Gerbils are normally sociable creatures that get along well with owners. But they can also nip and bite you, and not want to be handled. It can be difficult to know why this happens.
Gerbils are afraid of their owners because they’re much smaller. You may also handle your gerbil incorrectly, frequently, or not often enough. The issue may be loud noises or quick movements. If you haven’t owned your gerbil long, allow a few months for it to trust you.
Correctly supporting your gerbil in your hands, and not gripping it too tightly, helps. Handling every other day is the correct amount for most gerbils. Stick to these guidelines and your gerbil will feel more comfortable.
Reasons for a Scared Gerbil
There are things you might do by accident that make your gerbil scared. Here’s a table listing each reason, and describing how you can fix it:
|Reason||What It Means||Fix|
|You are bigger than your gerbil||Applies to children and adults alike||Don’t loom over your gerbil or make yourself look bigger than you do|
|You just bought your gerbil||Applies for the first few months after gerbil ownership||Your gerbil will naturally trust you more over time if you’re kind to it|
|Handling gerbil too much||Runs from your hand, nips you when you handle it, you try to handle your gerbil every day||Handle your gerbil less often, and for brief periods of time|
|Handling gerbil too little||Runs from your hand, nips you when you handle it, you try to handle your pet once a week or less||Your gerbil may not be comfortable with you because it doesn’t know you well enough, so handling it more may help|
|Incorrect gerbil handling||Runs from your hand, nips you when you handle it, you grip your gerbil too hard, or don’t support its body fully||Learn how to properly handle your gerbil|
|Loud Noises||Foot thumping, hiding in burrow, biting you (if currently handling)||Quieter living environment. Turn the TV off, block our street noise, and no shouting|
|Quick Movements||Foot thumping, hiding in a burrow, biting you (if currently handling)||Don’t stand up too fast or wave your arms around. Don’t swoop down on your gerbil when picking it up|
|You aren’t a kind owner||You hit your gerbil, flick it, treat it cruelly or keep it in bad living conditions||Fix whatever you’re doing wrong in your gerbil’s care|
Humans Are Big and Gerbils Are Very Small
Gerbils are one of the smallest pets available. They reach an adult size of around four inches, plus a four-inch tail. There are other rodent pets that are smaller, but not much smaller than this.
Other household pets are still small, but can at least defend themselves when attacked with fangs or claws. These claws and fangs are big and sharp for maximum damage.
Gerbils can try to do so, but will be out-matched by a bigger animal every time. According to Nature, their teeth are long and sharp, but not big enough to do significant damage to an animal of our size. This makes your gerbil naturally wary of people.
This means that when your gerbil first meets you, it won’t like you. But even if it has known you for a long time, this difference won’t go away. Your gerbil will still feel vulnerable around people.
You can encourage your gerbil to trust you over time. This will lessen its nerves, and make it trust you more. But you will always be a potential threat to your gerbil, even if you mean well. You can also make yourself appear smaller in several ways:
- Not wearing big, baggy items of clothing
- Not holding your arms out wide
- Not looming over your gerbil, e.g. when you pick it up
Only Recently Got Your Gerbil
If you don’t have a relationship with your gerbil, it will naturally feel scared of you. It doesn’t yet know if you’re a friend or foe.
However, this issue will go away eventually on its own. All you have to do is treat your gerbil well, feed it, and it will grow to trust you more.
Handling Your Gerbil Too Much
This might not make sense at first. After all, you’re only being kind and spending lots of time with your gerbil. It seems like the right thing to do.
Wild gerbils don’t encounter humans. And when they do, the humans aren’t kind and well-meaning. Gerbils are wild animals that have figured out how to survive, and will avoid larger animals.
It’s only over time that a gerbil comes to trust a person. But even then, it will have its limits. For example, if you tried to handle your gerbil for a whole day, it wouldn’t like it. It would want to spend some time alone. You can tell this is the case because:
- Your gerbil isn’t excited when you come to handle it, and it may hide
- Your gerbil moves away from your hand when you reach into its cage
- Your gerbil nips you when you pick it up
To avoid this issue, spend less time with your gerbil. Try halving how much you handle your pet. So, if you handle your gerbil every day, try every other day instead.
Every gerbil is different. Some gerbils will enjoy spending time with their owners every day. Others won’t want to be near you that often. The solution is to find what’s right for your pet, so generalized advice doesn’t apply.
Handling Gerbil Too Little
Gerbils require frequent socialization to get used to a person. This applies regardless of whether you recently bought your pet or not.
The signs are the same as when you handle your gerbil too much. So, your pet won’t be excited when you come to handle it. It will bite at your hand if you try to pick it up. It may try to run away when you pick it up.
Handling once every other day is a good guideline. If you handle your pet once a week, this may not be enough for it to get used to you. Begin by:
- Sitting near your gerbil’s cage for extended periods
- Staying closer to your gerbil’s cage while it eats, so that it learns that you’re not a threat to its welfare
- Reaching into your gerbil’s cage with both hands to scoop your gerbil from underneath
If your gerbil still doesn’t like you, and you’ve tried handling it both frequently and infrequently, you may not be the problem. While most gerbils are sociable, some are unfriendly. Gerbils have their own personalities, which you can’t change that much.
So, your gerbil may dislike being handled. If that’s the case, you’ll have to stop trying to handle your gerbil altogether.
You Handle Your Gerbil Wrongly
The main problem new owners encounter is that they grip their gerbil too hard. If it’s wriggling a lot, don’t grip it harder. This makes it dislike you. Instead, pass it from hand to hand as it moves. Allow it a little freedom.
Another common problem is that people don’t support their gerbil’s body properly. It may feel like it’s going to fall. You should keep a hand underneath the core of its body at all times, so that it isn’t scared.
Sudden Loud Noises
You can easily spot if your gerbils are startled for any reason. When they are, they will start foot stomping. According to Psychonomic Science, this is to establish territory, and is a response to anything surprising.
It’s where your gerbil starts rhythmically pounding its back feet, in a quick drumming pattern. As a gerbil owner, you’ll see it a lot.
This is supposed to serve as a warning, so it can be quite loud itself. It’s a warning for other gerbils nearby to quickly hide. It’s also a warning to predators that might be approaching, to make them think they’re approaching a bigger animal than a gerbil.
If your gerbil is consistently frightened by loud noises, it will become afraid of you. So, stop making loud noises around it. This applies both when you’re handling your pet, and when it’s in its cage. The loud noises it’s most frightened of might be:
- From a TV nearby, radio, or kids’ toys
- From you talking or shouting
- From kitchen implements, power tools, etc
- From household goods, like a washing machine or dryer
You should consider moving your gerbil’s cage to somewhere that’s quieter. This should make your pet calmer. And, of course, be quieter when you handle your gerbil.
Sudden movements are something that will alarm your gerbil. Your pet’s natural instincts kick in, and it tries to reach somewhere safe.
You could be the one making the quick movements. If you make them when you’re handling your gerbil, this will make your pet afraid. But they’re also afraid of movement that they see, which reminds them of predators.
According to Ecology, gerbil species will hide when they sense hungry predators nearby. Quick movements and loud noises are two key signs that there may be a predator somewhere close.
You Aren’t a Kind Owner
Punishing your gerbil for any reason can make it dislike you, even if it did do something wrong. Gerbils don’t understand cause and effect, so punishment isn’t effective.
You may also hit, flick, or push your gerbil. This will teach it to dislike you. You should also ensure that your gerbil’s living conditions are adequate. Bad conditions and illnesses can make your pet act out.