gerbils memory span
Questions About Gerbils

Do Gerbils Have Memory?

The memory of gerbils is a subject that isn’t well understood by scientists. Gerbils can certainly remember some things, like their owners, but we don’t know exactly what they can recall.

Gerbils remember their owners through their smell and appearance. They remember cage-mate gerbils, and can learn tricks and their names. Gerbils won’t forget if you’re mean to them, e.g. you hit them, but will also remember that they trust you. However, whether gerbils can recall information or only have instinctive memory is unclear.

Memory isn’t a trait that’s unique to humans. Other animals can form memories, and often better than we realize. Gerbils are one such animal.

Do Gerbils Remember Things?

Some claim that gerbils only have a memory of a few days. However, this isn’t true. Gerbils remember their owners for far longer.

Gerbils aren’t famed for their memories, and they can’t remember things as well as humans. But they can certainly learn and remember things, even from a long time ago. They can learn things like basic commands, names, which people are nice/unpleasant, and much more.

However, what isn’t clear is what kind of memory gerbils have, and how long that memory lasts.

Two Kinds of Gerbil Memory

The first is instinctive memory. Once you’ve learned it, you don’t have to think hard to remember. It comes to you naturally.

This kind of memory is common to most animals. Even basic animals will remember negative stimuli for a long time, and try to avoid them. This basic memory is essential for survival in the wild.

The other is recall memory. This is where an animal thinks back to prior experiences and tries to understand them, or remember things about them. This approach is analytical and conscious rather than automatic.

Gerbils may or may not have this kind of memory. Only advanced animals have this kind of memory, because it requires analytical ability and an advanced brain.

What Can Gerbils Remember?

There are many things that gerbils can remember. Here is a table detailing what they remember about the world and their owners:

What Do Gerbils Remember?How Do We Know?
Their ownersIf you’re kind to your gerbil, it will learn to trust you. They can also remember people who are mean to them.
Other gerbilsGerbils can live in friendly groups. They remember their friends through their sense of smell.
Certain noises e.g. namesGerbils can learn to recognize their names, although it isn’t clear whether they know what ‘names’ are, and aren’t only responding to the noise.
Tricks like rolling overLots of people have trained gerbils to do basic tricks.
Mazes and layoutsGerbils have been scientifically tested to see whether they can learn where things are in relation to landmarks

So, even though you can’t read a gerbil’s mind, you can be sure that it remembers some things.

Do Gerbils Remember Their Owners?

Every experienced owner knows that their gerbil remembers them. It takes a long time to get a gerbil to trust you, but once it does, it will forever. It will only stop trusting you if you do something mean to it.

You can tell that this is the case because of how your gerbil acts. When it’s around you, it will be trusting and happy. It will enjoy sitting in your hand and perhaps even cuddling. But if a stranger tried to pick it up, your gerbil would run away. That’s because it recognizes you, but not the other person.

Gerbils can recognize their owners in many ways. There’s how you look, although gerbils don’t have good eyesight. There’s also how you smell, which gerbils can pick up on better. Plus there’s how you act. If you’re experienced with gerbils, your pet will be more comfortable with you.

This only makes sense if your gerbil can form a memory of its owner. How complex this memory isn’t clear. But there is some form of recognition, at least.

Will Gerbils Remember if You’re Mean?

Gerbils will immediately react if you do something mean to them. For example, if you flick or hit your gerbil, it will flinch and try to get away from you. But it will also remember what you did for a long time.

If you repeatedly do mean things, it will learn that you aren’t to be trusted. It will stop wanting to spend time with you, and stop letting you pick it up. This wouldn’t make sense if your gerbil didn’t remember that you’re mean.

Whether your gerbil remembers events of the past, i.e. when you hit it, isn’t certain. But what does happen is that your gerbil remembers it doesn’t like you when you’re mean. This is most likely an instinctual reaction.

Can Gerbils Remember Other Gerbils?

Gerbils form strong bonds with other gerbils. They can remember which gerbils are their friends, and which gerbils they don’t like. However, it’s not clear how long a gerbil will remember this information.

Again, gerbils use their sense of smell to remember other gerbils. They both scent mark their cage to claim it as territory. Each gerbil will remember the scent of the other, which is how they know that they’re friends.

It’s easy for gerbils to fall out, though. When they do, this is known as declanning, and they have to be separated. Once declanning happens, the two won’t become friends again if they’re left together. So, any memory of their former friendship either isn’t there or isn’t relevant.

To make the gerbils friends again, you must introduce them through the split cage method. However, you can do this with any gerbils, not just that were formerly friends. So, it’s not clear how well gerbils can remember their old friends.

gerbil memory

Can You Train a Gerbil?

It is possible to train a gerbil, but not as much as other pets. Gerbils are known to learn their names, and learn what certain noises mean.

One study, for example, showed that gerbils can learn the difference between the noises ‘oo’ and ‘ee’. Scientists placed food under one of two cups. If the food was on one side, they would play an ‘oo’ noise. On the other, and they would play an ‘ee’ noise.

Gerbils can eventually learn the difference between the two. At first, they would look under each cup randomly. But over time, they could go to the correct cup once the noise was played.

Gerbils can also learn to navigate mazes, and will remember how to over time. A study in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior shows that they can learn mazes quickly, and recall where things were in the maze to find food.

They can also learn where things are in relation to other things. According to the Journal of Comparative Physiology, they can learn where things are in relation to landmarks.

Again, what isn’t clear is how much gerbils remember because they recall things, or because of their instincts. They could instinctively remember which way to go, the same as we can remember which way it is to walk to the park. Or, they could think hard and recall.

How Long is a Gerbil’s Memory Span?

While it’s clear that gerbils do have memory spans, what is less clear is how long a gerbil can remember something for.

There haven’t been any studies yet looking at how long a gerbil can remember something for. Scientists haven’t studied the question in any depth as of yet. They have studied things like how gerbils remember mazes, but not how long they remember them for.

However, they can certainly retain memories for a long time. If you go away for a week, for example, your gerbil will remember who you are when you get back.

If you were away for an extended period, your gerbil may not be friendly when you get back. This may be because it doesn’t remember you. It may also be because it doesn’t trust you, as you’ve been away for a long time. It’s impossible to tell which reason is the one that applies.

How to Make a Gerbil Remember You

If you want your gerbil to remember you, the best way to do so is to stimulate its sense of smell. Gerbils can see, hear, smell and feel like other animals can. But the journal Behavioral Neuroscience states that they rely on their sense of smell to recognize other gerbils and their owners.

As such, helping your gerbil remember you involves several things:

  • Let your gerbil sniff your hand whenever you go to handle it. This is your pet saying ‘Hello!’ and figuring out who you are.
  • When you handle your gerbil, wear a sweater that smells like you. Any clothing will work, but sweaters hold onto scents well.
  • Leave something that smells like you close to your gerbil’s cage. An old piece of clothing, for example, works well.

Leaving something with your gerbil is especially useful if you’re planning on going on vacation. The longer the period of vacation, the more important this is. Otherwise, your gerbils may not recognize you when you get back.