signs of a depressed gerbil
Gerbil Health

How to Tell If Your Gerbil is Depressed (And What to Do About It)

A gerbil can become depressed or unhappy for a variety of different reasons. When your gerbil becomes sad, you can tackle the problem if you know how to spot the telltale signs.

The signs of a depressed gerbil include lack of activity, too much sleep, bar chewing, and floor scratching. Gerbils become unhappy when other gerbils die, if their enclosure is small, or they’re stressed.

You can help a depressed gerbil to recover by spending time with your pet and showing them affection. Exercise on a wheel can also help your pet to overcome loss and depression.

Signs of a Depressed Gerbil

Gerbils communicate their mood through body language and noise. You can easily tell when a gerbil is happy, sad, or excited, for example. Most owners learn to spot this ‘language’ when they keep gerbils for a while.

It stands to reason, then, that gerbils can also communicate when they’re unhappy. And it’s true. There are several signs that a gerbil is unhappy. They are easy to spot and frequently display together.

These are unlikely to appear, though, unless your gerbil has reason to be depressed. Events, living situations, old age, and more can all contribute to your gerbil being unhappy.

What Makes a Gerbil Depressed?

One of the most common reasons why gerbils become depressed is when their friends die. Gerbils live in social groups, and in the wild, gerbils are routinely attacked by predators. Aside from that, gerbils can die of many health conditions, as well as age.

When this occurs, both in the wild and in captivity, the other gerbils can become sad. This is especially the case for gerbils which are part of a breeding pair. Other things include:

  • Significant stress. Loud noises and bright lights can cause stress and seizures.
  • Fighting with other gerbils. Gerbils frequently fight. Sometimes, one gerbil can ‘pick on’ another frequently, causing unhappiness.
  • Not having any bedding. Gerbils burrow in the wild, and want to do so in captivity too. Otherwise, they feel insecure and vulnerable.
  • Not liking their owners. As keenly social creatures, gerbils are happiest if they have pleasant interactions with their owners.
  • Being in enclosures that are too small. Gerbils need around ten gallons of tank space each, or they become unhappy.
  • Your gerbil is sick. Being sick is no fun, whether you’re a gerbil or a person.

Aside from this, your gerbil may naturally be more unhappy than others. All gerbils have their own personalities, so some are more excitable, and some more affectionate. It’s not unusual for certain gerbils to be unhappier than others.

Disrupted Sleep Patterns

Gerbils have been described both as nocturnal and crepuscular. Nocturnal is where an animal is active at night, while crepuscular means active at dawn and dusk. This is the case for most wild specimens.

However, in captivity, these patterns can change. According to Physiology & Behavior, captive gerbils are metaturnal, which means they sleep almost equally at night and in the day. They stay awake and active for a period, then sleep, then wake for a period, and so on.

Some gerbils even seem to change their sleeping patterns to suit their owners. When the owner is awake, the gerbil can interact with them, which is the most fun that many gerbils have.

Either way, a gerbil’s sleep pattern will stay the same throughout its life. But if one becomes depressed, its sleep pattern might change. You may notice:

  • Your gerbil sleeping for a lot longer than it usually does. It may be almost entirely active, sleeping 23 hours out of a full 24.
  • Your gerbil sleeping at different times of day and night than it used to.

Disturbed sleep indicates that your gerbil’s mood or health have changed. If you notice these changes, you should consult a vet. They could be the result of a fatal condition.

is my gerbil sad?

Stereotypy Behavior

In captivity, gerbils exhibit many kinds of unusual behavior. You will no doubt have noticed some of these strange behaviors, including:

  • Your gerbil rubbing its face against the glass of its enclosure.
  • Your gerbil biting the bars of its cage. It may do this even if it has something more appropriate to chew on.
  • Your gerbil digging in the corner of its cage, where there may be no substrate. Again, it may do this even if there is bedding to dig in.

This behavior is called ‘stereotypy.’ It’s commonly displayed by animals kept in captivity, either as pets or in zoos. It can be destructive or bad for the animal’s health. So, for example, your gerbil could damage its teeth on the bars of its cage.

Stereotypy is a sign of a negative mood. It can be the result either of sadness or stress. Scientists say that it can also occur because of boredom, frustration, social isolation, and other negative stressors.

Your gerbil may display these behaviors if it’s depressed. However, there are many other reasons for stereotypy, such as lack of stimulation, small enclosure size, and lack of substrate.

Stereotypy isn’t a definitive sign of depression on its own. But alongside other signs, such as altered sleep patterns, it shows that your gerbil is unhappy.

Overgrooming

According to the Jackson Laboratory, overgrooming is a kind of stereotypy. However, it’s particularly noticeable, so stands as a sign of unhappiness on its own.

All gerbils groom themselves. They do so to keep their coat healthy and shiny, to stop any wounds becoming infected, and to get rid of parasites. Grooming is an important behavior in gerbils.

Gerbils can also groom other gerbils. A breeding pair will groom one another, for example, to strengthen their bond. A mother will also groom its babies. Again, the idea is to keep the babies healthy and free of parasites.

However, when a gerbil gets depressed, it can overgroom. This is where the gerbil grooms too frequently, or for extended periods. It results in:

  • Noticeable bald patches
  • Scars and blood, in the worst-case scenario

Overgrooming can occur both because of stereotypy, and because of parasites. A gerbil with mites or ringworm will groom obsessively to try and get rid of it.

So, again, this isn’t a definitive sign of low mood. Look for the other signs of unhappiness that may occur alongside this one.

Lack of Interest in Exploring or Exercise

Gerbils are naturally curious creatures. They enjoy exploring new places, and finding new things. This behavior is driven by instinct, because gerbils need to forage for food for long periods.

In captivity, gerbils don’t get to explore much. They’re stuck in tiny enclosures. That’s why a gerbil gets so excited when you take it from its cage. You can spot excitement when your gerbil hops up and down, sprints quickly, and makes loud yips.

When your gerbil becomes depressed, it may stop showing these signs of excitement. If you take it from its cage, rather than running around exploring, it may sit doing nothing. This shows that your gerbil is unhappy, and gets no enjoyment from exploring.

The same applies to exercise. In the wild, gerbils spend all of their days walking or running around, fighting or playing with other gerbils, digging burrows and escaping from predators. In so doing, they get lots of physical exercise.

Captive gerbils find it difficult to exercise as much. The best way a gerbil can exercise is on a running wheel. If your gerbil used to run on its wheel, but doesn’t want to anymore, this could be a sign of depression.

how to help a depressed gerbil

How to Make Your Gerbil Happy

The gerbil’s entire life revolves around you. If you can’t feed it, for example, it won’t have any food. If your gerbil is unhappy, it needs your help.

Identify What’s Wrong with Your Gerbil

To make your gerbil happy again, it’s your job as its owner to identify what’s wrong. You can then fix whatever the problem is. The problems listed above are a good starting point:

  • Significant amounts of stress. If your gerbil is stressed, move its enclosure somewhere more relaxing. Take care to be less loud, too.
  • Fighting with other gerbils. The gerbils may be declanning, which means they don’t want to be a group anymore. Separate the two gerbils that constantly fight.
  • Not having any bedding. Supply basic bedding made of hay or cardboard shavings. Avoid pine wood or anything dusty.
  • Not liking their owners. Your gerbil will trust you if you spend more time near its enclosure.
  • Being in enclosures that are too small. Gerbils need around ten gallons of tank space each.
  • Your gerbil is sick. Depending on the condition, your gerbil may need to see the vet.

If you fix whatever the problem is, your gerbil may become happy again. Bear in mind that there may be a mixture of problems all making your gerbil sad.

Does Affection Make Gerbils Happy?

One of the easiest ways to make a gerbil happy is to spend time with it. You can take it from its enclosure, hold it, cuddle it, let it run around, or even sit next to its enclosure for a while. All of these things will make your gerbil feel less alone.

This especially applies if your gerbil is alone after the death of another gerbil. When a gerbil lives alone, it gets lonely. You are the only other animal your gerbil can interact with.

So, if you leave your pet alone, it will go stir-crazy. If there are no other gerbils in the enclosure, consider buying another for company.

Introducing a Second Gerbil Correctly

Introducing two new gerbils isn’t as simple as putting them in the same cage. If you do that, they will likely fight. They will never grow to like each other.

Instead, there’s a set method of introducing new gerbils that works better. If your gerbil recently lost a friend, wait a while. Replace the bedding in your gerbil’s enclosure and clean it thoroughly. This should get rid of the smell of the old gerbil, which will hang around and make your living gerbil sad.

After a week or two, buy a split tank. This is like a regular tank, but bigger, and with two compartments. Between the compartments is a glass screen. Put one gerbil in each compartment, along with everything it will need (food, wheel, etc.)

You can also make your own split cage easily enough. You can use chicken wire or a glass divider. The idea is that the gerbils can get used to each other, but can’t fight.

Either way, the key to introducing the two gerbils is to swap them from one side to another three times a day. Have each gerbil sleep in each side multiple times. By doing this, you get each gerbil used to the other’s smell.

Does Exercise Make Gerbils Happy?

Something else you can try is encouraging your gerbil to exercise. If it doesn’t have one, get your gerbil a wheel. Alternatively, take it from its enclosure and allow it to run around. An exercise ball achieves the same thing.

The positive effects of exercise are backed up by neuroscience. Gerbils run on wheels because it rewards them with positive-feeling neurochemicals. When gerbils are unhappy and depressed, they lack these chemicals. So, exercise is an easy fix.

According to Phys.org, wild animals will even run on wheels. Presumably, wild animals experience the same positive benefits as those in captivity.

Aside from that, treat your pet well and respect it. Be friendly and spend lots of time with it. That alone can fix most problems.