When your gerbil develops a sudden head tilt, this indicates a health problem with the brain or ears. As a result, you must get your gerbil seen by a vet for immediate treatment.
Head tilt is often the sign of an ear problem. Gerbils with the condition likely have ear cysts, a middle ear infection, or a brain tumor. Injuries to the head and neck and neurological disorders can also cause head tilt. Head tilt symptoms include a noticeably tilted head, loss of balance and coordination, and the inability to walk in a straight line. Due to these symptoms, most gerbils struggle to eat or drink.
Unfortunately, once your gerbil develops head tilt, it will have it for life. That being said, it’s treatable and can get better with care. However, you must deal with the cause of the problem to prevent your pet gerbil from experiencing pain or discomfort.
Signs of Head Tilt
Head tilt is more common in older gerbils. However, all gerbils are susceptible, depending on the cause of the issue. If you notice your gerbil acting strangely or displaying the following behaviors, take it to your vet:
Unusual Head Angle
The most noticeable sign of head tilt, and the symptom that gives it its name, is your gerbil holding its head at an unusual angle. Some gerbils have a subtle inclination, while some appear to have a twisted or sideways neck.
It’s not uncommon for this symptom to come on suddenly and without warning. While this unnatural head position looks painful, it rarely is. However, it prevents gerbils from undertaking the most basic tasks, such as eating, drinking, and walking.
Loss of Balance
Gerbils with head tilt will stumble and fall because they no longer have any control over their balance and coordination. As a result, they can hurt themselves against their cage’s hard surfaces, especially if the enclosure contains a drop section.
Over time, some gerbils refuse to move altogether, as the action is almost impossible for them to carry out. As a result, you’ll need to step in to help the gerbil live an everyday life until it recovers with treatment.
Walking in Circles
Gerbils with head tilt sometimes walk or run around in a circle. The condition causes the rodent to struggle running or walking in a straight line, causing stress and frustration.
If the head tilt results from a brain injury or condition, the gerbil is likely to shiver and shake, or suffer from seizures.
Much like the loss of balance symptoms, the gerbil will no longer want to move as walking becomes too uncomfortable and challenging for them.
Inability To Eat or Drink
As already touched upon, gerbils with head tilt find it very hard to sustain themselves, as they can’t eat or drink without help.
The problem is, not all gerbil owners notice this straight away, leaving the rodent vulnerable to extreme thirst and hunger. Hungry and dehydrated gerbils will:
- Lose weight quickly
- Stop peeing and pooping
- Develop greasy fur
- Become lethargic
- Bite your fingers
When this happens, you’ll need to step in to hand-feed your gerbil; otherwise, it will die.
Why Does My Gerbil Have Head Tilt?
As we’ve already mentioned, head tilt is usually the sign of a middle ear or brain condition. Your gerbil’s head tilt will get worse as the underlying condition progresses.
As a result, if you see your gerbil walking in circles or losing its balance, it’s likely struggling with one of the following conditions:
Otherwise known as ear cysts, aural cholesteatoma is common in older gerbils and appears to be age-related. The American Journal of Otolaryngology found spontaneous aural cholesteatomas in the ears of 45.7% of adult Mongolian gerbils they studied.
As described in a journal by The Laboratory Rabbit, Guinea Pig, Hamster, and Other Rodents, older gerbils spontaneously develop cysts in the ear canal. They’re also similar to the ear cysts humans have.
Cholesteatoma occurs when too much keratin produces epithelial cells, destroying the middle ear’s delicate bones. While these cysts aren’t tumors, they push the gerbil’s eardrum too far into the ear canal, causing permanent damage.
As well as head tilt, clinical signs include persistent ear scratching, circling, and disorientation. Other symptoms also include:
- Hearing loss
- Noticeable pain
- Ear discharge, with is sometimes foul-smelling
- Nasal obstruction
While aural cholesteatomas can be treated with surgery, it’s not always advised because gerbils are so small. Instead, vets can provide temporary relief through ear drops and ointments.
As described by Bishop’s Stortford Veterinary Hospital, head tilt is also a sign of an infection. Vets believe that cholesteatoma causes secondary infections, making the affected gerbil unstable, uncoordinated, and unbalanced.
Respiratory infections also affect the sinuses and middle ear. Symptoms include:
- Clicking as it breathes
- Lack of appetite
- Increased temperature
- Runny nose
If these signs accompany your gerbil’s head tilt, the gerbil will need to be treated for a respiratory infection.
Similarly, excessive cleaning and mites both cause ear infections. These are both treatable with a thorough cleaning and antibiotics. Similarly, if the gerbil appears in discomfort or has scratched its ear to the point where it’s bleeding, a vet can administer pain relief.
Some ear infections are also the sign or a brain tumor. Sadly, these are rarely treatable because of the gerbil’s size. If the head tilt significantly reduces the gerbil’s quality of life, a vet will recommend euthanasia to prevent the animal from suffering.
While less rare than other underlying health issues, tumors of the head, neck, ears, or brain are likely to cause head tilt. If the tumor is located at the back of the gerbil’s neck, it will cause stiffness, causing the gerbil to hold the neck at an awkward angle.
Similarly, if a tumor presses on certain parts of the brain, the gerbil will likely lose control of its primary head and neck functions.
Neurological disorders and brain inflammation cause head tilt. The vestibular nuclei is the part of the brain that controls the body’s balance. If this brain stem is diseases or damaged, head tilt will occur, leaving the gerbil with no control over its function.
Several diseases affect the brain, including strokes and seizures. These conditions can make the gerbil unbalanced and cause a noticeable head tilt.
Stress can also trigger brain conditions, especially if the gerbil’s living conditions aren’t clean or sufficient.
Similarly, head or neck injuries resulting from an accident are likely to cause brain trauma, affecting neurological function. When this happens, the gerbil becomes unbalanced and loses the ability to control its head movements properly. It might also hurt too much to move the neck.
When this happens, there’s no effective treatment to cure the gerbil’s head tilt. Once the injury heals, the head tilt may improve. However, palliative care is most likely required to keep the animal comfortable.
Gerbil Head Tilt Treatment
Even if you treat your gerbil’s underlying health condition, the head tilt will likely remain in some form. However, most gerbils adapt to this and go on to lead an everyday, healthy life.
Bear in mind that the underlying condition can return, so you must monitor your gerbil’s ear health for the remainder of its life. If your gerbil’s head tilt is left to become chronic, it will become incapable of looking after itself.
Take Your Gerbil To The Vet
The first thing you need to do is take your gerbil to the vet. Don’t leave the condition to get better on its own. If your gerbil has an ear infection or cyst, it won’t improve without veterinary care.
Your vet will perform an examination and recommend the best course of action. In most cases, they’ll administer antibiotics, such as Baytril, to clear up the infection. You’ll have to administer these at home for a week or two.
If the head tilt is caused by brain inflammation, the gerbil will require an anti-inflammatory injection to reduce the swelling.
Surgery is very occasionally offered in the most severe cases, but most vets prefer not to operate because there’s a high chance of death.
Offer Food And Water
Gerbils with head tilt struggle to eat and drink for themselves, leaving them severely dehydrated and malnourished.
As a result, their owners must hand-feed them slowly, offering a selection of vegetables, fruits, and treats. Gerbils with head tilt usually refuse to eat their regular pellets.
If the condition is severe enough to stop them from eating solid foods, use a syringe and provide them with a purified meal instead.
Provide a selection of pellets and veggies, or look for a commercial convalescent food. This is essential to keep the gut working properly and prevent malnutrition.
Similarly, use a separate syringe to drip feed your gerbil water every few hours to prevent it from becoming dehydrated.
If your gerbil has lost its balance, it’ll need a safe environment to prevent it from hurting itself, especially if it’s prone to walking around in circles. If they do, the gerbil can become bruised and sore after knocking into the sides of its enclosure.
As a result, create a safe, cozy area inside its cage using fleeces, old t-shirts, and a cut-up duvet, providing plenty of padding in case your gerbil falls over.
Similarly, if your gerbil shares an enclosure with other animals, you might want to separate it into a smaller cage so that it has time and space to heal. The gerbil might feel stressed out by the constant movement of other gerbils, and there’s also a greater chance of further injury.
Fortunately, head tilt is an easily noticeable condition, which gives gerbil owners the chance to act quickly. Almost all causes require veterinary treatment, although some cases are more severe than others.
Once your gerbil is diagnosed with a head tilt and treated for it, look out for balance issues, which indicate that the underlying health condition may have returned. However, most gerbils with head tilt lead happy and contented lives, despite having the condition.