Category: rodents

Gerbils: Tyzzer’s disease

Gerbils can suffer from a number of health problems, but Tyzzer’s disease is a very serious infectious disease that affects the liver and is usually caught from mice. Good hygiene, the use of good quality bedding and burrowing material will help prevent this disease.

Tyzzer’s disease is caused by the bacteria Clostridium piliforme. The incidence of spontaneous disease is quite low, occurring in sporadic outbreaks. Infection occurs by contact with infected animals or bedding, via the faecal-oral route.

Unlike most other rodents and rabbits, gerbils are innately susceptible to expressing overt Tyzzer’s disease without a need for physiologic stress or steroid therapy to aid in disease development. This is an acute, usually fatal disease in gerbils.

Diarrhoea in gerbils is extremely rare. In the unlikely event your gerbil has diarrhoea, your nose will soon alert you to the problem. Your suspicions will be confirmed by staining around the anus and base of the tail. Diarrhoea in gerbils is unlikely to be caused by over-indulgence in fruit and vegetables as it can be in other rodents. Gerbils simply don’t like these foods enough to over-indulge. Diarrhoea in gerbils is likely to have a more serious cause and is sometimes the first sign of the deadly Tyzzer’s disease.

In colony situations, high mortality rates can occur with some animals exhibiting depression, unthrifty appearance, and varying degrees of watery diarrhoea. Morbidity and mortality is highest in young gerbils and pregnant females, although all age groups can be affected.

No treatment is effective once the disease is clinically apparent due to the type of organism and its ability to sporulate. Treatment with antibiotics may decrease mortality.

Control is achieved by strict hygiene and the reduction of environmental and experimental stress and/or by elimination of exposed and symptomatic animals.

Disinfection of cages and equipment is best done with a disinfectant such as 1% bleach solutions.

Gerbils: routine health care

We are all familiar with the phrase “A healthy pet is a happy pet” – but there is probably also something to be said for keeping your gerbil happy in order to maintain its health. If you know your pet you will probably quickly recognise the signs that suggest it is not well.

A healthy gerbil will have bright eyes, clean ears, eyes and nose and be interested in what is going on around it.

If your gerbil’s weight remains constant then they are eating the right amount of food. You should be concerned if their appetite or water consumption suddenly changes or they suddenly start to gain or lose weight. When in good condition the coat should be shiny, soft and free of parasites.

Your gerbil must be fed a healthy diet and allowed regular exercise.

The closer your gerbil’s diet and environment is compared to how it would eat and live in the wild, the healthier and happier it will be. Giving them plenty of enrichment in also hugely important for their mental wellbeing.

A healthy diet is a balanced diet containing all the nutrients your pet requires.

Gerbils are omnivores, which means that, like us, they naturally eat mainly vegetable matter, but to keep in good health require some food of animal origin as well, e.g. cheese, insects, meat, egg, etc.

There are a number of measures that can help prevent your pet developing diseases. You should discuss the special needs of your pet with your vet.

Vaccinations

Gerbils do not require vaccinations.

Dental care

All rodents have front teeth that grow continuously, so a high fibre diet is essential to allow the teeth to wear down naturally. You could provide something for your pet to gnaw on, for example a wood or hide chew toy. This will help to keep your pet’s teeth in good condition and prevent dental problems.

If you notice any signs of overlong teeth then your vet will be able to burr the teeth down and advise you further.

If your gerbil has a poor coat condition, dull eyes, dirty ears, eyes or nose it may indicate that they are unwell. Changes in behaviour (a normally happy and affectionate animal may become grumpy and avoid human contact, preferring to hide away by itself), altered appetite or water consumption should also alert you to the possibility that there may be a problem.

Most animals recover from illness in 24-48 hours – if your pet does not seem to be improving in this time or is getting worse then you should contact your vet.

Gerbils: parasitic diseases

Luckily gerbils generally don’t suffer from parasitic diseases, especially if they are kept in a clean, dry, warm environment. However there are some that you should keep an eye out for, just in case.

Although parasitic diseases are rare in gerbils, they can occur, however parasitism of the gerbil rarely causes clinical disease problems.

Problems seen include mange mites, blood lice, ringworm and intestinal worms.

Alopecia in aged or debilitated gerbils may be due to mange mites.

These mites are microscopic, so your vet will have to take a skin scrapes of affected areas which may reveal hamster demodectic mange mites, Demodex aurati or Demodex criceti.

Blood lice (also known as bird lice) are very small and are either red or brown in colour. They are often brought in by birds, or are found in contaminated bedding. Blood lice can also bite humans and other animals in the household.

To avoid your gerbil from becoming infested with blood lice, ensure it doesn’t come into contact with birds, and ensure your bedding is fresh and clean.

Blood lice can be treated with treatments available from your local pet shop.

Ringworm is a fungal disease of the skin, similar to Athlete’s foot in humans – it’s not a worm. Ringworm in also contagious for humans.

It is recognised by obvious red patches of circular hair loss. Your vet will be able to confirm the ringworm by looking at the bare spot with a fluorescent lamp, they can also take a few hairs from the affected area and place them inside a culture jar, fungus will grow over the next few days and then ringworm fungus can be detected.

Ringworm can be easily treated with cream and usually resolves within a week. Make sure to disinfect the cage, and wash your hands very well after handling your gerbil, if you suspect it has ringworm.

Intestinal parasites seen in gerbils may include mouse pinworms (Syphacia obvelata) which can be found in the caecum, and a small intestinal gerbil pinworm, Dentostomella translucida.

Syphacia eggs can be recovered on a cellophane tape test, while Dentostomella ova are identified by the faecal flotation test, used to determine the presence of roundworm eggs in faeces.

Gerbils are also commonly colonised by intestinal flagellated protozoa (Giardia and Tritrichomonas spp). No clinical signs of disease are usually associated with naturally occurring parasitic worm infections in gerbils.

Gerbils: nasal dermatitis

Nasal dermatitis is also known as “sore nose”, “facial eczema” and “facial dermatitis”. Incidence of the disease is higher in weanlings than in adults, but is a fairly common condition seen in gerbils.

Trauma, stress, hypersecretion/accumulation of Harderian gland secretions, and superficial bacterial infections, ie Staphylococcus spp, have all been associated with the development of nasal dermatitis.

Stresses such as overcrowding, weaning and environmental variations can cause an increased secretion of porphyrin-containing fluid from the Harderian gland.

Accumulation of these secretions around the nostrils and eyes may result in irritation, self-induced trauma and secondary bacterial infections.

If your gerbil has the condition you will notice the following signs: hair loss, redness of the skin, small areas of skin inflammation and frequent scab and ulcer formation are all features of the typical case.

The area around the nose is normally affected most severely, at least in early cases.

The area around the eyes frequently becomes involved in more chronic cases. Well-established, moist, ulcerative skin inflammation can spread to involve the remainder of the head, the forelimbs, chest and abdomen.

If you notice any of these signs, you should take your gerbil to the vet. In cases where secondary bacterial infections have become established, antibiotics may be required.

You will need to make sure that your general husbandry is good, making sure your gerbils are kept clean and a reduction of environmental and husbandry stresses will aid in the control of this disease.

Gerbils: miscellaneous health problems

Two medical conditions of gerbils that demand special mentions are nasal dermatitis and Tyzzer’s disease, therefore these are covered in separate factsheets. However, there are other medical conditions that affect gerbils that are briefly covered here.

Older gerbils commonly develop a number of spontaneous neoplasms (abnormal mass of tissue) most commonly affecting the skin, adrenal gland, kidney, spleen, intestine and the female reproductive tract.

The most frequently seen neoplasms include leiomyomas (muscle mass), subcutaneous fibrosarcomas (malignant tissue tumour), sebaceous and adrenal adenomas (benign tumour), sebaceous adenocarcinomas (cancer), splenic hemangiomas (tumour of blood vessels), duodenal adenocarcinomas (cancer of the small intestine – usually in males), and malignant melanomas (skin cancer). Diagnosis is based on clinical course of the disease and histopathology (microsopic examination of tissue).

Other syndromes commonly seen in aged gerbils include cystic ovaries (20% of all females) and chronic interstitial glomerulonephritis (a type of kidney disease). Cystic ovarian disease accounts for the majority of cases of decreased fertility in breeding aged gerbils. Gerbils with glomerulonephritis develop polyuria (increased urine production) and polydipsia (increased thirst), and progressive weight loss clinically. Chronic interstitial glomerulonephritis may occur in combination with neoplastic lesions.

Yes, gerbils have delicate tails so you should be careful when handling them.

Fractures of the tail vertebrae, and slipping of the tail skin can all occur with improper handling. This usually involves picking up animals by the end of the tail. Tails can also be injured when caught in gerbil wheels or other such toys, and also when playing with other gerbils.

A gerbil’s tail will usually heal very quickly without veterinary attention, but in some cases surgical amputation with cautery (silver nitrate cautery) and supportive post-surgical care.

Hair loss on the tail is sometime seen in cages that are overcrowded; hair will normally grow back once the cage population is reduced.

An unkept, matted hair coat is often an indicator of excessive humidity levels in the environment (50% relative humidity). Rough looking hair is also the most frequent physical reflection of active disease in most rodents; if you notice this in your gerbil you should take him to see your vet.

This problem is often seen in animals kept in solid-topped aquariums or microisolator cages. These should be fitted with a ventilated lid which will allow adequate air exchange to remove excess moisture which will prevent an excessively humid environment for your gerbil.

Aminoglycosides (bacterial antibiotics) are toxic to gerbils. Antibiotic ointments containing aminoglycosides have caused death in gerbils, presumably from ingesting the ointment. They have also been seen to experience neuromuscular paralysis from impaired acetylcholine (a chemical found in the nervous system) release.

Tapeworm infections (Hymenolepis nana or H. diminuta) have been infrequently reported to cause clinical signs of dehydration and diarrhoea during heavy infections in a wide variety of rodents.

Tapeworm infections have not been reported in the gerbil, but the lack of host specificity of H. nana makes the risk of infection possible in any rodent. Because of the concern for human infection, tapeworm infections in gerbils should be definitively diagnosed.

Salmonella enteritis (inflammation of the intestines caused by the Salmonella bacteria), along with protozoal infestation and food deprivation, have all been reported to be causes of enteritis in gerbils. The affected animal may rarely have moderate to severe diarrhoea, but frequently displays a rough hair coat, weight loss, depression and dehydration. Acute death will sometimes be encountered.

Gross lesions may include a congested liver, gastrointestinal distension (enlargement) and a fibrinosuppurative peritonitis in gerbils with salmonellosis. Positive culture of Salmonella spp should indicate concern for personnel safety. No treatment has been reported to be effective and severely affected colonies should be depopulated.

Gerbils: how to tame

Taming a gerbil requires some patience to gain their trust, but it will make handling your gerbils much easier and it is also extremely rewarding.

Here are some simple steps to follow:

  • Give new gerbils a few days to adjust to their new home before handling them – keep maintenance and interaction to a minimum.
  • Move slowly and speak softly around the gerbils.
  • Limit interaction to times when the gerbil is awake – waking a gerbil isn’t a good way to gain its trust!
  • Initially just sit next to cage to acclimate gerbils to your presence.
  • Offer a treat (sunflower or pumpkin seeds) when the gerbil approaches the cage bars.
  • Once the gerbil take treats from your hand through the bars of the cage, open the cage door and offer a treat through that.
  • Once taking treats this way, place a treat on your open hand to entice the gerbil to step up onto your hand to retrieve it.
  • Place a treat on your forearm and allow the gerbil to climb onto your hand and up your arm.
  • When your gerbil is comfortable with your hand, try gently scratching the sides and back of the head – this immitates the natural grooming behaviour of gerbils.
  • Avoid chasing or grabbing the gerbils to get them back into their cage if they have been out. Rather, try to entice the gerbils back with their favorite treats or try to gently herd them back to the cage.
  • Handle your gerbils regularly to keep them well socialised.
  • Gerbils are active and curious and will appreciate daily time outside the cage.

Gerbil fans say that gerbils make good pets due to their temperament, and ease of care. They tend to be easily tamed and are not as skittish as some other small rodents.

They also aren’t as inclined to bite unless threatened (as always there are exceptions), and are easy to handle. Coming from a dry natural habitat they are designed to conserve water, so produce scant urine and dry droppings, making it fairly easy to keep their cage fresh and clean.

They go through several sleep/active cycles in the course of 24 hours, although they do tend to be more active at night. They are very curious and will explore anything, and can be quite entertaining. Gerbils are social animals, living in colonies in the wild, so do not do well as a solitary pet.

Keeping a same sex pair (litter mates usually do well together) is much preferred. If you have a single older gerbil, it can be difficult to introduce a new one though as they are quite territorial.

Gerbils: how to handle

Generally, frequent handling will keep your gerbil quite tame. If your gerbil is difficult to handle, and all else fails, bribery with their favourite food, for example sunflower seeds, can help make a gerbil more amenable to handling. Gerbils are particularly difficult to catch if they escape from their cage, so bribery with their favourite food will definitely help in this situation!

Here are some handy hints on picking up gerbils…

  • Never pick up a gerbil by the tail – they are delicate and can easily break.
  • The best way to carry a gerbil is to simply cup them in the palm of your hand. It is also possible to gently hold them by the scruff of the neck (the loose skin on the back of the neck) to prevent the gerbil from getting away, if necessary.
  • If absolutely necessary you can hold a gerbil firmly by first holding them by the scruff of the neck, and then holding the base of the tail with the other hand (cradling the gerbil’s back in the palm of the hand holding the neck). You must only hold the very base of the tail as close to the body as possible, and not too tightly.
  • If you are not comfortable picking up an untamed gerbil as above, then allow the gerbil to walk into a cup or can turned on its side, and then tip the cup up to carry the gerbil. Place a hand over the cup as gerbils can jump surprisingly well. You can also use a cardboard tube, e.g. from a paper towel roll, for this purpose.

Gerbils: how to give a health check

Gerbils are generally very healthy robust little creatures who never have a day’s illness in their lives, however just occasionally they do suffer from various ailments. If recognized early, your vet can treat most of these successfully. Gerbils are incredibly healthy compared to most other pet rodents, and 90% of them never need veterinary treatment. If you spend a lot of time with your pets, then it is likely that you would soon notice if anything were wrong.

If a gerbil is huddled in a corner all by itself, its fur is all bedraggled and it looks miserable, then something is definitely wrong and you should seek immediate veterinary treatment. Try offering a sunflower seed, if the gerbil does not immediately seize on it and eat it, then you should be very worried.

If a gerbil makes a clicking or rasping noise, it probably has a chest infection. This is particularly common in young gerbils just passed weaning and elderly gerbils when the weather is abnormally cold or hot. Prompt antibiotic treatment is essential.

All gerbils have a scent gland in the middle of their tummy. This is long, thin and yellow in colour, and is sometimes mistaken for a wound or tumour.

Gerbils mark their territory by rubbing their scent gland on it. Male gerbils kept with other males are particularly prone to scent gland tumours which is caused by excessive marking of territory. It usually starts off just looking like a pimple, and sometimes never develops beyond this stage, but sometimes it grows rapidly and starts to bleed.

Although it does not spread to other parts of the body, it can grow internally as well as externally and compromise internal organs. If the tumour bleeds, it can also get infected. Removal is a simple surgical procedure and almost always results in 100% cure, so is well worth the expense.

Sore noses are one of the most common gerbil health problems. They can be caused by allergy to bedding, especially cedar, over-enthusiastic burrowing with the nose, or stress.

Whatever the initial cause, the main problem is that a sore nose can become infected with bacteria and will need treating with an antibiotic ointment.

Often the first time an owner realizes there is a tooth problem, is when the gerbil rapidly loses weight but otherwise appears healthy.

On examination it will be found to have lost one or more of its front teeth. This means it cannot eat its usual food and needs a soft diet, e.g. baby food, biscuit crumb, bread soaked in milk. Usually the tooth grows back again within a week.

Meanwhile, the gerbil cannot gnaw and the remaining teeth may grow too long and require trimming.

You should examine your gerbil’s coat regularly. The odd scab, especially around the base of the tail, probably indicates fighting has broken out. This may have been a trivial argument over an extra-large sunflower seed, but it may also be a warning of worse to come, so be aware and monitor the situation carefully.

External parasites are rare on gerbils, however if your gerbil has an inflamed, scabby, bald round patch on its coat, then it could just possibly be ringworm. Ringworm is highly contagious, so take no chances and consult your vet.

It comes as something of a shock when your gerbil suddenly emerges minus half of its tail. The gerbil’s tail with its striking black tip, is designed so it is easily shed if caught by a predator.

The same thing can happen if you pick up the gerbil by the tip of its tail or if the gerbil gets its tail trapped underneath something – it might look awful, and there will be a lot of blood and the tail bone will be exposed, but 99% of broken tails heal without veterinary treatment. Within a few days, the bone just withers away and the gerbil is left with half a tail. It many not look as beautiful but its ability to get around and generally get on with its life won’t be impeded in any way.

Head tilt

A tendency to go round in circles or hold its head in a tilted position suggest an inner ear problem. It could be an infection, so antibiotic treatment is a good precaution. However, the cause is more likely to be a small cyst-like growth in the ear. Once a gerbil has developed a head-tilt, it will never go away.

Lameness/paralysis

If your gerbil is limping or holding one of its paws in the air, it could have a sprain or even a small break in one of its limbs. Unless the animal looks in distress, it is best to leave it alone and let it heal naturally. In most cases it will do so without veterinary treatment.

If your gerbil appears paralyzed down one side or is dragging its hind legs, it could have had a stroke. There is not a lot you can do apart from keeping it warm and making sure it has access to food and water. This may mean you have to feed it by hand. If the gerbil is going to recover, it should do so within a week.

A slight disability such as a limp may always remain. If the gerbil does not recover sufficiently to allow it to have a reasonable quality of life, then it may be kinder to have it put to sleep.

Genital problems

Females that have had many litters occasionally get a prolapse of the uterus, and males occasionally get swollen penises. Both of these conditions should be seen to by a vet who will administer appropriate treatment.

Gerbils: housing

In the wild gerbils live in burrows and spend the most of their time foraging for food, so you should try to mimic this environment for your gerbil when creating a home for him. Your gerbil will need plenty of room to eat, sleep and run around.

Gerbils should be kept in pairs or groups. Depending on the number of gerbils you have, you must make sure that the housing you choose is big enough for all of them.

Keeping a same sex pair (litter mates usually do well together) is much preferred. If you have a single older gerbil, it can be difficult to introduce a new one though as they can be quite territorial.

Gerbils go through several sleep/active cycles in a 24 hours period, although they do tend to be more active at night. They are very curious and will explore anything, and can be quite entertaining. Gerbils are social animals, living in colonies in the wild, so do not do well as a solitary pet.

Gerbils need to be kept indoors and careful thought must be given to where the cage will be kept. The temperature in the room should be constant, away from direct sunlight and draughts, and out of reach of any other pets.

Coming from a dry natural habitat gerbils are designed to conserve water, so produce small amounts of urine and dry droppings, making it fairly easy to keep their cage fresh and clean.

A pair of gerbils don’t require a huge amount of space, but a tank of approximately 75 x 40 x 30cm will give them enough room to run about in and plenty of space to put in lots of toys.

The larger the tank the nicer it will be for your gerbils, allowing them more space to run around in and for creativity with furnishings and toys. If an aquarium is used, a ventilated lid will be necessary because gerbils can jump very well!

A wire cage with fairly narrow wire spacing will also work well. Plastic and wooden cages do not hold up very well to the gerbils’ chewing habits.

Ideally the cage will have two levels and two compartments so they can use one for the day and one to nest and hide in at night-time. Gerbils prefer to sleep separately at night, so you need to make sure each gerbil has their own nesting areas.

You could also provide an extra run for your gerbil so he can get extra exercise when you are about. However gerbils tend to be frightened of large open spaces, but once they get used to it they will love playing in a run that contains lots of toys, such as boxes, flowerpots, drain pipes and logs.

A wheel should be provided for exercise, but the wheel should be modified or wrapped, e.g. with duct tape, to provide a solid surface for them to run on and to prevent their tails from getting caught and injured in the open rungs of a typical hamster wheel.

Gerbils will explore and enjoy a variety of toys, such as empty toilet paper rolls, small boxes and nests. Keep in mind the gerbil will chew everything you put in its cage so make sure toys are non toxic and not harmful if accidentally ingested.

Gerbils: feeding a healthy diet

In the wild, gerbils live partly on dry seeds, but these are emergency rations for when something more nutritious is not available. Gerbils need some animal protein in their diet, so they will eat insects; but also eat fresh vegetable material.

It is recommended to feed a good variety of foods and leaving seed mixtures until completely eaten; otherwise some gerbils will pick out sunflower seeds and corn from seed mixtures, leaving the high protein, low fat seeds behind.

A good quality commercial gerbil mix will take the place of the seed part of your gerbil’s diet and you can feed a mixture of fruit and vegetables as well as a source of animal protein. The protein can be provided in the form of some complete cat food, chopped hard-boiled egg or insects.

To keep your pet trim, use fatty sunflower seeds and peanuts only as a treat. Feed the gerbils only what they’ll eat at the time, although this can be difficult to ascertain since they will take much of their food and bury it around the cage.

Gerbils enjoy fruits and vegetables, so try giving pears, apples, carrots and lettuce, and supply some untreated wood for them to have a chew on.

If you want to give your gerbils live insects, you will need to find a pet shop that specialises in reptile feeds. Lots of small lizards have to be fed on live insects, and things like mealworms and crickets are bred for this purpose. If you get insects from a shop, you can be sure they’ve had no contact with insecticides or other harmful chemicals. Crickets are better than mealworms for two reasons:

  1. Mealworms just sit there, but the gerbil gets exercise chasing the more active crickets.
  2. Mealworms are very, very low in calcium, which is essential for good bone strength – if gerbils eat too many mealworms, it can upset their calcium balance.

No, you don’t! Feeding live insects is probably only possible if you keep your gerbil in a big aquarium tank. If you don’t feed live insects, try cheese, meat, egg or yoghurt.

It isn’t a good idea to feed too many sunflower seeds, as they are high in fat and low in calcium. Commercial gerbil mixes do contain some sunflower seeds, and in small quantities these will do no harm, but they should not be a significant part of the diet.

However, gerbils particularly like sunflower seeds; you will notice that your gerbil will take out and eat all the sunflower seeds first; so you will need to make sure you do not feed too much mix otherwise your gerbil will eat his favourite seeds and not much else!

The best gerbil mixes are those that contain animal protein. These are sold in sealed packs, with a sell by date on them, this ensures the food is fresh and you can also check the vitamin content on the packet. When buying this type of gerbil food, be sure to buy small quantities, this will ensure the food is always fresh. Once you have opened a new packet, store it in an airtight, insect-proof container.

Gerbils normally thrive on a good quality gerbil mix, but they may have deficiency problems when fed home-made diets, sunflower seed diets or table scraps which lack specific nutrients. Signs of deficiencies will manifest as in other mammals. A feeding level of 5 grams of gerbil mix per day has been recommended to prevent obesity, which can predispose them to islet cell hyperplasia and hyperglycemia.