The first time you see your gerbil having seizures, it’s shocking. Your gerbil may collapse on its side, with its legs twitching. You may think your gerbil has died, or is dying, but it’s not.
Epileptic seizures in gerbils are common (up to 50%). Check for gerbil seizure symptoms including stillness or muscle spasms, and collapse onto the side or back. Seizures usually last for a few seconds, up to a minute. Gerbils most commonly have seizures when they’re between 2-6 months old.
Seizures can’t be prevented. They can be made less frequent with diet and exercise, but stop on their own at around six months. They don’t have lasting health effects, so a vet isn’t required.
Is My Gerbil Having a Seizure?
There are two kinds of seizure in gerbils. These closely mirror the kinds of seizures that people with epilepsy can have. These are hypnotic (mild) and grand mal (severe) seizures.
Hypnotic and grand mal seizures are equally common, and are caused by the same genetic issues. Between 20 and 40% of gerbils will experience these fits in their early months. They will likely experience both, with the more severe fits coming later.
There is also a third kind of seizure. These are more serious, and are unrelated to epilepsy. These occur when your gerbil is sick and dying. This kind of seizure is much rarer.
What Does a Gerbil Seizure Look Like? (Hypnotic Seizure)
Hypnotic and grand mal seizures look different. They look sufficiently different that you can’t mistake one for the other.
Hypnotic seizures look like their name implies. Your gerbil will sit still as if hypnotized. It may be in the middle of doing something, and suddenly stand completely still. Its ears and whiskers may twitch, but other than that, your gerbil won’t move.
Of course, sometimes gerbils stand still for no reason. However, you can tell your gerbil is having a seizure if you pick it up. If your gerbil is limp in your hands when you pick it up, it’s having a hypnotic seizure.
You can easily confuse hypnotic seizures with regular behavior. All gerbils like to remain aware of their environment. In the wild, they have to, because they would be vulnerable to threats. So, your gerbil may be standing still because:
- It heard a noise that it thought may be a predator
- It smelled something new and interesting
- It’s looking around for other gerbils nearby
Hypnotic seizures usually only last a few seconds. When they’re over, your gerbil will regain control of its body and carry on whatever it was doing.
What Does a Grand Mal Gerbil Seizure Look Like?
Grand mal seizures look completely different. If you think of the word ‘seizure,’ you think of somebody completely losing control of their body. Their arms may involuntarily move towards their chest, for example, and they’ll collapse.
They’ll then twitch violently and can’t stop. This is why seizures are also called ‘fits’, because the person moves in sudden fits and starts.
Either way, this is what grand mal seizures look like in gerbils too. Your gerbil will collapse, sometimes on its side or sometimes on its back. It will experience muscle contractions where its legs/feet jerk quickly. Its tail will do the same.
Other Gerbil Seizure Symptoms
Aside from muscle contractions or perfect stillness, seizures don’t have many other symptoms. In people, they can result in brain damage if too severe. However, this doesn’t apply to gerbils. It’s not clear why.
So, your gerbil won’t be permanently hurt by its seizures. It can still care for itself, and it won’t get brain damage. And over time, seizures go away.
This is surprising to many owners when they learn it for the first time. These seizures can look so severe, you can easily assume the worst. But they aren’t as serious as they look.
Why Do Gerbils Have Seizures?
Gerbil seizures are essentially the same as epilepsy in people. Epilepsy is a condition where the brain stops working properly for a period of time, usually short, but sometimes longer.
The cause of epilepsy in people and seizures in gerbils is the same. Every mammal has a brain which works through electrical signals.
Synchronized pulses produce these electrical signals throughout the brain. The signals are produced where the individual brain cells (neurons) communicate with each other. These synchronized pulses are also called brainwaves.
In epilepsy, sometimes these brainwaves go wrong. They can go faster or slower than they should. This stops the brain from properly controlling the body. That’s why muscle spasms occur during seizures.
The same issue causes gerbil seizures. It’s thought that so many gerbils are susceptible to seizures because they are bred from a limited stock. Most of North America’s gerbils are bred from only twenty breeding pairs.
This essentially means that most gerbils are inbred. Being inbred can cause lots of different problems, one of which being seizures. It’s also thought that in some cases, baby gerbils can copy their mothers by pretending to fit. It’s unclear how common this is.
Triggers for Seizures in Gerbils
The causes of seizures are called ‘triggers’, because they trigger the onset of a seizure. Gerbils tend to have seizures when they’re overexcited.
That doesn’t necessarily mean your pet is happy; it means your pet is happy, frightened or overly stressed. Its adrenaline is pumping for one reason or another. There are many potential triggers, and they may differ between gerbils. Examples include:
- Loud music. This can make a gerbil frightened, because it doesn’t know what the music is.
- Shouting and other loud noises. Your gerbil will be afraid that you’re a threatening animal.
- Introduction to another gerbil. When a gerbil meets a new gerbil, it gets excited, which can cause a seizure.
- Introduction to a new person. The same applies as to meeting another gerbil.
You can avoid these triggers if you’re careful. But even if you do everything you can, no doubt your gerbil will still have occasional seizures. When this happens, don’t blame yourself, because it’s difficult to prevent them entirely.
Introduction to New Environments
Seizures will almost certainly occur when you bring your gerbil to a completely new place. Say, for example, you let your gerbil run safely on the grass outside for the first time. It may have a seizure because it’s overwhelmed by new sights, sounds, and smells.
Your gerbil may also have a seizure if something new is introduced to its enclosure. If you buy a new gerbil, they may both have seizures when introduced. Or, if you buy a new toy, that may trigger one.
Gerbils Have Seizures when You Blow in Their Faces
In a way that isn’t fully understood, you can manually induce seizures in your gerbils by blowing directly into your pet’s face. It may immediately begin to seize up, especially if it’s already prone.
Scientists use this to their advantage when studying epilepsy. Because gerbil seizures are so similar to epilepsy, they’re perfect to study to learn more about the condition. Scientists blow in a gerbil’s face to cause a seizure and then study it.
Do Some Gerbils Have More Seizures than Others?
Somewhere between 20 and 40% of gerbils will have seizures. Of these gerbils, not all of them will have a more severe kind of seizure. And not all of them will have as many seizures as others.
This propensity to seizures in certain gerbils has been studied so that we can understand it. It could be the key to preventing them altogether.
Genetically Prone to Seizures
There are some risk factors which mean your gerbil is much more likely to seize. ‘Risk factors’ is a medical term. It means something about you, which makes you more likely to experience a certain condition. So, high blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease.
The first risk factor for epilepsy in gerbils is genetic lineage. Gerbils bred from two parents who had or have seizures will have seizures too. This is practically a guarantee, so it’s a good idea not to breed two highly epileptic gerbils together.
According to Physiology & Behavior, gerbils which are seizure prone have certain qualities you can use to identify them. Scientists call the different kinds of gerbils seizure-sensitive and seizure-resistant.
These two kinds of gerbil show different behaviors. So, seizure sensitive gerbils are less curious when encountering a new gerbil than seizure resistant gerbils. Seizure prone gerbils also don’t spend as much time scent marking.
It’s not at all clear why this might be the case. It’s also not possible for you to tell at home whether your gerbil is sensitive or resistant to seizures. However, it has something to do with the gerbils’ genetics.
Age and Seizures in Gerbils
Another risk factor for seizures in gerbils is age. Younger gerbils tend to have more seizures than elderly ones. Seizures will begin when your gerbil is around one to two months old. This is long before your gerbil is fully developed.
They will continue, sometimes increasing in severity until your gerbil is six months old. At this point, the seizures may stop altogether. This is reasonably common. They may also continue, but less severe than before, or carry on the same (least common).
Elderly gerbils may also begin to have seizures when they’re close to death. These kinds of seizures are the more serious ones described above, and are not related to epilepsy.
What to Do If Your Gerbil Has a Seizure
Hypnotic seizures might seem funny, as if your gerbil has stopped to think about something. But grand mal/severe seizures look scary. Your gerbil looks like it’s sick or even dying. You may think your gerbil is dead already.
However, that isn’t the case. Seizures don’t cause any permanent damage and usually go away on their own.
Wait for It to Stop
Seizures are widespread in gerbils. Around 20-40% of gerbils will likely have a seizure at some point in their lives. Some will have seizures regularly, and some will only have a few.
But no matter what your gerbil’s sensitivity to seizures, your reaction should be the same. Don’t panic. Don’t rush to your gerbil and pick it up, shaking it or trying to help it in some way. Nothing you can do will make the symptoms of your pet’s seizure any better.
Instead, wait a minute at most, and the seizure will stop. Your gerbil will then go back to its normal routine afterwards. It won’t show any signs that it even noticed it had a seizure. So, try not to worry.
Move Your Gerbil’s Cage
The easiest thing you can do is move your gerbil’s cage somewhere new. Gerbils like being somewhere that lots of things are happening. It stops your pet from becoming bored.
However, being somewhere too loud or busy can also induce seizures. That’s because your pet is stressed out, perhaps thinking there could be threats nearby. So, being somewhere that’s less boring can also cause seizures.
As such, you have to balance your gerbil’s needs. If it’s constantly having seizures, you should prioritize your gerbil’s health. Move it somewhere that there’s less happening.
But if your gerbil appears exceptionally bored there, you may need to move it back. Signs of boredom include repetitive scratching of the floor, and bar chewing.
Should You See a Vet If Your Gerbil Has Seizures?
There is no need to see a vet if your gerbil has seizures, because there’s nothing the vet can do to help. There are no medications you can give to your gerbil to stop it having seizures, for example.
There are also no surgical operations that a vet will perform to help your gerbil. In people, you can remove the part of the brain that causes seizures in epilepsy. The most common is called a temporal lobectomy.
However, no vet will bother because it’s a difficult operation with little purpose. It would be an expensive, delicate operation for a pet that most people think can be easily replaced. Also, the fits usually stop after a while and have no significant medical effects.
Can You Stop a Gerbil Having Seizures?
If you were to see your gerbil having a seizure, you would want to help it. That’s a natural reaction, because grand mal seizures look scary. Fortunately, there are two things you can do.
Diet and Seizures in Gerbils
The main way you can help is by ensuring your gerbil eats the correct diet. According to the Journal of General Psychology, diet plays a big role in the frequency and severity of seizures that gerbils experience.
In this study, scientists checked whether a deficiency in certain minerals could cause these seizures. They deprived some gerbils of magnesium, and found that this caused the group to have far more seizures than a group which ate lots of magnesium.
They figured this out because seizures in gerbils are similar to the symptoms of ‘magnesium tetany’ in other animals. This can occur in other rodents, or in bigger animals like cattle which don’t get enough magnesium.
However, apart from this, you can’t completely ‘cure’ epilepsy. There are ways to make your gerbil have fewer fits, but there are no ways to completely prevent them. All you can do is wait for your gerbil to grow older and stop having seizures.
Exercise and Seizures in Gerbils
Another way you can help your gerbil is by giving it the opportunity to exercise. According to the journal Neurophysiology, running on a basic running wheel can reduce the frequency and severity of seizures in gerbils.
The scientists running this study induced seizures in the gerbils by feeding them penicillin, which can induce them. One group had been exercising on a wheel for thirty minutes per day for eight weeks beforehand. The other had not been allowed to exercise.
The results of the study showed that the exercise group’s seizures were ‘significantly’ less severe. The same scientists also tested gerbils which had eaten a fruit called the Japanese persimmon, which was also found to have seizure-reducing effects.
However, despite these findings, there’s no way to control your gerbil’s seizures completely. If your gerbil is especially prone, it will experience them anyway.
If that still happens, don’t worry. The seizures don’t have any long-lasting effects, so your gerbil will still be healthy. And in most gerbils, seizures stop as your pet matures (six months and older). So, they should stop eventually even without you doing anything.