do gerbils smell bad?
Care Guide

How to Stop Gerbils Smelling

Gerbils and other rodents have a distinctive unique scent, and can smell like urine or poop. This smell builds up if you don’t clean your pet’s stinky cage regularly.

Smelly gerbils can take a sand bath. To stop a gerbil cage smelling, spot clean soiled bedding occasionally to get rid of wee and poop. Clean your pet’s toys with soap and water each week. Avoid full cleanouts as gerbils use scent to form social groups, so this can cause fighting.

If your gerbil cage stinks, spending more time taking care of your pet should help. Gerbils aren’t naturally smelly, so regular baths and cleaning can almost entirely prevent smell build-up.

Do Gerbils Smell Bad?

Gerbils don’t smell anywhere near as bad as other rodents. Rodents have a typical and distinctive smell. The smell is variously described as musty, like ammonia, or like urine.

However, gerbils don’t smell anywhere near as bad as other pets like mice or hamsters. Their scent is of the same kind, but isn’t as obvious. This applies to the pet itself, as well as its surroundings.

Even so, your pet will smell bad if you never clean its cage out. This would happen with any pet, and would happen to you if you never washed or cleaned your room.

Do Gerbils Smell of Urine?

When you keep a pet, it needs to go to the toilet. While other pets do so when you let them outside, gerbils do so in their cage. That’s where this smell comes from. But gerbils don’t smell strongly of urine, even if other rodents do. That’s because they’re excellent at conserving water.

This is an evolutionary adaptation. Wild gerbils live in a place called the Mongolian steppe. This is like a desert, but with lots of grass and shrubs. It’s a dry part of the world, without many high-fat or high-protein foods.

So, like the desert, there’s not a lot to drink there. Gerbils had to become good at conserving water out of necessity. Wild gerbils get almost all their water from the food they eat, like root vegetables.

One way in which gerbils conserve water is by not going to the toilet as much. This behavior has carried over from the wild to captivity. Even if the gerbil has water readily available in its cage, this still applies.

By contrast, other similar pets like mice, rats, and hamsters can smell strongly of urine. Each goes to the toilet frequently. According to Frontiers in Neuroscience, rats mark their territory with urine frequently.

Over time, it is rubbed into the pet’s fur and makes it smell. This isn’t as evident with gerbils.

Does Gerbil Poop Smell?

A gerbil’s water conservation doesn’t stop there. They also recycle their water by not getting rid of it when they poop. This means that a gerbil’s poo doesn’t smell as bad as that of other animals.

If you’ve ever owned a gerbil before, you’ll know that a gerbil’s poop is small and hard. It comes out that way because it doesn’t have much water in it. And because it’s hard, it gives off a weaker scent.

Its hardness also helps because it doesn’t smear or run in bedding. This keeps your gerbil’s bedding, and the rest of its cage, cleaner. So, while you might expect other rodents’ cages to smell of wee or poop, a gerbil’s doesn’t.

gerbil cage stinks

Gerbil Scent Marking

Many animals scent mark using urine. If you’ve ever owned another household pet, you’ll know that’s the case. But gerbils don’t do this, again because they want to conserve water.

Instead, gerbils scent mark a different way. According to Behavioral Neuroscience, they have scent glands on their stomachs. These look like small, oval bald patches. The skin is also a shade darker than the rest of your gerbil’s stomach.

These patches are modified sebaceous glands. Sebaceous glands are found in all mammals, and give off oil to protect the skin and hair. But these ones have been modified to give off a special smelly orange substance which gerbils use to mark their territory.

Gerbils use their scent glands to mark things like:

  • Their bedding
  • Their toys
  • The bars/walls of their cage

They’re essentially saying, ‘this is mine!’ This scent isn’t exceptionally strong. It’s stronger to gerbils, which have sensitive noses. However, if you notice a slightly sweet smell, this is likely what it is.

Gerbil vs. Hamster Smell

Gerbils don’t smell as bad as hamsters. Despite both being rodents,  gerbils go to the toilet less than hamsters do. They conserve water, so only go to the toilet infrequently.

By contrast, hamsters go to the toilet constantly. It’s next to impossible to keep their bedding clean. It has to be changed frequently because of the amount of time they spend going to the toilet.

In addition, hamsters strongly smell like a rodent. They have a much stronger scent of rodent than gerbils do. The exact reason why is unclear, but anybody who has owned either pet will tell you.

So, if you want a pet that doesn’t smell, you should pick a gerbil over a hamster.

How to Prevent Gerbil Cage Smell

So, the gerbil itself doesn’t smell that bad. But its cage still smells if you don’t clean it. This would apply to any pet you keep, from a different kind of rodent to a cat or a dog.

Keeping your gerbil’s cage clean is easy. It requires semi-regular cleaning, but not so much that it’ll stress you out. Here’s how you can stop your gerbil’s cage from smelling.

1) Clean Your Gerbil’s Toys Regularly

Your gerbil’s toys can get surprisingly smelly. While it’s the bedding and cage that hold onto smells the most, toys still can too. This explains why your pet might still smell even if you replace the bedding entirely.

One major issue is that gerbils frequently go to the toilet on their toys, especially their wheels. That’s because gerbils don’t like messing up their bedding, because they have to sleep there. They can get stinky quite quickly.

Cleaning your gerbil’s toys is easy. Each week, take the toy from your pet’s enclosure. You can wear rubber gloves if you want to, but you don’t have to. Take the toy to the sink and rinse it off before scrubbing it with soap.

Afterwards, dry it with a hand towel. You can then replace it in your gerbil’s cage. This whole process won’t take any more than a minute, so this won’t be a major inconvenience. But it will have a big effect, and stop your gerbil’s cage from smelling.

You may find that your gerbil doesn’t like its toys as much if they don’t smell like the rest of the cage. If that’s the case, after you replace the toy, rub it with a small amount of bedding. This will put a little of the scent back.

2) Gerbil Cage Thorough Cleanout

Your other option is to give your gerbil’s cage a thorough scrub. This would involve removing your gerbil’s bedding entirely, as well as any toys they may have. You then clean the toys as described above. Then, you scrub the cage with disinfectant to entirely get rid of any remaining scent.

You shouldn’t do this unless absolutely necessary. Gerbils rely on their sense of smell in several ways. Of course, they use it to find and identify food.

But they also use scent to identify other gerbils and mark territory. According to Behavioral and Neural Biology, they use scent to identify their mates. If the scent is wiped away, they may not recognize their partner as easily.

By thoroughly cleaning the cage, you would get rid of these scents entirely. This can cause your gerbils to fight, because they don’t recognize the scents they smell. They think that the other gerbil is a complete stranger and a threat.

You should only completely clean a gerbil’s cage if it’s necessary to do so. An example is if one of your gerbils passes away. When that happens, you should get rid of its scent. This will help your surviving gerbil overcome the loss of its friend.

gerbils smell of urine

3) Should You Spray a Gerbil’s Cage with Air Freshener?

Spraying your pet’s cage with an air freshener isn’t a good idea. On the plus side, it would cover up any bad smells. You might also think that your gerbil would like a fresh smell in its cage. But that’s not the case.

When you spray a gerbil’s cage, you cover up its natural scent. The scent is still there, but it’s more difficult to detect. It’s like how you can drown out the noise with louder noise.

Again, this would be confusing for your gerbils. Your gerbils would no longer smell each other’s scents. This could lead to fighting, or worse, declanning.

You should also be concerned about the chemicals present in an air freshener. Some brands are packed full of chemicals that may not be safe to inhale constantly throughout the day. You may be putting your pet’s health at risk.

So, no, don’t use an air freshener in your gerbil’s cage. You can do so in the room around the cage, to prevent the smell from traveling. But avoid spraying inside or too close to your pet’s enclosure.

Getting Rid of Gerbil Bedding Smell

Your gerbil’s bedding acts as nesting material and as burrowing material. It can act as a big food bowl, if you sprinkle food over it. It can also act as your gerbil’s toilet.

This means that bedding can become smelly if left unchanged for too long. But there are ways to stop this from happening. The best way is spot cleaning, which will prevent the worst smell build-up.

1) Spot Cleaning a Gerbil’s Bedding

Spot cleaning is a term that means ‘tidying up bit by bit.’ Whether you’re a messy or tidy person, this idea will be familiar to you. Rather than leaving a room to get messy, then doing a big clean all at once, you tidy as you go.

You can apply this principle to your gerbil’s bedding. Whenever you notice your gerbil go to the toilet, you can remove the soiled bedding and replace it with some that’s fresh. This will keep the bedding cleaner for longer.

You can’t do this forever, of course. Even if you continually spot clean, the remaining bedding will get dirty too. So, you will eventually have to replace it all.

Whenever you clean your gerbil’s cage, wear rubber gloves to pick up your gerbil’s mess. This will stop you from getting your hands dirty.

2) Replacing a Gerbil’s Bedding

Over time, spot cleaning isn’t enough. You’ll want to replace your gerbil’s bedding entirely. But to do so without thinking would be bad for your pets. That’s because, again, your gerbil is familiar with the scent of itself and its family.

When you get rid of these scents, it’s as if your pets are in a new place. They’re in no-man’s-land, which doesn’t belong to anyone. They will fight over the ownership of this ‘new’ place.

So, when you replace your gerbil’s bedding, don’t replace it all. Replace most of it, but leave some bedding from last time. Here’s what you should do:

  • Take your gerbils and put them somewhere safe for the time being, like in another cage.
  • Take the bedding out from their cage. You may want to take this opportunity to clean the cage itself with disinfectant. Or, this may not be necessary.
  • Sift through the old bedding. Find some that isn’t soiled, but smells like your gerbils.
  • Mix this small amount of old bedding in with the new bedding, and put it in the cage.

This ticks both boxes. Now, your gerbil’s bedding won’t smell bad like it used to. But it will also smell ever so slightly familiar to your gerbils. This should stop them from fighting, and keep the smell away.

4) Give Your Gerbil a Bath

While gerbils themselves don’t smell as bad as other rodents, they do still smell. You can avoid this by giving your gerbil a bath. Unlike people, gerbils don’t bathe in water, but in sand. This is aptly named a sand bath.

It’s difficult to imagine how rolling around in sand could stop you from smelling. But many rodents do the same, rolling around in dust or sand to clean their coats. Doing so gets rid of oils that cling to fur, and does reduce odor. So, here’s how you give your gerbil a bath.

Use the Right Kind of Sand

You may never have noticed, but there are lots of different kinds of sand. Some kinds of sand have bigger, sharper grains than others. Some are fine and dusty. Picking the wrong kind of sand could be bad for your gerbil.

Ideally, you should get either reptile sand or kid’s play sand. That’s because these kinds of sand are washed, sterilized, and filtered to remove both dust and dirt.

Don’t use chinchilla sand, because it’s often dusty. Dust is suitable for chinchillas but bad for gerbils. It causes allergic reactions in gerbils, so it is best avoided. This also means you shouldn’t use regular dust, either.

Find a Bowl and Fill with Sand

The idea of a dust bath is to put the dust in a bowl, and let your gerbil roll around in it. You may already have a suitable bowl at home, or you may not.

You’ll want one that’s hard and heavy. You don’t want the bowl to tip over. You also want one that’s resistant to your pet’s claws. It should also be big enough for your pet to fit in, of course. If it has a flat bottom, that’s even better, as it gives your gerbil more room.

You’ll then want to fill the bowl to around the halfway point. You want enough that the gerbil can scramble around, but not enough that it will go flying everywhere. Then, put your gerbil in its bath.

You don’t have to do anything, because your gerbil does the hard work. It will roll around and dig in the sand. No shampoo or soap is required.

Even if you don’t put much sand, there will likely be some to clean up. That’s why it’s best to put some newspaper down underneath the bowl before bathing your gerbil. This will keep your gerbil smelling nice, and it’s fun for your pet, so it’s best done regularly.