Your gerbil’s fur should always be sleek, shiny, and healthy-looking. If it’s dirty or oily, your gerbil might need a bath. But gerbils have a unique way of bathing, which doesn’t involve water at all.
Gerbils have sand baths, also called “dust baths.” These are containers filled with sand that your gerbil can roll around in. The sand helps dislodge dirt from gerbils’ fur, and soak up any excess oil. You should never give a gerbil a water bath as this could frighten or hurt your gerbil.
We’ll explore how gerbils keep clean. We’ll explain how to make your own gerbil sand bath, and how often your gerbil should use it. We’ll also discuss how to spot-clean your gerbil, and whether you should ever wash your gerbil with water.
Are Gerbils Clean Animals?
Gerbils are some of the cleanest pets. They don’t smell, and their bedding only needs to be fully replaced once a month.
According to Behavioral and Neural Biology, gerbils recognize each other by the scent of their urine. But because they adapted to life in the desert, gerbils don’t pee very often. This means that gerbils’ cages don’t smell as much as other animals’.
Gerbils do poop a lot, but they are particular about where they go to the bathroom. Most gerbils choose one spot in their cage to relieve themselves. They don’t usually poop where they eat or sleep, nor in the tunnels that they dig.
Pet gerbils don’t often get dirty. But their fur can occasionally become oily. When this happens, gerbils get clean by bathing in sand.
How Do Gerbils Bathe?
Sand bathing is an evolutionary adaptation that wild gerbils developed, due to a scarcity of water. In the desert, it’s not easy to find a puddle to wash in.
To clean themselves, gerbils roll around in the sand until their fur is coated with sand. They then shake off the excess sand, and the bath is done.
Sand baths help gerbils keep clean in two ways:
- Any dirt, poop, or food that is stuck in the gerbil’s fur gets dislodged and falls out.
- Any excess oil coating the gerbil’s fur gets soaked up.
You might be wondering: do gerbils clean themselves in any other way? As well as bathing in the sand, gerbils also groom themselves using their tongues.
This is a habit that some gerbils display more than others. If your gerbil is grooming itself, it means it’s relaxed and happy. You may also notice gerbils grooming each other as a sign of trust.
But in order to stay looking their best, all gerbils need sand baths from time to time.
How to Set Up a Gerbil Sand Bath
Gerbil sand baths are simple and quick to set up. All you will need is a container to use as the bath, and sand to fill it.
You will also need a product to clean it with, such as a disinfectant spray or antibacterial soap.
Gerbil Sand Bath Container Options
There are many options when it comes to choosing a gerbil sand bath.
Regarding material, you can use a container made out of plastic, glass, or ceramic. It doesn’t matter which material you choose.
However, be wary that gerbils can chew through plastic. So if you’re planning to leave your gerbil unsupervised, glass or ceramic are the best options. Popular gerbil sand bath containers include:
- Ceramic dog bowls. These are widely available at pet stores. They’re sturdy, hard to tip over, and large enough for gerbils to bathe in.
- Glass jars
- Purpose-built small animal baths. Ceramic versions, such as the
Kaytee Ceramic Critter Bath, are particularly popular. But plastic ones, such as the SatisPet Sand Bathroom, are also available.
- Plastic Tupperware containers. These are by far the cheapest option, but not too sturdy.
When choosing a sand bath, ensure it’s large enough for your gerbil. Sand baths designed for hamsters can sometimes be too small. Your gerbil should have enough room to roll around inside. The container’s walls should be tall enough to prevent sand from escaping.
Also, don’t pick a container that has too small an opening. You’ll need to be able to clean inside it thoroughly.
If you’re leaving the sand bath inside the gerbilarium, set it up so that it won’t tip over. Tall containers, such as mason jars, should be sturdily embedded in the substrate.
What Sand Do You Use for Gerbils?
You can’t just use any sand for your gerbil’s sand bath. It has to be clean, filtered, and good-quality. Builder’s sand and sand that is taken straight from a beach aren’t appropriate.
Choose sand that is specifically labeled as suitable for animals. A good brand is Zoo Med ReptiSand. Although it’s labeled for reptile use, it is good quality sand that is also suitable for rodents.
Be careful not to purchase calcium sand. This is not the same thing as regular sand, and not safe for gerbils.
Another alternative is play sand, designed for children’s sandboxes. It’s filtered and held to a high standard. Avoid sand that has been dyed.
Some people use the term ‘dust bath’ to refer to gerbil sand baths. This is a little misleading, and can make people wonder: do gerbils need dust baths, or sand baths?
Never use dust for your gerbil’s bath. “Bathing dust” and “bathing powder” contain small particles, and can cause respiratory problems and conjunctivitis. The Canadian Veterinary Journal noted a case of conjunctivitis in chinchillas, potentially caused or exacerbated by dust bathing.
How to Sterilize Sand for Gerbils
Sand sold for animals and children’s sandboxes is usually clean and safe right out of the packet. But you can’t be too careful.
Before setting up your gerbil’s sand bath, it’s a good idea to sterilize the sand first. This will kill any bacteria or bugs that might be present in the sand. To sterilize sand for gerbils, follow these steps.
- Empty the sand into a large, watertight bowl.
- Boil a pot of water and pour it onto the sand to completely cover it.
- After letting it sit for 5-10 minutes, stir the sand to loosen any dirt. Then, drain it completely.
- Spread the drained sand in a thin layer on a baking sheet.
- Bake the sand at 180 degrees Fahrenheit until completely dry. This will take around 30 minutes.
Allow the sand to cool completely before using it in your gerbil’s sand bath.
How to Clean a Gerbil Sand Bath
Each time your gerbil has a sand bath, you should clean both the sand and the container afterwards.
Gerbils often poop in their sand baths, and sometimes bits of dirt and debris can come off in the sand. A dirty sand bath won’t fulfill its purpose of keeping your gerbil clean. Here’s how to clean a sand bath properly:
- Pour out the sand into a separate container.
- Wash the bath. Soak it in warm water and scrub it with a clean sponge or brush. Use a mild disinfectant that is labeled as safe for food preparation areas.
- Rinse the bath fully, to remove any traces of disinfectant.
- Dry the bath completely. Either allow it to air-dry, or dry it with a clean, lint-free towel.
- Filter the sand in a separate container, using a fine-mesh strainer. Discard any dirt or sand that has clumped together. You don’t need to wash the sand.
Store the sieved sand in a lidded container to use next time. Next time your gerbil needs it, place the sand back into the clean sand bath. Top it up with fresh sand straight from the packet.
If you choose to leave the sand bath permanently in the gerbilarium, remove it to clean it regularly. At least once a week is recommended, but you can clean it more often if you like.
Every 6 to 8 weeks, you should sterilize old sand following the above steps, to prevent bacteria growth. Alternatively, you can throw away the old sand and replace it with fresh.
How Often Do Gerbils Need Sand Baths?
Most gerbils need sand baths roughly once per week. But if your gerbil gets dirty more often than this, you can offer the sand bath more frequently. Black and darker-colored fur tend to get greasy more quickly.
To give your gerbil a sand bath, fill the container with clean sand and place it in the gerbilarium. Your gerbil will likely come and investigate the new object, and climb in willingly. Once it realizes what it’s for, it should start to roll around in the sand.
If your gerbil doesn’t seem willing to investigate the bath, you can encourage it. Gently scoop your gerbil up from underneath, and place it into the bath.
Don’t be tempted to “help” your gerbil bathe. You don’t need to pour sand on top of your gerbil, or interfere in any way. If you do, you might accidentally get sand in its eyes, which would be painful.
It’s not necessary to supervise your gerbil while it bathes, but you can if you wish. Leave the bath in the enclosure for 10 to 20 minutes, then remove it and clean it.
Some gerbil owners prefer the sand bath to be a permanent fixture in the gerbilarium. This won’t harm your gerbil. But your gerbil may use its bath as a toilet, so take it out to clean it regularly.
Can You Give Gerbils a Water Bath?
Gerbils originate from desert regions. Their wild environment is so dry that they rarely encounter water.
Even the water in a wild gerbil’s diet comes mostly from the vegetation that they eat. According to Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology, gerbils instinctively alter their diets in times of water scarcity.
Because water is so scarce, gerbils have adapted to keep clean by bathing in dust and sand. Their fur has evolved to keep clean without the need for contact with water.
If you gave your gerbil a water bath, it wouldn’t enjoy it, and it may cause harm.
Gerbils dislike being submerged in water, and it stresses them out. Stress can be bad for gerbils, and extreme stress can result in seizures or death.
Washing gerbils also removes the natural oil that coats their fur, and keeps it protected. Bathing a gerbil in water can make their skin over-produce oil, and get irritated.
Being small animals, gerbils also get cold quickly. Being wet will make your gerbil susceptible to cold, even if you use warm water. It could freeze to death, or develop a respiratory illness.
All in all, it’s never permissible to bathe a gerbil in water. If your gerbil gets dirty, a sand bath should sort it out in no time. If not, follow the below advice to manually clean your gerbil.
How to Clean a Gerbil
By offering your gerbil a regular sand bath, there should be no need to manually clean your gerbil. The sand should dislodge any dirt and debris from your gerbil’s fur. It will also soak up any oil that builds up.
But from time to time, you may notice that your gerbil gets a bit dirty. It might roll in its own poop, or get something stuck in its fur that won’t come out. For instance, a piece of fruit.
And although it’s rare, some gerbils don’t like using sand baths at all. In this case, you may wish to try to clean your gerbil yourself. Here’s how to do it safely:
- Comb your gerbil’s fur. Use a small, soft brush, such as a toothbrush. You could also use a brush designed for small animals.
- Use a damp cloth to spot-clean your gerbil. Wring it out so that it’s barely damp. Gently wipe your gerbil’s fur, in the direction of the hair growth. You could also use an unscented, chemical-free baby wipe.
Only attempt the above if your gerbil trusts you, and is completely comfortable being held. If your gerbil becomes distressed at any point, stop what you’re doing and try again another time.
By following our above advice, your gerbil should always have a clean, shiny coat. If not, it could be a sign of an underlying health condition. If you’re ever unsure about your gerbil’s health, take it to an experienced exotic pet veterinarian.