how to prevent red nose in gerbils
Gerbil Health

Why Is Gerbil’s Nose Red? Treating + Preventing Nasal Dermatitis

Red nose disease in gerbils can have many causes. Although it’s not life-threatening, it can be extremely painful and irritating. If untreated, the condition will get worse and spread to other parts of the body.

Red nose in gerbils is a condition called nasal dermatitis. It caused by the gerbil’s Harderian gland overproducing porphyrin (a red fluid that looks like blood). This leads to irritation, inflammation, and sores around the nasal area. It is usually triggered by an allergy, bacterial infection, stress, or an underlying illness.

To treat red nose disease, remove any allergens, such as dusty bedding, from your gerbil’s environment. Keep the cage clean and sterilized, and humidity below 50%. A veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics and soothing ointment to help heal your gerbil’s sore nose.

Why Is My Gerbil’s Nose Sore?

Red nose disease is also called nasal dermatitis, facial dermatitis, or facial eczema. It is a common condition among captive gerbils, but rare in the wild. It is characterized by a red, swollen, and sore nose. The lips and eye area may also be affected by the condition.

Unsurprisingly, nasal dermatitis is uncomfortable. It can be itchy, painful, and irritating for your gerbil. You may notice your gerbil scratching its nose a lot, or rubbing up against the cage bars.

This behavior can lead to hair loss (alopecia), and the formation of sores and ulcers. If untreated, these sores can spread or become infected, leading to yet more irritation.

The definition of dermatitis is quite vague. It can refer to many conditions characterized by skin irritation and inflammation (swelling). But in gerbils, nasal dermatitis has a clear cause. Behind every gerbil’s eyes is a specialized gland called the Harderian gland. This gland secretes a fluid through the eyes and nose that has many functions:

  • It keeps the eyes and nasal passages moist
  • It helps maintain proper body temperature (by holding in heat when spread over the fur during grooming)
  • It contains pheromones that help to attract a mate

But sometimes, the Harderian gland can become overactive. When this happens, it can lead to nasal dermatitis.

Porphyrin And Nasal Dermatitis

The fluid produced by the Harderian gland contains a substance called porphyrin. This is a type of pigment that looks red or purple in color. When the Harderian gland produces too much of it, it can be seen around a gerbil’s nose and eyes.

You might notice that your gerbil has reddish stains in its fur on its facial area. It can look similar to blood, but it’s not. Your gerbil isn’t injured or bleeding, but excess porphyrin can be a sign of poor health.

When a gerbil is sick, exposed to allergens, or is under stress, more porphyrin is produced than normal. It builds up around the gerbil’s eyes, nose, and mouth. As it dries, it can form crusty deposits which are itchy and irritating.

As a result, the gerbil scratches and rubs the area incessantly. This causes nasal dermatitis. The skin becomes inflamed, red, and sore. If whatever is causing the problem isn’t removed, an infection can take hold.

According to the Journal of Anatomy, female gerbils’ Harderian glands have more porphyrin than males’. However, the difference isn’t too extreme. Male and female gerbils are equally likely to get nasal dermatitis.

red nose disease in gerbils

What Causes Red Nose Disease in Gerbils?

We know that a gerbil with a red nose has an over-active Harderian gland. The resulting porphyrin build-up triggers facial dermatitis. But what causes the Harderian gland to malfunction in the first place?   

The most common issues are allergies, infection, husbandry problems, stress, nutrient deficiencies, and underlying illness. Facial dermatitis, or red nose disease, is more common in juvenile gerbils than adults. But gerbils of any sex and age can experience it, even if they never have before.

Allergic Reaction

Most cases of nasal dermatitis in gerbils are caused by an allergy. Although many owners don’t realize it, gerbils can be allergic to things, just as we can. Allergies in gerbils can be present from birth, or develop later in life.

An allergy is a malfunction of a gerbil’s immune system. For some reason, the body decides that an innocuous substance is somehow dangerous. The immune system responds by sending histamine-filled mast cells to the site of the problem. This, according to Clinical Allergy and Immunology, results in inflammation and irritation.

If your gerbil is allergic to something it has inhaled, this may trigger nasal dermatitis. The most common culprit is the gerbil’s bedding (e.g. wood shavings). Gerbils can also be allergic to hay, certain foods, and dander from other pets in the house. If you use aerosols or scented candles in the gerbil’s room, these may also trigger a reaction.

Bacterial Infection

If it’s not an allergy causing your gerbil’s red nose, it’s most likely a bacterial infection. Bacterial infections occur when tiny microbes get into the body, usually through an open wound. The bacteria then multiply, causing illness.

Sometimes, where this infection came from may seem like a total mystery. But there are millions of bacteria living on your gerbil’s skin and fur, such as staphylococcus. The only thing these microbes need is a way into the body. For example:

  • An injury from a fight with another gerbil
  • A scratch from something sharp in the gerbilarium
  • A wound caused by over-enthusiastic grooming

The risk of a bacterial infection is higher if the gerbilarium is dirty. Bacteria can build up in old bedding and unwashed surfaces, water bottles, and food bowls.

Temperature or Humidity Problem

Gerbils are sensitive to their environment. Husbandry problems can cause several issues, including nasal dermatitis. Normally, the problem involves incorrect temperatures or humidity (moisture) levels in the gerbilarium.

Chances are, you’ve experienced dry skin and chapped lips in the winter. This is due to cold temperatures and dry air. Your gerbil can face the same issues, if its gerbilarium is too cold or dry. It can cause the skin around the nose to dry out. This makes the nose more likely to become chapped, red and irritated.

According to the Journal of Experimental Biology, rodents can also experience ‘cold stress’ at low temperatures. This lowers the immune system, making infections and illnesses more likely.

The ideal temperature for a gerbil cage is between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Humidity levels should be between 30% and 50%. If the cage is consistently outside of this range, it could trigger nasal dermatitis.

Stress

A stressed gerbil is an unhappy and unhealthy gerbil. When the body is under stress, a hormone called cortisol runs rampant in the body. It keeps the gerbil’s nervous system in fight-or-flight mode, and raises the blood pressure.

This can mean that your gerbil experiences problems like nasal dermatitis more often. It can also lead to weight loss or weight gain, mood disorders (e.g. anxiety), and erratic sleep patterns. Gerbils can become stressed due to:

  • Loneliness
  • Overcrowding (too many gerbils in one cage)
  • Fighting or tension among gerbil clan members
  • Boredom from a lack of things to do
  • Living in a busy part of the home – loud noises, other pets, young children, and crying babies
  • Exposure to ultrasonic sound from running water, television sets or other electronic devices

Sometimes, stress can manifest in stereotypical behaviors, such as over-grooming and biting at the cage. Your gerbil may inadvertently cause an infection in its nose by continually scratching it or digging with it.

Nutritional Deficiency

Anything that causes a gerbil’s immune system to function improperly can make nasal dermatitis more likely. Allergies, husbandry problems, and stress are the most common causes – but your gerbil’s diet is also important.

Gerbils rely on the right balance of vitamins and minerals to support a healthy immune system. Some of the most important nutrients for immune function include:

  • Vitamin C (in fruits and vegetables)
  • Vitamin B6 (in soya products, wholegrain cereals, some vegetables and animal products)
  • Vitamin E (abundant in nuts, seeds, and dark leafy vegetables)

A study in Helicobacter found that vitamin E and C supplements help gerbils fight off certain bacterial infections. While you don’t need to give your gerbil supplements, you should feed it a balanced diet. A diet low in crucial micronutrients could lead to poor immunity against infections, making nasal dermatitis more likely.

Underlying Illness

Underlying illnesses and diseases can put immense strain on a gerbil’s body. This makes the gerbil far more susceptible to picking up viruses, bacterial and fungal infections.

Microbes find their way into your gerbil’s body every day. But a healthy, functioning body can fight them off before they take hold. An underlying illness can compromise the immune system and allow harmful bugs to multiply. This can cause all sorts of problems, including nasal dermatitis.

Some gerbil illnesses are easy to spot, whereas others aren’t. For example, cancer in a limb may present as a visible lump. A respiratory infection can often be heard in your gerbil’s breathing. But a diseased or failing organ might not be noticeable, especially in its early stages.

If you suspect your gerbil is sick, the best thing to do is to schedule a veterinary appointment. Your gerbil might need to undergo blood tests and scans to determine what’s wrong.

Symptoms of Red Nose in Gerbils

The most obvious symptom of nasal dermatitis in gerbils is redness on the face. The clinical term for this is erythema. Erythema is particularly noticeable around the mucous membranes, such as those around the eyes and nose.

Erythema is caused by increased blood flow in the capillaries, and is very common. Gerbil’s nasal area (around its nose and mouth) is naturally pink, but it shouldn’t look red or angry. You might also notice that the area is inflamed (swollen). Other symptoms of red nose in gerbils may include:

  • Frequent scratching and rubbing of the nose
  • Porphyrin deposits around the nose and eyes, which can be red or brownish, and look similar to blood
  • Runny nose
  • Crusty-looking nose
  • Scabs, sores, or ulcers around the nose and mouth
  • Bleeding (from scratching scabs or sores)
  • Alopecia (hair loss) around the nose and mouth area

If you’re not sure, compare the suspect gerbil to an unaffected gerbil. The nasal area should look pink, healthy, and covered in tiny hairs. Your gerbil shouldn’t excessively scratch or rub at its nose.

The longer nasal dermatitis is left untreated, the worse the problem will get. It can also spread to other areas on the body. The eyes may become red and runny, and sores can appear anywhere on the head, limbs, and chest.

Nasal Dermatitis in Gerbils Diagnosis

If your gerbil has a red nose, have it assessed by a gerbil-savvy veterinarian. Although you can make amateur diagnoses at home, it’s always best to be sure. A vet will not only be able to diagnose nasal dermatitis, but will also establish what’s causing it.

So, how do veterinarians diagnose nasal dermatitis? The first step is to conduct a physical examination. Your vet will inspect your gerbil’s nasal area and look for the signs of nasal dermatitis.

They will then ask you some questions about your gerbil, to try and determine the cause. You may need to provide information such as:

  • What kind of bedding your gerbil uses
  • Your gerbil’s dietary habits
  • How many gerbils live in the same gerbilarium, and how big it is
  • The approximate date when you first noticed the symptoms
  • Any behavioral changes you’ve spotted in your gerbil

It’s likely that your vet will first want to eliminate allergies. They may ask you to remove your gerbil’s bedding, and temporarily replace it with paper towels. If the condition clears up, this is an indicator that the substrate was the problem.

gerbil has sore nose

Treatment of Red Nose in Gerbils

There is no one-size-fits-all cure for red nose in gerbils, as the condition can have many different causes. You can alleviate the symptoms, but to fix the problem, the underlying trigger must be addressed.

A visit to a veterinarian is the first step in treating sore nose in gerbils. They will be able to confirm that it’s nasal dermatitis, and figure out what’s causing it. The vet will:

  • Gently clean the porphyrin deposits from around your gerbil’s nose, mouth, or eyes. They may use warm water or a saline solution. This will help provide some temporary relief for your gerbil
  • Prescribe a pet-safe topical ointment to rub on your gerbil’s nose. This may be a simple emollient (to soothe the skin, and relieve dryness and itching). It may also contain an antiseptic to kill bacteria
  • Assess your gerbil’s overall health. They will examine your gerbil and look for any signs of stress, nutrient deficiencies, or underlying illness
  • Take a swab or tissue sample from your gerbil’s nose, and test it for bacteria. This will reveal whether an infection is present

If your veterinarian finds signs of an infection, they may also prescribe oral antibiotics. This will come in the form of a liquid. You may be instructed to squirt it into your gerbil’s mouth, or add it to your gerbil’s water bottle.

Your vet may need to conduct further tests if there are signs of an underlying illness. This may involve a scan or a blood test. You’ll need to wait a few days for the results.

In the meantime, your vet may recommend that you make some changes to your gerbil’s care. This may involve changing its diet, or the bedding, temperature or humidity in its gerbilarium.

How to Clean a Gerbil’s Nose

You can clean your gerbil’s nose at home while you’re waiting to see a vet. This will help prevent porphyrin build-up, and reduce irritation. You can also wash your gerbil’s nose while you’re waiting for treatment (such as antibiotics) to work. Here’s how to clean your gerbil’s nose properly.

  1. Hold the gerbil securely but gently with one hand, or ask someone else to hold it while you clean its nose
  2. Dip a cotton ball, cotton pad, or Q-tip in warm (not hot) water, and wring out the excess
  3. Carefully wipe the area around your gerbil’s nose and eyes, gently removing the porphyrin deposits
  4. If there is a stubborn crusty patch, hold the cotton ball against it for a minute. The water will help soften it, making it easier to wipe away
  5. Pat the area dry with a paper towel

If your gerbil refuses to let you bathe its nose, don’t force the issue. This will lead to stress and panic, which could exacerbate the problem.

Cleaning your gerbil’s nose won’t get rid of nasal dermatitis on its own. There’s always an underlying trigger, such as an allergy or illness. You can treat the symptoms yourself, but the cause will also have to be addressed.

Will Red Nose Go Away On Its Own?

If you can’t access a vet, you may wonder if nasal dermatitis will clear up without treatment. Much depends on what’s causing it.

Assuming your gerbil’s red nose is allergy-related, it will go away if you remove the allergen. You may have to do some experimentation to figure out what your gerbil is allergic to. For example, changing its bedding, food, or cleaning products that you use on the cage.

Stress and nutritional deficiencies are also easy to remedy, once you know what the problem is. A bacterial infection, however, will be more difficult to treat. Bathing your gerbil’s nose and keeping its environment clean will help, but it may not be enough. You can also try:

  • Using salt water on your gerbil’s nose (salt is a natural antibiotic)
  • Very weak, diluted hydrogen peroxide
  • Manuka honey (honey has antibacterial properties, and is safe for your gerbil to ingest)

If you can find one, pet-safe antibiotic ointments can also help. Ensure that it’s safe for small animals to ingest, as your gerbil may lick it off. Never treat your gerbil with any medication that is designed for human use.

How to Prevent Red Nose in Gerbils

Unfortunately, nasal dermatitis can recur again and again, if the underlying cause isn’t dealt with. Even if you remove the cause, something else could trigger it next time. That’s why prevention of red nose in gerbils is so important.

You can’t always avoid illnesses and infections. However, you can make them less likely to occur by taking good care of your gerbil. You can also reduce the risk of allergies by being mindful of your gerbil’s environment.

  • Use a hypoallergenic bedding, such as corncob or hemp-based substrate, or dust-free shredded paper
  • Regularly clean your gerbil’s enclosure to prevent a buildup of bacteria
  • Give your gerbil access to a sand bath, so it can keep itself clean
  • Keep your gerbil in a bonded pair, rather than a large group (to reduce the risk of stress and fighting)
  • Ensure the gerbilarium is always between 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit, and 30-50% humidity
  • Keep electronic devices, and anything with a strong smell, out of your gerbil’s room
  • Always give your gerbil plenty of toys and things to do, and let it have free run time outside of the cage
  • Feed your gerbil a high-quality gerbil food mix with occasional seeds, nuts, veggies, fruits, and insects

Once per day, take your gerbil out of its cage and assess its overall condition. Check that it’s alert and active, eating well, and has a shiny, smooth coat. If you notice any signs of poor health, take your gerbil to a veterinarian.