gerbils eyes won't open
Gerbil Health

Why Are My Gerbil’s Eyes Closed?

If a gerbil can’t open its eyes, or its eyes are half shut all the time, it may mean your gerbil is ill.

Gerbils close their eyes when they sleep. Gerbils sleep at odd hours, like during the day. They are susceptible to eye infections (conjunctivitis), and can be allergic to wood shavings as bedding. Gerbils’ eyes also close for a long time when they’re dying.

Conjunctivitis and colds in gerbils will gradually get better over time. In the case of allergic reactions, you have to take action by changing your gerbil’s bedding. Otherwise, it won’t go away.

Why Are My Gerbil’s Eyes Shut?

Gerbils are social creatures. They move around constantly and interact with other gerbils, and you, a lot. They use their sight like any other animal, to see what they’re doing. When your gerbil can’t open its eyes, or one of its eyes, this can be a bad sign.

Gerbil Is Asleep

Gerbils in the wild are nocturnal, which means they’re most active at night. According to the journal Physiology and Behavior, they may also be described as ‘crepuscular’, which means they’re highly active at dusk and dawn. This innate behavior carries over into captivity.

You may notice that your gerbil is active at strange times. Many owners say their gerbils are most active at around midnight. However, gerbils will also have rest periods throughout the night, so they won’t be active all the time.

Given that they’re active during the night, gerbils have to sleep during the day sometimes. This might explain why they frequently have their eyes closed when you check on them.

gerbil’s eyes shut

How to Tell If a Gerbil Is Sleeping

When gerbils are sleeping, they hide in their burrows. Again, this is a behavior they developed in the wild. That’s because gerbils are small and vulnerable creatures, and could be eaten if they didn’t. This means you aren’t likely to see your gerbil sleeping.

Gerbils also sleep at specified times. So, if it’s the normal time that your gerbil sleeps, then it’s probably sleeping. You could keep a track of your gerbil’s sleeping hours, but it’s normally self-evident when it’s asleep. That’s because:

  • Your gerbil will be sitting still in its burrow
  • Your gerbil will have its eyes closed

If your gerbil is sleeping but at a different time to usual, don’t worry. It may have been awake for longer than usual because it was mating, fighting, or playing. There’s nothing you need to do to ‘fix’ this situation.

Gerbil Is Dead or Dying

When a gerbil is severely ill and close to death, there are many symptoms you might notice. One of them is that it keeps its eyes closed or half-closed for long periods of time.

Of course, the reason why your gerbil is dying isn’t necessarily clear. It could be anything from tumors, to kidney failure, to simple old age. The exact treatment depends on what’s wrong. That’s something only a vet can properly determine.

How to Tell If a Gerbil is Dying

No matter how much you interact with your gerbil, it won’t open its eyes. At most, it might open them a little. Its eyes may be stuck shut with a mucus-like substance, too. However, there are many other symptoms to spot. These include:

  • Lethargic. This means that your gerbil won’t move around much. When it does move, it’s slow and sluggish. It will spend almost all day sleeping.
  • Wobbling and stumbling. It can hardly support itself on its feet.
  • Lost weight recently. Gerbils avoid food shortly before they die. This may be an evolutionary adaptation where it leaves food for other, healthier gerbils that need the food more.
  • If your gerbil does eat, it does so slowly, and as if it doesn’t want to.
  • Floppy and unresponsive when you pick it up. It also won’t respond to sights, sounds and smells, even scary ones.
  • The fur is duller than it used to be.

As a pet owner, you know what your pet’s usual behavior is. So when your gerbil is acting and looking different, you can immediately tell that something is wrong.

How to Tell If a Gerbil is Dead

If your gerbil’s eyes won’t open, and it won’t move, then it may have passed on. This might seem obvious, but it’s easy to confuse a gerbil being asleep for it being dead. That’s why you should check for other signs that your gerbil has passed away. These include:

  • Cold. When a gerbil dies, it stops producing body heat.
  • Not breathing. When animals die, they lose control of their bodily functions. The brain stops telling the body to do things like breathe.
  • The body has become stiff. Animals that die go through a process called rigor mortis, where they become stiff and solid.

To be clear, gerbils don’t hibernate. So if it has been hiding in a burrow for a long time, it won’t be hibernating, but it may have passed away.

Gerbil Allergic to Bedding

According to Clinical & Experimental Allergy, you can be allergic to gerbils. But what you may not know is that gerbils can be allergic to things too.

This reason isn’t as common as the others, because most beddings for gerbils are fine. However, gerbils are allergic to some kinds of wood like pine and cedar. They are often allergic to wood shavings used as bedding.

Another reason why a gerbil may be allergic to bedding is if it contains dust. Gerbils don’t like dusty bedding because they accidentally breathe it in. It also gets into their eyes, and makes them weepy.

And according to IOVS, rodents can be allergic to other things. Anything dusty like cat dander can cause an allergic reaction in rodents, as shown in this study. So, if you have other pets, that may be what’s causing your gerbil’s allergies instead.

How to Tell Your Gerbil is Allergic to Bedding

It’s easy to tell this apart from the other reasons for your gerbil’s eyes to be closed. The first symptom you’ll see is that their eyes are runny, gunky and may even become sealed shut. This occurs because the gerbil’s eyes keep running, because of its allergy.

This can look quite worrying, because gerbils’ eyes run red when this happens. The red stuff isn’t blood, but a substance called porphyrin. This is a product of hemoglobin, but doesn’t mean your gerbil’s eyes are actually bleeding. Other signs that your gerbil is allergic to bedding include:

  • Both of your gerbil’s eyes are affected
  • If you have more than one gerbil, it will all be affected in the same way
  • Wheezing breath
  • Frequent sneezing

You have to find new bedding for your gerbil. Rather than using wood, pick a bedding made from shredded paper or card, or hay. You can also use your own shredded paper, but avoid any that has staples or ink in it.

Gerbil Eye Infection

If your gerbil has one eye closed, then an eye infection is the most likely cause. That’s because infections only affect one eye, unless your gerbil is unlucky.

Infections are caused by bacteria getting into an open wound. People can get infections, and in people, an eye infection is also known as conjunctivitis. That’s the scientific name for an eye infection in any animal.

Conjunctivitis has several symptoms which characteristically appear. These include redness and swelling, as well as seepage. But despite symptoms being the same, the cause can differ.

Causes of Gerbil Eye Infection

The cause of an eye infection is bacteria. Bacteria can only be present in large numbers in an unclean environment. So, the dirtier your gerbil’s cage, the more likely infection becomes.

However, the way that these bacteria attacks the eye isn’t always the same. To infect the eye, the bacteria needs a way in. It gets in through a cut or a scrape. There are several ways that these scratches can occur:

  • From fighting. Gerbils are vicious and can fight frequently. A claw scratch, or even worse a bite, can damage the eye and let infection in.
  • From hay. Hay can be surprisingly sharp, and can scratch your gerbil’s eyes.

Hay is the most likely cause. It may be present in your gerbil’s bedding. And because your gerbil goes to the toilet in its enclosure, that’s how bacteria gets spread.

But worse is that a small piece of hay can break off and get stuck in your gerbil’s eye. This causes extensive irritation and will prolong how long the infection lasts.

Symptoms of Gerbil Eye Infection

One common reason why gerbils keep their eye or eyes closed is infection. Gerbils can get eye infections which cause pain and difficulty seeing. This infection has similar symptoms to conjunctivitis in people, such as:

  • Swelling. Infection results in swelling because the body produces bacteria-killing cells that travel through the blood. The area swells so that more blood can access it.
  • Redness. Because swelling fills an area with blood, the swollen spot becomes red. The area around your gerbil’s eyes will become enlarged, puffy and red because of that.
  • Bleeding. The area that became infected may have bled. This blood may have dried.

Other gerbils have the same symptoms. Conjunctivitis is contagious. But also, the same problem (a scratch from hay, for example) could have happened to multiple hamsters.

Infections cause irritation, so your gerbil may repeatedly scratch or rub its eye. This can cause bleeding. So, look out for this behavior too.

gerbil has one eye closed

How to Treat Gerbil Eye Infection

To kill bacteria, you need antibiotics. You should see a vet if you want some, because the dosage of antibiotics for people or other animals would be wrong and could kill your pet. Administering these antibiotics can be tricky, so follow this procedure:

  1. Antibiotics are administered by a small syringe. They aren’t injected, but squirted into the gerbil’s mouth. So, take the syringe and a small towel to prepare. Place the towel on your lap.
  2. Take your gerbil and allow it to run around on your lap. Your vet may advise you that now is the time to check for symptoms, and whether they’re getting better or worse.
  3. Take the gerbil in your left hand and hold the syringe in your right. Hold the gerbil up and move the syringe to its mouth, against its lips. The gerbil should open its mouth. If it doesn’t, push the side of its mouth with the syringe gently. Squirt all of the syringe’s contents in one go into your gerbil’s mouth. Hold the syringe at a slight angle so that the contents go into your gerbil’s mouth, not straight down its throat.
  4. If there is any antibiotic left over, squirt it onto a treat for the gerbil to eat. Gerbil mix is good because many brands are quite absorbent. Allow your gerbil to sit on your lap while it rests.
  5. Put your gerbil back into its enclosure.

If you can’t afford a vet, consider using saltwater. Dip a Q-Tip in saltwater and dab your gerbil’s infected eye each day. This may be enough to get rid of the infection, although it won’t be as effective as antibiotics.

However, there are several other things you can do to treat your gerbil’s eye infection. The first is to ensure that its enclosure is clean at all times. Regularly changing your gerbil’s bedding, and spraying occasionally with an antibacterial spray, is sufficient.

If the problem is a piece of hay in your gerbil’s eye, don’t try to remove it yourself. Doing so would cause more damage. The only option is to either leave it, or allow a vet to try and remove it.

Eye Infection vs. Allergic Reaction vs. Cold

However, the problem may not be an eye infection. It could be an allergic reaction or a cold, which both have similar symptoms to conjunctivitis.

Despite the symptoms being the same, treatment isn’t, which is why you have to tell the difference. Here’s a table of the differences in symptoms you might expect to see.

Eye InfectionColdAllergic Reaction
One runny eye, unless both are infectedRunny eyes and noseRunny eyes and nose
Blood around the eyes from irritation, plus porphyrin from the eyes runningWhat looks like blood (porphyrin)What looks like blood (porphyrin)
No wheezing breathWheezing breathWheezing breath

As you can tell, these symptoms are all quite similar. That’s why people confuse these three issues with one another. Once you’ve owned gerbils for a long time, you can tell the difference.

You could try an experiment to see what the issue is. Start by checking your gerbil’s bedding. If it’s wood shavings, then this may be the issue. If all of your gerbils are equally affected, it’s likely an allergic reaction.

If only some of your gerbils are experiencing issues, then it may be a contagious condition. Keep track of which gerbil is sick at which time and you may see it passing from one to another. This would suggest it’s either an infection or a cold.

If you still can’t figure it out, and you’re worried, take your pet to the vet.

Gerbil Eye Wound from Fighting

Another reason why your gerbil’s eye might be closed is from fighting. A scratch or bite to your gerbil’s eye can cause an infection. But it’s also possible for worse wounds to be inflicted.

Gerbils are surprisingly aggressive with one another in certain contexts. When there are too many females in a group, for example, the dominant female may attack some of the subordinate females. Her intention is to get them to leave. This is known as de-clanning.

When they fight, gerbils frequently fight to the death. That’s why you should note any signs of de-clanning, and separate the subordinate female as soon as possible.

How to Treat Eye Wounds in Gerbils

Separate the recipient of the attack from the other gerbils. Gerbils can kill one another in fights like these, so unless you want to lose your pet, separate it from the rest.

If left untreated, a severe wound to your gerbil’s eye or eyes could kill it. That’s because it could become heavily infected, which leads to sepsis. Sepsis is an infection of the blood, and can kill within hours.

You’ll have to follow the same process as above with antibiotics. Again, acquire these from a vet because giving a gerbil too much of an antibiotic could be poisonous.

If you can’t afford a vet’s bill, consider using saltwater. Again, use a Q-Tip to dab your gerbil’s eyes with it. Saltwater has the added benefit of cleaning away any blood that may have dried around your gerbil’s face.

Your gerbil may not want you to do this. The wound may be quite severe and painful. If that’s the case, you’ll have no option but to allow it to heal.

Why Are My Gerbil’s Eyes Half Closed?

If your gerbil is sat in its cage relaxing, don’t be surprised if its eyes are half closed. Like humans, gerbils become relaxed when they’re tired. Their eyes may start to close because they’re falling asleep. This is nothing to worry about.

However, if your gerbil’s eyes are permanently half closed, that’s a problem. The most common reason for a gerbil to have its eyes half closed like this is that it’s dying. This is a late-stage symptom and will appear alongside the other symptoms listed above.

If both eyes are shut, it may be that both are infected with conjunctivitis. But this is uncommon. If you’ve ever had an eye infection, you’ll know that it affects only one eye. It’s only if you’re unlucky that it gets in both.

How to Help a Gerbil That Can’t Open Its Eyes

When you see your gerbil unable to move, you want to help it move around again. In the same way, if its eyes are half shut all the time, you will want to help it open them. However, this may not be possible or useful.

When a gerbil is dying, it’s almost like it’s tired. Have you ever been falling asleep, and tried to keep your eyes open? This is a similar scenario. You can try to help your gerbil open its eyes wider, but they won’t stay open. Treat whatever’s causing your gerbil’s ill health instead.

If the issue is conjunctivitis, though, you can help. Take a Q-Tip or cloth and dab your gerbil’s eyes gently with salted water. This should wipe away any congealed gunk. The salt in the water will kill some of the bacteria, although not as effectively as antibiotics.

If all else fails, take your gerbil to a vet. They will be able to tell you what the issue is, and how you can fix it.