how to tell which gerbil is dominant
Gerbil Behavior

11 Signs of Dominance in Gerbils

Gerbils live in groups, and these groups have defined social structures. These structures are reinforced by certain behaviors, so that every gerbil knows its place (dominant vs. subordinate).

Dominant gerbils scent mark more, and can even scent mark other gerbils. They arch their backs to appear bigger, and squeak more frequently and loudly at other gerbils. They will box and wrestle other gerbils that challenge them, and will get into regular fights. If these fights are incessant, you’ll need to separate the fighting pair.

There is always a dominant gerbil in a gerbil group, so these behaviors are natural. Only if the dominant one viciously attacks the others is there an issue that needs you to step in.

How to Tell Which Gerbil Is Dominant

Gerbils are social creatures that have structures to their families. In the wild, there is usually a group of gerbils all living together. There is a central breeding pair, and lots of young that still live with them. According to a Russian journal, the boundaries of these families are clearly defined.

The breeding pair are the dominant pair. They use their dominance to get the best bits of food, and enforce their mating rights. The subordinate gerbils have to respect this social structure, or there will be fights.

To show who’s boss, the dominant pair will demonstrate several behavioral signs of dominance. The purpose of these behaviors is to intimidate the other gerbil or gerbils into submission. These behaviors can be seen in captivity as well as in the wild.

BehaviorDescription
Body languageThe dominant gerbil makes itself look big, and the subordinate gerbil rolls on its side
Scent markingThe dominant gerbil marks the cage in more places than subordinates
Scent marking each otherThe dominant gerbil scent marks on the body of the subordinate one(s)
MountingThe dominant gerbil gets on top of the subordinate ones, and simulates sex
GroomingThe dominant gerbil may violently groom the subordinate ones, even pulling out fur
Group fractureThe dominant gerbil rejects a subordinate one, which has to sleep alone, away from the burrow
FightingThe dominant gerbil will fight to keep its place. Fighting can involve ‘boxing’ and wrestling, and loud squeaking

1) Body Language

When two gerbils meet, for the first time or not, body language is like a shorthand. In one or two movements, the dominant one can show its power and strength. The subordinate one can comply by showing subordinate behavior, or can challenge the ‘leader.’

At the moment of meeting, the dominant gerbil will make itself look bigger. To achieve this, it will arch its back upwards. Both males and females will do this. The point is that bigger gerbils are stronger, and thus are dominant.

The subordinate gerbil can respond in its own way. If it doesn’t want to back down, it will show the same behavior (making itself look bigger). However, what usually happens is that it accepts the dominance of the other gerbil.

If it does, it will roll onto its side to show off its belly. This is a universal sign of the subordinate which you can see in other animals too.

2) Scent Marking

Scent marking is a crucial gerbil behavior. The purpose of scent marking is to demarcate territory. It’s like your gerbil is saying ‘This is mine, this is mine, and this is mine too!’

The gerbil’s scent gland is located on its belly. It’s a small, oval, hairless patch that’s a shade darker than the rest of your pet’s skin. Your pet can secrete a sticky fluid from it, which is how it physically marks its scent. Each gerbil’s scent is different.

In the wild, a gerbil will mark things like grass and the ground around a burrow. In captivity, a gerbil will scent mark anything from the cage bars and glass, to bedding, toys, running wheels, and more.

This is why gerbils fight when they are introduced to each other for the first time. If there’s a newcomer to the group, it will notice that the whole cage smells like the other gerbil/s. The other gerbils will also notice that the newcomer is in ‘their territory,’ so fights will ensue.

Dominant gerbils scent mark more frequently than subordinate ones.

3) Scent Marking Each Other

Scent marking behavior doesn’t stop there. Gerbils may also scent mark each other to display dominance. While it can be difficult to tell which gerbil is scent marking its environment more frequently than the other, this is a more obvious sign.

The idea behind it is simple. The gerbil is showing its dominance by claiming the subordinate one as its own. This behavior can look like the two gerbils trying to mate, but they aren’t.

This behavior is normal. It can even go both ways, with both gerbils marking each other at different points. But if one gerbil is consistently marking the other one, it’s trying to show its dominance.

4) Excessive Mounting

Mounting is how two gerbils mate. One gerbil gets on top of the other one and the pair will have sex. This is regular behavior both in different sex and same sex pairs. Actual mating may not take place, because according to Current Zoology, gerbils are largely monogamous.

The point is that the gerbil being mounted is vulnerable, whether it’s a male or a female. If the mounting gerbil decided to, it could attack the other gerbil at any time. It could bite the other gerbil’s neck, for example. So, mounting is as much about domination as it is about mating.

A normal amount of mounting doesn’t imply fighting. Other entries on this list, like a bloody tail, indicate that the social structure may be changing when one gerbil attacks another. Mounting is more to do with reinforcing a social hierarchy that’s already in place.

But this behavior can get to the point where it’s constant and incessant. The dominant gerbil may want to show its dominance so much that it won’t let the other gerbil sleep, nor will it go to sleep itself. This is when you might have something to worry about, because a fight may ensue.

5) Excessive Grooming

In pack animals and other social animals, grooming is used to establish social bonds. It is a way of demonstrating trust when one animal lets another animal close to it. The animal being groomed is vulnerable, because if it wanted to, the other animal could hurt it at any time.

Grooming means many things. It is a two-way demonstration of trust. Grooming can display importance, where the dominant animal allows others to groom it, but doesn’t groom them back.

In gerbils, grooming is used to establish bonds in a slightly different way. All gerbils will groom each other. But when one gerbil seeks to be dominant, it may over-groom another. It can leave the other gerbil with patches of fur torn out, and cuts.

This is an aggressive behavior that doesn’t serve a particular purpose, e.g. fighting. It shows that the aggressor is dominant. The dominant gerbil will groom the subordinate gerbil first, every time.

6) One Gerbil Sleeps Apart

Gerbils sleep together in large burrows. These burrows are made by the gerbils themselves, so there is enough room inside for all (unless the gerbils live in a small cage). However, it’s possible for one gerbil to be rejected.

This occurs during declanning. Declanning is when the gerbil group splits apart. This happens when gerbils fight a lot, which is usually because of a fight over dominance.

When declanning occurs, one or more gerbils are rejected from the group by the dominant pair. The dominant gerbil or gerbils will fight the ‘loser’ whenever it comes close to the burrow. It won’t allow the loser to sleep in the same burrow as the rest.

The losing gerbil will instead sleep in a corner of the cage elsewhere. It may also sleep in the exercise wheel, if there is one in the cage. This is a sign that the group is fully split, so you should remove the rejected gerbil from the cage as soon as possible. House it in a new enclosure instead.

Signs of Dominance in Gerbils

7) Squeaking

One of the most obvious signs of fighting is squeaking. According to the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, gerbils use noise to communicate with each other. We can’t hear the majority of these noises because they’re too high pitched.

However, there is one that we can hear. Loud squeaks are a sign of threats and fighting. The two gerbils will face each other, and stare each other down. They will squeak loudly in an attempt to scare each other, too.

This shows that the subordinate gerbil is challenging the dominant one. The one which is usually subordinate isn’t acting afraid, whereas usually, it would. This most often occurs when the dominant gerbil is sick or old, when it becomes weaker.

Alternatively, one gerbil can squeak at another to reinforce the social position of both. It’s like the dominant gerbil is saying, ‘Remember, I’m bigger and stronger than you!’ These squeaks are loud, so you’ll hear and notice them easily.

8) Chasing

Gerbils will frequently fight if there is a reason to. A subordinate gerbil can try to usurp the dominant one’s position, for example. Or, there could be too little space in the cage.

Whatever the case, fighting occurs between dominant and subordinate gerbils. These fights start small before getting more serious. One of the first signs is chasing. This is exactly what it sounds like, where one gerbil chases another around.

This behavior is most common after one of the gerbils is rejected from the cage. The dominant gerbil is trying to chase it away, and get it to leave. In the wild, the rejected gerbil would run away to form its own group. But in captivity, it can’t because it’s in a cage.

For this reason, chasing is a repetitive behavior. You may notice it frequently. It’s the precursor to worse fighting later on.

9) Bitten and Bleeding Tail

This occurs when the dominant gerbil chases and attacks the subordinate one. As stated above, chasing is a repetitive behavior because the subordinate gerbil can’t escape from the cage.

Because that’s the case, the dominant gerbil will up the stakes and start using more violence. It thinks the subordinate gerbil is challenging it by not leaving when it’s chased away. It doesn’t realize that the other gerbil can’t escape.

So, the dominant gerbil will bite the other one’s tail. Because gerbils move so quickly when they chase each other, you may not notice this happening. But what you will see is that the subordinate gerbil’s tail is wounded and bleeding.

This is often the precursor to a bigger fight later on, when the subordinate gerbil tries to make the dominant one stop biting it. In turn, the dominant one will resort to harsher measures to try and force the subordinate gerbil away.

10) Boxing and Wrestling

The two gerbils will stand on their hind legs and hit out at each other with their paws.

This is accompanied by another kind of fighting, which is wrestling. The pair will try to push each other down. The one that manages to do so, and pins the other, is the winner. Like many other signs on our list, this is universal, and is seen in many animal species aside from gerbils.

The bout will end with one gerbil pushing the other over. The winner will then stay where it is, pinning the other down. Only after a few seconds will it move away. It’s as if the dominant one is confirming that it won.

11) Gerbil Ball Fight

If a clear winner can’t be found, a ‘gerbil ball fight’ might ensue. This isn’t fighting over an exercise ball. It’s named after what the fight looks like, because the gerbils grab each other and roll around in a ball shape.

These fights occur when the two gerbils keep challenging each other. The subordinate one won’t accept that the other gerbil is dominant. Or, the issue may be that one gerbil has been rejected from the group.

Either way, these fights are vicious. The gerbils will use their teeth, claws, and body strength to try to overwhelm each other. As you know, gerbil teeth are sharp, and their bites are painful even for you. The pair can do extensive damage to each other.

You should try to separate your gerbils before they start fighting in this way. Otherwise, serious injury could ensue.

Why Are My Gerbils Fighting Suddenly?

There are two reasons why gerbils begin fighting. The first is if the current dominant gerbil becomes old or sick. The subordinate gerbil or gerbils will take the chance to ‘overthrow’ the leader.

The second reason is if one gerbil gets rejected from the group. This can occur when the group doesn’t recognize its smell, e.g. after you change the bedding in the cage. Action is required if two gerbils won’t stop fighting.

What to Do If Gerbils Won’t Stop Fighting

You must watch out for the signs of dominance above. There is no problem with dominant behaviors, e.g. scent marking. These are natural and normal behaviors that shouldn’t concern you.

What should concern you is if you see consistent fighting. This indicates that your gerbils are both vying for dominance. Normally, one will win over the other and the fights will stop. But if the two gerbils both still want to be dominant, the fighting will continue.

The solution is simple. You must separate the two gerbils as soon as you can. Leave the dominant one with the rest of its family in the cage it’s already in. Put the other gerbil in a new cage of its own.

This cage should be outfitted in the same way as any other gerbil cage. So, it will need:

  • Two tiers, one cage and one glass (a gerbilarium)
  • Bedding
  • A water bottle
  • An exercise wheel
  • A chew toy

Gerbils don’t like to live alone, so your gerbil will need a friend or partner. You could pick a same-sex sibling from the group it was previously part of. Because the pair are familiar with each other, it should be possible to introduce them without the split cage method.

Alternatively, you could purchase a new gerbil from a store for it to live with. This would work, but if you did this every time one of your pets rejected another, you would end up with far more gerbils than you could reasonably keep as pets.

My Gerbil Killed the Other One

This fighting can be a significant problem, because gerbils are vicious. They can fight each other to the death. So, if your gerbils were fighting and one of them suddenly died when you weren’t looking, this is likely why.

Unfortunately, this is a more frequent occurrence than most gerbil owners realize. Unless you split the fighting pair apart as soon as you can, this outcome is likely.

Not all fighting will lead to this outcome, because not all fighting is of the same kind. Small tiffs and ‘arguments’ are to be expected. But consistent and vicious fighting can result in serious injury or worse. So, separate the two as soon as you can.