how to pick up a gerbil
Care Guide

How to Hold a Gerbil for the First Time

Before you pick up a pet gerbil, you need to learn how to handle them properly. Holding a gerbil incorrectly can cause injury, or make them scared of you.

Allow your gerbil at least a day to get used to you before handling it. Get it used to your smell by placing your hand in its cage. Offer it treats, so it associates your hand with reward. When your gerbil is comfortable, scoop it up from below. Never pick them up from above, as it’ll think that you’re a predator.

We’ll discuss how to get your gerbil’s trust, and make it feel comfortable around you. We’ll then provide a step-by-step guide on how to hold a gerbil safely. We’ll also offer some helpful tips on how to discourage your gerbil from biting.

Do Gerbils Like to Be Held?

Many small animals don’t enjoy being held. Being picked up can be quite frightening for them, especially if you do it incorrectly.

It comes down to evolution. Gerbils and other small animals have evolved to fear predators, such as birds of prey.

So, when picked up by humans, small animals may mistake you for a predator. They may become stressed, as they think you’re going to eat them.

As well as this, some animals are not very socially inclined. Animals that live solitary lives in the wild are less comfortable with being touched by humans.

Fortunately, gerbils are friendly creatures. They are naturally intelligent and curious about humans.

Gerbils are also highly social. According to the Journal of Mammalogy, wild gerbils live in groups of 2 to 17 individuals. Pet gerbils enjoy socializing with both their own kind and humans.

Most gerbils become entirely comfortable with their owners, after a period of getting to know them. They enjoy being held, as long as you hold your gerbil in the correct way.

Once your gerbil trusts you, it’ll probably climb into your hand every time you open the cage. But you first need to learn how to get your gerbil to trust you.

How to Get a Gerbil to Trust You

If you want to know how to get a gerbil to let you hold it, the most important thing is trust. Your gerbil needs to learn that you’re not a threat.

If your gerbil doesn’t fully trust you, it won’t enjoy being held. It may panic, which means you could end up being bitten.

Whether you got your gerbil from a breeder, pet shop or shelter, it’ll need time to settle in. It’ll have to get used to your scent, and spend time around you to learn not to fear you.

how to hold a gerbil without it biting you

Give Your Gerbil Time to Relax

When gerbils first enter a new home, they are immediately on edge. It will take at least a few days for your gerbil to feel happy in its new environment.

According to the University of Texas, gerbils use scent-glands to mark their territory. They will spend a few days marking a new cage, and until then, they won’t be fully comfortable.

At the same time, your gerbil needs time to get used to your presence. You are, after all, a stranger to your gerbil. It doesn’t know whether you’re a friend or a deadly predator. If you pick your gerbil up straight away, it’ll panic.

For your gerbil to get used to you, it’ll need to see you often.  Set up your gerbil’s enclosure in a room where you spend a lot of time. For example, you could choose the family room, home office, or bedroom.

Familiarize Your Gerbil with Your Scent

As thoroughly as you wash, gerbils have sensitive noses and will be able to detect your underlying smell. You are an animal, and most animals in a gerbil’s natural environment are predators.

So, along with the sight of you, your gerbil needs to get used to your scent. Spend as much time as possible near your gerbil’s enclosure. You can also place an object that carries your smell – like a sweater – near the cage (not inside).

While you’re around your gerbil, you can also talk to it. That way, it will get used to your voice.

Allow Your Gerbil to Explore You

After some time, your gerbil will start to act more comfortable around you. Depending on your gerbil, this may take between 24 hours and 1 week.

You’ll start to notice your gerbil taking an interest in you. They might come up to the edge of the enclosure to see you when you approach. When you reach in to feed your gerbil, it may come up and sniff your hand.

At this point, it’s time to let your gerbil explore your hands. Wash your hands, and then place your hand inside your gerbil’s cage. Let it sniff you, and climb over your hand if they want to.

If they bite at this point, don’t panic and don’t make any sudden movements. It’s just testing to see if you’re edible.

Offer Treats as a Reward

In the first few days, offer your gerbil a treat every time you come into the room. That way, it’ll start to associate seeing you with getting a reward.

Start by dropping the treat into the cage. As your gerbil becomes more comfortable with you, move on to offering the treat from your fingertips. Eventually, you can place the treat in your palm, and your gerbil will climb you to retrieve it. Some options for gerbil treats are:

  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Unsalted peanuts and almonds
  • Dried fruit (banana, raisins, apricots, coconut)

Treats shouldn’t be your gerbil’s main source of nutrition. According to PeerJ, gerbils fed a diet high in sugar and fat can become obese. This can affect metabolism and hormone function. But while you’re building your gerbil’s trust, you can give it more treats than you usually would.

How to Pick Up a Gerbil

After a few days of following our above advice, your gerbil should be comfortable around you. At this point, it’s safe to start picking your gerbil up.

But when it comes to handling your gerbil, there is a specific way you should do it. If you mishandle your gerbil, you might accidentally injure them.

To learn how to pick up a gerbil correctly, use the following approach.

1) Pick the Right Environment

Before picking your gerbil up for the first time, it’s vital to choose the correct environment. Select a location that would be safe for your gerbil if it jumped or fell out of your hands.

Choose a room which doesn’t have any nooks and crannies that your gerbil could escape into. It’s difficult to coax a gerbil out of a hiding place if it’s scared.

Some gerbil owners find that the bathroom is an excellent choice for first-time handling. Bathrooms are usually small, and don’t have any furniture that your gerbil could scurry under.

2) Place Your Hands in the Cage

When you’ve moved your gerbil’s cage to the ideal location, the next step is placing your hands inside. You should have already done this a few times, to get your gerbil used to you.

Start by washing your hands thoroughly with an unperfumed soap. Choose a time when your gerbil seems awake, alert, and curious. Never disturb a sleeping gerbil.

Open your gerbil’s enclosure, and place your hands flat inside, with your palms facing up. Allow your gerbil to sniff your hands, and climb over them if they want to.

Keep your hands still, even if your gerbil nibbles you. They’re just testing to see if you’re edible, and will soon realize you’re not.

how to hold a gerbil without it biting you

3) Coax Your Gerbil into Your Hands

The next step is to coax your gerbil into your hands. Depending on how bold your gerbil is, this may be easy, or it may require some convincing.

Start by placing both your hands either side of your gerbil. Using a ‘scooping’ motion, lift the gerbil into your hands from below.

If your gerbil is timid, can also use treats to help. Place a few seeds or nuts in the middle of your palm. This will help your gerbil associate your hands with reward.

Always scoop your gerbil into your hands from below. Never reach in and grab your gerbil from above as this will cause them to panic.

4) Slowly Lift Your Gerbil

Before lifting your gerbil into the air, ensure that they’re comfortable in your hands. Leave your hands on the cage floor, while your gerbil explores them.

When your gerbil reaches the point that they seem happy in your hands, you can lift it. To begin with, only lift your hands one or two inches into the air.

If your gerbil tries to climb off your hand, place your other hand in front. That way, they can walk onto your other hand rather than falling off.

Eventually, you’ll be able to lift your gerbil higher, and out of the cage altogether.

5) Let Your Gerbil Explore

While holding your gerbil, allow it to climb over your hands and explore. Keep placing one hand in front of the other, so your gerbil can keep walking without falling off.

The first time you hold your gerbil, only do so for about 30 seconds. Then, gently place your gerbil back down, and offer them a treat. Each subsequent time, you can hold them for longer.

If you’re wondering how to hold a gerbil still, it’s not possible. Gerbils are always on the move, and will rarely sit still in your hand. Physically restraining your pet will make it panic, and could injure it.

How to Hold a Gerbil Without It Biting You

Gerbils only bite humans for one of two reasons. Either they think you’re food, or they’re scared and trying to defend themselves.

Your gerbil will only test if you’re edible once or twice. This is particularly likely if your hands smell like food. So, always wash your hands thoroughly before a handling session.

If your gerbil continues to bite, it’s likely that it’s scared, and are worried you’ll harm them. This is why it’s crucial to earn your gerbil’s trust before trying to hold them. You shouldn’t move too fast – it’s a slow process that can take days or weeks.

Here are some general rules to stop a gerbil from biting:

  • Never pick your gerbil up from above. If you swoop down and grab your gerbil, they’ll think you’re a predator, like a hawk.
  • Never pick up your gerbil by its tail. Again, this is something that a predator would do. It can hurt your gerbil, and they’re likely to bite out of fear.
  • Don’t handle your gerbil if it’s showing signs of stress. Signs of stress include hiding, running away from you, and drumming the ground with their feet.
  • Avoid picking up a gerbil that you don’t know, such as a friend’s gerbil.
  • Let your gerbil decide. If they don’t seem interested in being held, leave it alone and try another time. Forcing your gerbil to interact is almost asking to be bitten.

All gerbils are different, and your gerbil may be more timid than others. But if you follow our advice, and take your time, your gerbil will eventually be comfortable being held.