.
But if you clean your gerbil’s cage and provide it with a new friend, it can be back to normal in a few weeks. Don’t expect overnight improvements, because you won’t necessarily get them.
That being said, some gerbils don’t grieve as much as others do. You may not notice that your gerbil isn’t particularly upset. If that’s the case, there’s no problem. It may not have been closely bonded to the other gerbil, in which case it won’t grieve as long anyway.
Why Do Gerbils Grieve?
The underlying reason is unclear. They don’t have as well developed emotions and emotional needs as people. We know because gerbil’s brains aren’t as developed as the human brain.
However, there are likely several reasons, even if they haven’t been definitively proven. One is that when one half of a pair passes away, the remaining half must alter its behavior in many ways. Gerbils are social, and do everything in their pairs and groups, so doing things alone may be difficult.
The gerbil would normally forage with its friend/partner, play with its partner, or share warmth with it. When the other gerbil dies, it has to relearn these behaviors. It makes sense that it would be less active, because perhaps it doesn’t know what to do.
Another reason could be that grief encourages the gerbil to find another mate. All gerbils rely on mating to produce the next generation; a gerbil without a mate can’t pass on its genes. Grief may encourage it to do so.
What to Do When a Gerbil Dies
When a gerbil dies and leaves behind a friend, you must do something or it will take a long time to recover. If you help it, it will still grieve, but won’t be as sad.
Clean the Cage
When a gerbil partner dies, take the body of the dead gerbil away. If the gerbil was ill, then whatever made it ill could pass to the other gerbil. You should then bury it in the yard.
Then, you’re left with a grieving pet. The first step is to clean its cage. Take your remaining gerbil and put it somewhere safe, e.g. in its travel cage. Give it bedding, food, etc. as you usually would.
Take your pet’s cage and clean it completely. Take out all the bedding, and everything that’s inside. Throw the bedding away, and clean the tank with an antibacterial spray.
The purpose of doing so is to get rid of the smell of your gerbil’s old friend. According to Behavior Research Methods & Instrumentation, gerbils scent mark frequently. These smells remain behind for a long time. You have to clean them away.
This might seem sad, but it’s necessary. Your remaining gerbil will forget about its loss sooner. You must also clean all of your pet’s toys thoroughly. Then, put your remaining gerbil back in its cage.
Getting a New Gerbil
Gerbils shouldn’t live alone, whether they’re young or old. They are social creatures, and have unique behaviors that they display when other gerbils are around (e.g. more scent marking, fighting, etc).
When gerbils are kept alone, they may display behaviors consistent with depression and stress. According to PLoS One, they may also show behaviors called stereotypies which consist of excess digging and cage bar biting. Like people, gerbils get lonely and unhappy if they are alone too long.
So, you should introduce your grieving gerbil to a new friend. But this isn’t as simple as putting a new gerbil in the same cage. You have to get them used to each other with the split cage method:
- Take a cage and put a divider in it. The divider should run from one side of the cage to the other, firmly so that the gerbils can’t knock it down. Alternatively, buy a split cage (they are available online or in stores).
- Take your gerbil’s bedding and put it on both sides of the cage.
- Put one gerbil on one side of the cage, and the other on the other.
- Swap the gerbils from one side to the other, twice a day.
Each side of the cage needs everything that a gerbil needs, i.e. bedding, a chew toy, a wheel, and water. You can’t put the two gerbils together without doing the above. If you do, the gerbils will hate each other. According to Nature, you’ll see behaviors like drumming, plus wrestling and biting.
Spend Time with Your Gerbil
You must also spend lots of time with your pet, perhaps even more than before. Frequent handling and playing will help your pet forget its loss quicker. It will also provide much-needed social interaction, which it isn’t getting on its own.
Treat your pet with care and gentleness during this time. Don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t want to spend time with you at first. Through gently encouraging it, you can help it to recover sooner.