It can sometimes be difficult to read the body language of our pets accurately. There are many signs of stress in gerbils, some of which are much easier to understand than others.
Obsessive behaviors, such as over-grooming and cage biting, can be signs of stress in gerbils. It may act aggressive or irritable, or spend excessive time hiding. Foot stomping and vocalizations, such as squeaking and teeth chattering, can be stress-induced. Some gerbils have seizures when stressed.
We’ll look at basic gerbil body language, and introduce you to the signs of a stressed gerbil. We’ll then explore why gerbils feel stressed, and how you can make them feel less worried and anxious.
What Are the Signs of Stress in Gerbils?
Every gerbil is different. This means that not all gerbils will show signs of stress in the same way. A clear indicator of stress in one gerbil may be normal behavior for another. But some gerbil stress symptoms are common.
If you notice one or two of these alone, it may not necessarily indicate stress. But if your gerbil is demonstrating many of these signals, it might well be anxious or unhappy.
Happy, relaxed gerbils are usually confident in their environment. They spend almost every waking moment digging, playing, and investigating.
But stressed-out gerbils may spend hours at a time hiding away in their nest or tunnel. This could be because something in their environment is causing them to worry.
Stressed gerbils may be lethargic. Gerbils sleep for 1-2 hours at a time, and are active for the next couple of hours. If your gerbil is sleeping or resting far more than this, something may be wrong.
Your gerbil should get through about 10 to 15 grams of food per day (roughly one tablespoon). Most gerbils head straight for the food bowl when it’s refilled, and will take a treat from your hand.
If your gerbil is showing signs of reduced appetite, it may be stressed. Like humans, gerbils’ digestive systems don’t function as well when they are in fight-or-flight mode.
Gerbils can also become stressed if they don’t get enough food or water. So, make sure you’re topping up your gerbil’s bowl and water bottle every day.
Foot Stomping (Drumming)
When gerbils are stressed, anxious, or scared, they exhibit a behavior called drumming. This is where they rapidly stomp the ground with their back feet.
According to the Acoustical Society of America, this is an alarm signal designed to warn other gerbils of approaching predators.
Drumming every once in a while is not a cause for concern. It means something has startled your gerbil. But if you notice this behavior often, something in your gerbil’s environment is causing stress.
Gerbils are usually friendly, sociable creatures. They are good-natured towards humans, and appreciate being held and played with.
Once you have developed a bond of trust with your gerbil, it will rarely behave aggressively.
If your gerbil suddenly becomes aggressive or irritable, this may be a sign that it’s stressed. It’s particularly concerning if this behavior persists over several days.
Baby gerbils, up to the age of 4 or 5 months, tend to ‘talk’ a lot. Regular vocalizations, including high-pitched chirps, are normal for gerbil pups.
Once your gerbil reaches adulthood, it won’t make as many noises anymore. You may notice the occasional squeak, but that’s about all. You’ll notice more vocalizations if you own two or more gerbils in the same enclosure.
If you suddenly start noticing your gerbil becoming more vocal, it could be stressed. Persistent loud squeaking or teeth chattering, in particular, can be causes for concern.
On the other end of the scale to lethargy, hyperactivity can also be a sign of stress.
Some gerbils, rather than trying to hide away from what’s bothering them, will try to escape instead. They may be too tense to be able to sleep, and spend all day and night awake and active. They may constantly try to escape from their gerbilarium or run around in circles.
Occasionally, you may notice that your gerbil has red liquid around its eyes or under its nose. It’s not blood. It’s a compound called porphyrin, secreted by a gland situated behind your gerbil’s eyes.
It’s normal to see some red tears from time to time. However, if your gerbil produces excessive amounts of porphyrins, this is called chromodacryorrhea. It’s triggered by stress or illness.
Grooming, scratching, and biting or digging at the cage are all normal gerbil behaviors. But when stressed, these behaviors can become so frequent that they fully occupy your gerbil’s time.
Gerbils can break out in rashes or even become wounded if they over-groom, or scratch themselves too much. Perpetually biting on cage bars can damage your gerbil’s teeth.
Obsessive behaviors are not always a sign of stress. Some gerbils bite or dig at their cage walls out of habit. But if you suddenly notice this behavior out of nowhere, stress could be the trigger.
Change in Toilet Habits
Gerbils are usually well-behaved when it comes to their toilet habits. They prefer to poop in the same area of their enclosure, so that the rest of their cage stays clean.
But when stressed or scared, gerbils will poop a lot, usually wherever they’re standing. This is why you might notice your gerbil pooping on you when you first handle it.
Pooping a lot can also be a sign of excitement. So it doesn’t necessarily mean anything is wrong. A gerbil eating its own poop isn’t a sign of a problem.
Some gerbils are prone to seizing when suddenly frightened, or exposed to prolonged stress. It’s a hereditary trait that runs in families. Up to 50% of gerbils may be affected. A seizure can be recognized by the following symptoms:
- Muscles twitching
- Body going limp or rigid (your gerbil may fall over)
Seizures are usually not harmful, but in rare cases, they can be fatal.
Why Is My Gerbil Stressed?
There are many reasons why your gerbil might be stressed. In general, if your gerbil is stressed, this means there’s something in its environment which isn’t right. Gerbils are not the most demanding pet, but they do need certain requirements to be fulfilled.
Gerbils are highly social creatures.
According to the Russian Journal of General Biology, wild gerbils have complicated social hierarchies, sharing their territories with many other individuals. So, in captivity, gerbils get lonely if they’re housed on their own. Loneliness can quickly lead to stress.
You should always keep your gerbil with at least one other gerbil for company. Choose a same-sex playmate, to avoid unwanted pregnancies.
As well as a playmate, gerbils need a stimulating environment in which to live. If a gerbil gets bored, this could quickly lead to stress. Some common reasons for boredom include:
- Lack of space. Your gerbilarium should have a minimum of 10 gallons of space per gerbil. There should be a layer of substrate, at least 5 inches deep, for digging tunnels.
- Lack of toys. Your gerbil will spend most of its day in its enclosure, so it will need things to do. Exercise wheels, chew toys, tunnels, and shelves are all good ideas.
- Lack of playtime. You should take your gerbil out of its cage at least every other day. During this time, spend some time handling them and let them explore a safe environment.
If your gerbil spends a lot of time chewing or digging at the wall, boredom could be its problem.
Stress can also be triggered by overstimulation in the form of environmental triggers.
Some gerbils can be sensitive to loud noises. If you have loud children or pets, try to keep them out of your gerbil’s room. Even being able to see cats or dogs can be stressful for a gerbil.
According to the Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, gerbils communicate via ultrasonic sound. So, keep your gerbil’s enclosure away from any items in the home which generate ultrasound. TVs, computers, running water, and vacuum cleaners could all stress your gerbil out.
Your gerbil may also be stressed because of your behavior. Ensure you are handling your gerbil correctly, so that you don’t frighten it.
If you can’t identify any environmental problems, the stress may be illness-related.
Gerbils’ bodies can become quite stressed when they’re sick or in pain. Almost any health problem could cause stress, such as:
- Injury (e.g. from falling, rough handling, or fighting with another gerbil)
- Parasites, such as mites
- Respiratory illnesses, such as pneumonia
- Inner ear problems
If you suspect illness, take your gerbil to a suitably experienced veterinarian for a checkup. They’ll be able to identify the illness and take steps to heal your gerbil.
Gerbils all have different characters. Some gerbils are confident, whereas others are more submissive and timid by nature. If your gerbil is healthy, and its environment isn’t causing stress, it may just have an anxious personality.
If this is the case, there’s not much you can do about it. Just keep treating it with kindness, and giving it everything it needs. Some timid gerbils get more confident and happy as they age, and their bond with you becomes stronger.
Can Gerbils Die from Stress?
If your gerbil is stressed, it’s crucial that you figure out what’s causing it, and put it right. This is because prolonged stress is bad for gerbils. It can make them sick, and can even kill them.
Gerbils have tiny hearts that work hard. Stress can put a strain on gerbils’ hearts and immune systems, making them more susceptible to illness. Along with this, extreme stress may cause seizures (fits) or strokes.
Seizures and strokes are not always fatal. If they are small, some gerbils can recover without issue. But often, a seizure or a stroke is a death sentence for a gerbil.
If you follow our above advice, you should be able to figure out what’s causing your gerbil stress. But if you can’t, take your gerbil to an exotic pet veterinarian.
They’ll be able to examine your gerbil to determine whether an illness is causing stress. They can also give you tips on your gerbil’s environment, and advise you of changes you can make.