how to pick a gerbil
Care Guide

How To Pick The Right Pet Gerbil

Getting a new gerbil is an exciting time. But don’t just buy the first one you see: take the time to choose the right gerbil for you. It should be healthy, and of an appropriate age and gender for its living situation.

Pick a gerbil that’s energetic, curious, and interested in exploring its surroundings. It should have a glossy, clean and even coat with no signs of matting. A healthy gerbil’s eyes will be shiny and free of discharge. Listen to ensure its breathing is clear. Avoid buying a gerbil that’s sitting still and hunched up, as this could indicate that it’s unwell.

Gerbils are social animals, and must be kept in pairs or small groups. Choose 2 or 3 same-sex gerbils, ideally from the same litter. If you plan to introduce your new gerbil to an existing one, make sure they’re the same sex. Gerbil pups (under 10 weeks old) have the best chance of getting along with older gerbils.

Where Can You Buy Gerbils?

There are many options when it comes to choosing where to get gerbils. Gerbils are almost always available at pet stores, so this may be the most obvious option.

However, you can also get gerbils from animal shelters, online advertisements, and local breeders. There are pros and cons to each, so it’s worth exploring each avenue before making a decision.

Animal Shelters with Gerbils

Animal shelters take in unwanted and abandoned gerbils, and try to find them new homes. The main benefit of adopting a gerbil from a shelter is that you’re saving an unwanted animal. By adopting a gerbil, you can help a creature in need, and avoid supporting mass breeders.

Employees and volunteers at small animal shelters are knowledgeable about gerbil care. They carry out full health checks and treat any medical problems before rehoming their gerbils. Animal shelters usually charge a small adoption fee, to discourage people from adopting pets on a whim.

The only downside to adopting a shelter gerbil is that it probably won’t be a young pup. If you already have a gerbil at home, it may be difficult to bond it with another adult gerbil.

getting a new gerbil

Buying Gerbils Online

Classified ad sites, such as Gumtree, may have gerbils for sale near you. These could be from breeders, or people trying to rehome unwanted pets.

Searching online advertisements is the quickest way to find a new pet. However, there are many downsides to buying gerbils online:

  • You can’t gauge the health of a gerbil by looking at pictures
  • Scammers often operate through online ads. You may end up paying for a gerbil you never receive
  • You’ll have to go to a stranger’s home to pick up the animal.
  • You probably won’t be able to return the gerbil if it turns out to be sick
  • You may unknowingly be supporting a ‘gerbil mill’. This is a place that bulk-breeds gerbils for profit, and doesn’t care for its animals.

If you want to buy a gerbil online, visit the animal first to check it’s healthy. Bring someone with you, and don’t pay the seller until you get there.

Buying Gerbils from a Pet Store

Most pet stores sell gerbils. The advantage of buying gerbils from a pet store is that you can see them in person before you buy. This will allow you to check for obvious signs of illness.

Gerbils in pet stores are usually young pups, under 10 weeks old. This means they’ll bond well with any existing gerbil you may have. There’s usually a wide range of coat colors to choose from. However, there are some disadvantages:

  • You don’t know where the gerbils came from, or how they were treated before they arrived in store
  • Buying from pet stores supports the mass breeding of animals – they usually get their gerbils from gerbil mills
  • Store staff usually aren’t very knowledgeable, and often mis-sex the gerbils they sell

Pet stores are notorious for providing their animals with substandard care. Unfortunately, you can’t always tell a gerbil is sick before you bring it home.

Local Gerbil Breeders

The best place to buy gerbil pups is directly from a local breeder. Gerbil pups from breeders often cost more than they would at a pet store. However, professional breeders usually take great care of their animals, and have a vested interest in their health.

You can search online to find gerbil breeders near you, or ask for recommendations in local Facebook communities. Once you find a breeder that you like the sound of, arrange to visit their home. There, you can check that the animals are in good health and being kept in good conditions.

A good breeder will be only too happy to have you over before you commit to a purchase. If they refuse to let you see the animal before you buy it, they’re probably hiding something.

What Type of Gerbil Should I Get?

There are two main types of gerbils: Mongolian gerbils and fat-tailed gerbils (also known as Duprasi gerbils). We’ll focus on Mongolian gerbils, as they’re the most common species in the U.S.

Almost every gerbil sold at a pet store will be a Mongolian gerbil. Fat-tailed gerbils are rare, and sold only by specialist breeders. For more information, see our guide on Mongolian vs. fat-tailed gerbils.

Not all Mongolian gerbils are the same. A gerbil’s age and gender can affect its personality, and how well it will get along with others. If you already have a gerbil at home, you’ll need to carefully choose a new gerbil that has the best chance of bonding with it.

What Gender of Gerbil Should I Get?

Gerbils don’t exhibit much sexual dimorphism. This means that males and females look and act quite similarly to one another. However, there are some differences between boy and girl gerbils:

  • Male gerbils are slightly bigger than females when fully grown
  • Males have bigger scent glands than females, so can be smellier
  • Female gerbils can be more aggressive than males (towards other gerbils and their owners)
  • Male gerbils find it easier to bond with newcomers than females

When buying a pair or group of gerbils, always ensure they’re the same gender. Whether you choose males or females is up to you, as long as it’s not a mixture.

Don’t just trust what the pet store says – take them to a veterinarian to have them sexed. Gerbils can become pregnant as early as 3 months of age, and have large and repeated litters.

If you’re choosing a new gerbil to live with an existing gerbil, pick a friend of the same gender. For example, if your current gerbil is male, get it another male gerbil to play with.

Although you can have a gerbil neutered, it’s a complex and risky procedure. Many vets will refuse to neuter such a small and delicate creature, because of the risk of complications.

How Many Gerbils Should I Get?

According to Integrative Zoology, gerbils are social animals. Both males and females establish intricate social connections with members of their clan. For this reason, you should never house a single gerbil on its own. It will get lonely, stressed, and depressed if it has no other gerbils to play with.

If you’re buying your first gerbils, choose 2 or 3 pups from the same litter. Gerbils that have lived together since birth have the best chance of getting along throughout their lives.

If you already have a gerbil at home, adopt another single gerbil and introduce them slowly. It’s much more difficult to introduce a lone gerbil to an already-bonded pair.

The more gerbils you have living together, the larger the cage needs to be. You’ll need to provide around 10 gallons of space per gerbil. So if you have 3 gerbils, they will require 30 gallons of accessible area.

This doesn’t include space for bedding. Gerbils love building tunnels, and need at least 6 inches of substrate at the bottom of their enclosure. If you don’t have much space for a large gerbilarium, stick with 2 gerbils.

Baby Gerbils vs. Adult Gerbils

If you’re getting your first gerbils, you can choose babies or adults. Pet stores usually sell babies, whereas adults are available for adoption from animal shelters.

There are some advantages to choosing adult gerbils (over the age of 6 months). They will already be used to human interaction, and have outgrown their nervous baby stage. They may even be litter box trained. And if you buy a pair or group of adult gerbils, they will already be bonded with one another.

However, if you already have a gerbil at home, steer clear of adopting another adult. Introducing two adult gerbils rarely goes well. Both gerbils will be set in their ways and will see each other as ‘outsiders’.

Instead, buy a baby gerbil (under 10 weeks old) if you plan to introduce it to an older gerbil. Adults generally tolerate young gerbils well, as they would if a baby was born within their clan.

What Colors Do Gerbils Come In?

A gerbil’s natural color is called golden agouti. Golden agouti gerbils have sandy-colored fur, and black eyes. But gerbils have been domesticated for decades, and now come in over 40 different colors and patterns:

  • Black
  • White
  • Dove (pale silver)
  • Lilac (dark grey)
  • Siamese (tan body with dark brown ears, nose, feet, and tail)
  • Red fox
  • Spotted (white with grey, black, or brown patches)

Some coat colors are rarer than others, and may vary in price. You can choose whichever you like the best (depending on availability).

A gerbil’s coloration is only skin-deep. Though a black gerbil might look different to a white gerbil, it’s still the same breed. Its coat won’t have an impact on its personality, behavior, adult size, or lifespan.

However, a gerbil’s eye color can have an impact on its vision. Red and pink-eyed gerbils can have trouble perceiving depth, and may misjudge how far away they are from objects. This doesn’t affect their lifespan or overall health.

How To Choose a Healthy Gerbil

The most important factor in choosing a new gerbil is its health. If you bring home a sick gerbil, it may soon die. It could also infect your existing gerbil(s), if it has a contagious illness.

Before bringing your new gerbil home, check it thoroughly to ensure it’s healthy. This applies whether you’re planning to adopt from a shelter, or buy a baby gerbil from a store. It’s not always possible to detect every kind of illness, but there are telltale signs to watch out for.

Signs of a Healthy GerbilSigns of a Sick Gerbil
Curious and alert, exploring its surroundingsLethargic or sitting hunched in a corner
Sleeping in a pile with other gerbilsSleeping on its own
Bright, shiny eyesPartially closed, cloudy, crusty, swollen, or runny eyes
Clean, pink noseRunny or red nose, sneezing
Sleek, glossy, and even coatRuffled or matted-looking coat, bald spots
No signs of injuryOpen wounds, scabs, or dried blood on fur
Running around normallyLimping, leaning to one side, uncoordinated movements, seizures
Clean fur around rear and tailSigns of diarrhea or staining around rear
Clear and silent breathingClicking, squeaking, or wheezing sound when breathing, or struggling to draw breath
No lumps or bumpsOne or more swellings or lumps under the skin
Firm, round bodyEmaciated with concave belly

Along with the above, watch out for compulsive behaviors. Obsessive chewing or digging at the cage bars is a sign of stress, according to Alternatives to Laboratory Animals. This may indicate that the gerbil is sick, or not being looked after properly.

It’s important not only to check the gerbil you’re planning on buying, but its cage-mates too. If any of the gerbils show signs of illness, it’s best to go somewhere else.

how to choose a gerbil

Will My Gerbils Get Along?

If you’re buying two gerbils from the same litter, it’s likely that they’ll get along. Gerbils that have been raised together since birth almost always live in harmony. They form strong bonds and play together happily for life.

But if you’re buying a new gerbil as a friend for your old one, it’s a bit trickier. You’ll have to introduce them slowly. Otherwise, your old gerbil will feel that the new one is encroaching on its territory.

The ‘split cage method’ is the best way to introduce gerbils. This involves placing a transparent divider down the middle of the cage, separating the two gerbils. Each day, swap each gerbil over to the other side.

They’ll slowly get used to each other’s smell, without the risk of fighting. After 1-2 weeks, you can remove the divider.

Adult gerbils usually do well when introduced to babies (under 10 weeks old). Male gerbils get on better with each other than females, but you can never be 100% sure that two gerbils will become friends.

If your gerbils end up fighting, there’s little you can do. According to the Russian Journal of General Biology, gerbils have excellent memories for social interactions. Gerbils that physically fight rarely learn how to get along.

Can You Return a Gerbil?

There are many reasons why you may want to return your new gerbil. For example, it may turn out to be sick, or a different sex than what you were told. Or it might not get on with your existing gerbil.

If your gerbils aren’t getting along, you can’t keep them together. Gerbils that fight may end up injuring or killing one another. Even if they don’t, living in close proximity to an ‘enemy’ can cause gerbils a lot of stress. This may lead to weight loss, health complications or a premature death.

Depending on where you got your new gerbil, you may be able to return it. Most pet stores have a 14-day money-back guarantee. If you adopted it from a shelter, they’ll almost certainly be willing to take it back. If you can’t return your gerbil, you have two main options:

  • Keep both gerbils, but in separate gerbilariums. Keep them in different rooms, so that they can’t see each other through the glass (this may cause stress).
  • Rehome one of the gerbils. If it’s still a pup, this won’t be difficult. You can find it a new owner directly, or give it to an animal shelter.

For more info, see our guide on what to do with unwanted gerbils.