Like all animals, gerbils need to blink to keep their eyes moist and clean of debris. But if you spend lots of time around your pet, you may also notice that your gerbil winks frequently too.
Winking in gerbils is a type of body language and communication. It’s a sign that a gerbil is happy, and shows that it doesn’t think you’re threatening. A gerbil will wink at other gerbils, and with you, if it trusts you. You can make a gerbil wink at you by winking at it. If it likes you, your gerbil will wink back.
Winking is a common feature of human body language, but there are hardly any animals that wink. For people, winking has several specific meanings that are easy to understand. It stands to reason that a gerbil that winks is trying to communicate a message to you.
Why Do Gerbils Wink?
Gerbils blink for the same reason that other animals do. Eyelids closing serve two purposes: keeping the eyes free of debris, and ensuring that the eye is surrounded by moisture and doesn’t dry out. Vision is vital to almost all animals, so blinking serves an essential function.
However, gerbils wink for a different reason. That reason is communication. The capacity of rodents to wink as communication has been known since at least the 1920s, as evidenced by papers published by Edinburgh University.
Gerbils learned communication from living in social groups in the wild. Gerbils live in big groups in the same burrow. There is a social structure to this group, with a dominant pair and other subordinate gerbils all living together.
Because of this complex social structure, gerbils needed to learn how to communicate. They do this through a varied series of noises, like yipping, squeaking, purring, and screaming.
According to the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, gerbils communicate with one another all the time. But not all that communication is vocal. Body language is nothing but a different form of communication.
What Does Gerbil Winking Mean?
If you spot your gerbil winking, this is a sign of friendliness. Gerbils only wink when they’re relaxed and happy. They wink towards people or other gerbils that they like.
You can test this if you handle your gerbil when it’s relaxed. Try winking or blinking at your gerbil, and see what it does. It may wink or blink back at you. You can carry on doing this several times, and your gerbil will respond.
This may not work. But some owners say that if you wink at your gerbil, and it winks back, then you’ve made a friend for life.
How Did Gerbils Learn to Wink?
The origin of winking and blinking is from the wild. It’s a bond of trust. Your gerbil is saying: “I like you so much that I can close my eyes when I’m around you, because I know you won’t eat me.”
Imagine for a moment that you’re in your gerbil’s position. An animal that’s a hundred times bigger than you has picked you up. If you thought this animal was going to hurt you or eat you, would you close your eyes as if you’re taking a snooze?
Staring straight at another animal is threatening behavior. Gerbils stare each other down before the start of a fight. Many other animals do the same, including people. Closing your eyes is the exact opposite of this threatening behavior.
If you were to watch your gerbil group, you might notice that submissive gerbils blink or wink at the dominant pair frequently. This is the submissive gerbil saying, “I’m not going to threaten you.”
How to Make a Gerbil to Wink at You
Because winking is happy body language, no doubt you want your gerbil to wink at you. However, it’s not a trick that your gerbil will learn to perform on command. Your gerbil will only wink if it feels happy enough to do so.
To get your gerbil to wink at you, you first need a bond of trust. Your gerbil has to know that you’re a kind owner. It has to understand that there’s no chance you’ll do something to hurt or frighten it. So, if your gerbil doesn’t trust you yet, follow these steps:
- Spend lots of time around your gerbil’s enclosure. This will get your gerbil used to the sounds you make, and the way you move.
- When your gerbil seems happy, reach your hand into its cage. Don’t grab your gerbil yet. Allow it to sniff you and get used to your hand being there.
- After your gerbil is used to this, put a treat in your hand. This will encourage your gerbil closer. It should eventually become comfortable sitting next to, and then in, your hands.
- This is the point at which you begin picking your gerbil up. Scoop your gerbil up from underneath rather than reaching in. It’s less scary for your pet.
Once you can handle your pet, spend time with it. Pet it and stroke it, provided your gerbil is comfortable with that. Then, when your gerbil likes/trusts you, start winking at it. It should wink back.
Why Won’t My Gerbil Wink Back?
Because winking is a friendly sign, many owners are intent on encouraging their gerbil to wink at them. You might try for minutes on end, but your gerbil may not wink back.
Don’t worry, because this is a common experience among gerbil owners. It doesn’t necessarily mean that your gerbil doesn’t like you, although it can. What might be happening is:
- Your gerbil isn’t submissive. If your gerbil is of the dominant kind, it may not want to act submissively towards you.
- Your gerbil doesn’t fully trust you yet. If you haven’t had your gerbil for long, it might not want to shut its eyes around you. It may still think you’ll try to hurt it.
- Your gerbil is feeling on edge for some other reason. Gerbils interact with other gerbils all day. If your gerbil recently had a fight or another negative experience, it may not feel happy and comfortable.
- Your gerbil is less trusting than other gerbils might be. Gerbils have personalities like people do (although not as complex). Some gerbils are less trusting or affectionate than others.
Try building a bond of trust through the steps listed above. If after all that your gerbil still doesn’t want to wink at you, it may never want to.
But even so, that doesn’t mean your gerbil doesn’t like you or enjoy your company. You can still look for the other signs of a happy gerbil listed below.
Other Signs of a Happy Gerbil
Gerbils are far more communicative than most people realize. They can communicate what they think and feel in the same way that much bigger pets can.
They do this both through gerbil body language and sound. A happy and satisfied gerbil will make purring noises. It does so by grinding its teeth together, causing a low rumbly vibration.
Gerbils can also be happy because they’re excited. An excited gerbil may run around, or jump on its hind legs. It can also make high-pitched yipping sounds.
Another way of telling that your gerbil is happy is the absence of any negative behaviors. These behaviors indicate that your gerbil feels threatened, or is acting aggressively towards you. They include:
- Biting. A gerbil that bites you doesn’t necessarily dislike you. But it is a sign, at least, that your pet is uncomfortable with your current behavior.
- Running and hiding. If a gerbil is scared in the wild, e.g. of a predator, it will hide in its burrow. A scared captive gerbil will do the same.
- Standing still for a few seconds. This may indicate that your gerbil is having a seizure. Gerbils can have seizures in response to stressors.
- Squeaking loudly and repeatedly. Some gerbil noises like yipping or purring are happy signs. But loud squeaking is commonly heard before a fight.
- Foot thumping. When a gerbil thumps its feet, it either wants to scare other gerbils (or you), or mate. According to Psychonomic Science, it can be a sign of general excitement too.
In the absence of these behaviors, and the presence of other happier signs, your gerbil is likely content and happy. Make the most of this time with your pet.