Category: rodents

Gerbils: epilepsy

Gerbils can suffer from spontaneous epileptiform seizures (epilepsy). These seizures may be precipitated by sudden stress, handling or introduction to a novel environment. Incidence of this syndrome is about 20% in natural populations.

Epilepsy appears to be inherited, and both seizure-resistant and seizure-sensitive strains have been developed by selective breeding. Inbred animals can have up to 100% incidence.

Seizures vary in severity from mild hypnotic episodes, characterized by cessation of activity and twitching of the pinnae and vibrissae, to severe myoclonic convulsions followed by tonic extensor rigidity. Post-seizure fatality occurs in <1% of affected animals.

There is no permanent damage – seizure onset occurs at 2-3 months of age with seizure incidence and severity increasing with age until the animal reaches six months of age.

A refractory period of up to five days can follow more severe seizures.

Research has shown that the seizure response can be almost completely suppressed in genetically predisposed animals if they are frequently stimulated by handling during the first three weeks of life.

No – anticonvulsant therapy is neither necessary nor recommended.

Gerbils: behaviour

Gerbils make nice pets and are fascinating to watch. Gerbils are very social animals, and it is not a good idea to keep them singly. Pair bonded or family units of gerbils are usually quite affectionate with each other.

Gerbils love to play, chasing each other around, wrestling and boxing. They will also groom one another, sleep in piles, and cuddle together. Your gerbils will be much happier if kept at least in pairs (same sex unless you plan to breed, which requires a lot more care).

Some gerbils will fight, although this is sometimes difficult to distinguish from the play wrestling or boxing behaviour commonly exhibited. Often, one animal will appear distressed and loud high pitched squeaks may be heard, and the behaviour appears more intense and violent than play.

Some gerbils, however, just cannot seem to get along. Young gerbils in the wild are sent off to find their own territories, so family groups may begin fighting as the babies mature. If so, they need to be separated.

If you have a single gerbil, or if one of a pair dies, it can be very difficult to introduce a new gerbil, especially mature gerbils, i.e. greater than 8-10 weeks old.

It is best to keep a group of similarly aged gerbils that are raised together from a young age, but if you need to introduce older gerbils, try and follow this advice:

  • Get a divided cage, or use a cage within a cage, to allow the gerbils to see and smell each other with no contact.
  • Place one gerbil in each side of the divider.
  • Several times a day, swap the gerbils from side to side, so that the gerbils get used to each others’ scent.
  • Once the gerbils appear curious and not aggressive to each other, the divider can be removed (about 3 days, usually).
  • Watch for 20 minutes, wearing leather gloves, so that the gerbils can be separated if fighting occurs.
  • If the gerbils fight, go back to the divided cage stage and repeat. If two or three tries with the divided cage trick doesn’t stop the fighting, they may never get along.
  • If there is no fighting after 20 minutes, the gerbils can be left as long as you are nearby if any problems arise. If they cuddle up to sleep, they will likely be okay.

Sometimes certain gerbils just don’t get along, so if gerbils persist in fighting, it may be necessary to just keep them separated.

This is something gerbils do when they are either excited or stressed, as a warning to other gerbils. The thumping is produced by pounding both hind legs on the ground.

Often, if one gerbil is startled and begins thumping, others in the enclosure or room will also begin thumping. It varies in loudness and tempo, depending on the urgency or meaning, but can be quite loud considering gerbils are so small!

The infectious nature of the thumping means that if some activity in the home produces a rhythmic thumping or clicking type noise, the gerbils may join in.

Young gerbils may do quite a bit of thumping, but often it seems that it is just a learning activity rather than a danger warning. Thumping is also an important part of the mating ritual.

Gerbils will often groom themselves, including each another.

As well as the benefits to their coats, this is an important part of their social interaction. Gerbils also appreciate being offered sand so they can have a dust bath – they will roll and play in the sand, which helps to clean their fur.

Gerbils make a high pitched squeaking noise, but this is usually as youngsters. Adults usually only vocalize when playing, if they’re excited or if stressed.

Gerbils, like most other rodents, are avid chewers and will chew their way through everything, even their cage furnishings, somewhat regularly.

It is important to provide appropriate chewing toys, like wooden blocks and branches, to allow the gerbils to indulge this natural chewing and gnawing activity.

In the wild, gerbils live in a complex system of tunnels and burrows, so it is nice to allow your gerbil to have room to burrow in their enclosure. A deep layer of wood shavings combined with hay will provide the perfect material to allow your gerbil to do some burrowing.

Gerbils have a scent gland on their abdomen, and this is used to mark items in their territory. Gerbils that rub their stomachs on their cage furnishings are simply marking their territory.

Gerbils: a history

Gerbils, i.e. Mongolian gerbils, are small rodents with long furry tails that have a tuft of fur at the end. They are larger than mice, but smaller than typical hamsters (syrian hamsters, not dwarf hamsters).

The wild type coloration is “agouti”, where each hair is banded, usually gray next to the skin, then a yellowish colour, then ticked with black, with off-white hair on the belly. However, through selective breeding, several lovely colour variations are now seen.

In their dry native habitats of Asia and Africa gerbils have few natural enemies and seem more curious than fearful of humans. The Mongolian gerbil, the most common species sold in stores, is a born burrower and will develop networks of tunnels with food storage, nesting, and sleeping sites. Gerbils are 4-6 inches long, excluding the tail, and have a lifespan of 3-5 years.

The gerbil family is made up of roughly 100 species. There are 14 basic groups of gerbils. The species most commonly kept as pets is the Mongolian Gerbil, whose scientific name is Meriones unguiculatus. Gerbils whose scientific name begin with “Meriones” are also known as “jirds” which roughly means “large desert rodent”.

The Mongolian gerbil is therefore also known as the Clawed Jird. Other jirds also kept as pets include Sundevall’s Jird (Meriones crassus), the Libyan Jird (Meriones libycus), and Shaw’s Jird (Meriones shawi). Shaw’s Jird is large, even tempered and makes a good pet, and when fanciers use the term jird they are often referring to this species. Therefore, the term “gerbil” most commonly refers to the Mongolian Gerbil, and the term “jird” most commonly refers to Shaw’s Jird. Confused? There’s more:

There are two other species of gerbil which do not belong to the genus Meriones, but that are also referred to as jirds. These are the Bushy Tailed Jird (Sekeetamys calurus), and the Fat Tailed Jird (Pachyuromys duprasis). However, these are more commonly referred to as the “bushy tail” and the “duprasi” respectively. There are many other species of gerbil, some of which are less commonly kept as pets, but they are too numerous to cover here.

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). 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.

Chinchillas: 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 chinchilla 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 chinchilla will have bright eyes, clean ears, eyes and nose and be interested in what is going on around it.

If your chinchilla’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 chinchilla must be fed a healthy diet and allowed regular exercise.

The closer your chinchilla’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.

Chinchillas are herbivores, which means they only eat vegetable matter e.g. hay and/or alfalfa. This can be supplemented with a pelleted diet if you choose.

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.


It is a sad truth that the number of pets born every year is far greater than the number of good homes that can be found for them. As a result, thousands of healthy animals are destroyed and many unwanted ones are abandoned. Neutering is a common procedure in rabbits and chinchillas can also be neutered.


Chinchillas do not require vaccinations.

Dental care

All rodents and rabbits have front teeth that grow continuously, so a high fibre diet of hay and/or grass is essential to allow the teeth to wear down naturally.

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 chinchilla 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.

Chinchillas: feeding a healthy diet

When chinchillas were first imported from South America – into the United States initially, and then into Europe – people found it really difficult, at first, to keep them alive in captivity. This was mainly because of a lack of understanding of what wild chinchillas eat. Chinchillas are entirely herbivorous (they only eat vegetable matter) and where they live in the wild, most of the vegetation is quite fibrous and dry, not lush and juicy! They eat grasses and other low-growing greenstuff, and chew the bark off trees.

Chinchillas need a diet that is high in fibre, quite high in protein, but low in moisture and very low in fat. High fat foods will cause liver disease and greenstuff that is too lush will give them colic or bloat. A diet lacking in fibre will cause poor gut movement, and allow the teeth to get overgrown. Chinchilla teeth, like those of rabbits and guinea pigs, grow constantly throughout the life of the animal, and need to be worm down by constant chewing.

The most important part of the diet for your chinchilla is hay. There should always be hay available. It must be good quality hay – sweet smelling, not musty, and certainly without any trace of mould. Feed the hay in a small rack and refill it each day, removing any that’s been pulled out of the rack.

Alfalfa block are much less messy, but some chinchillas don’t like them. You can give them a try, but don’t stop giving hay completely until you are sure your chinchilla is happy eating alfalfa. It is important that your chinchilla eats plenty of fibre.

Chinchilla pellets can be a convenient food source. However they should be rationed (except for pregnant or lactating females or very underweight chinchillas). A healthy adult chinchilla needs about a heaped tablespoon of pellets each day. If he is still hungry, he should be encouraged to eat more hay.

Chinchilla mixes are also available but these vary in quality. A good chinchilla mix should be high in fibre and have a fat level of 3% or less. It should be sold in small sealed packets, and smell sweet and fresh once opened. The problem with mixes is that they allow the chinchilla to select his favourite items and leave the rest – which may mean that he ends up with less than a balanced diet. This can be controlled to some extent by only feeding a small amount at a time and not topping the bowl up when it is empty. Muesli mixes should be avoided.

Ideally pellets should be fed as they prevent selective feeding. However, they come in two types; the genuine chinchilla pellet is very thin, long and very, very hard, giving lots of good gnawing exercise. The other type is broader, shorter and more crumbly (more like rabbit pellets) – these are of poorer quality.

Most chinchillas, especially young animals or mothers with kits, occasionally have fits caused by low calcium levels in the blood. This may be caused by the diet being too low in calcium or the chinchilla being unable to take up and use the calcium in the diet. In these cases, or if the chinchilla has developed tooth problems, your vet may suggest that you give a vitamin/mineral supplement. However, over-supplementation, or wrong supplementation can cause problems; so do check with your vet first.

Most chinchillas will do almost anything for a peanut, a raisin or a sunflower seed. Unfortunately, only one of these is a good idea – both peanuts and sunflower seeds are very high in fat so can contribute to liver disease (although the odd one or two every now and then won’t do much harm). Raisins and sultanas are treats traditionally fed to chinchillas, and yes, they are very sweet which could lead to dental disease if fed in large quantities, but they are generally safe treats to feed… in moderation!

Chinchillas are related to guinea pigs, but this doesn’t mean their diets are the same. Chinchillas cannot cope with very lush green vegetation, however, you can feed things like carrot and apple (in small quantities), they also like to chew on branches of apple, pear or mulberry, and will eat other course weeds like plantain. However, if you feed anything from the garden, make sure it is free of chemicals.

Any changes you make to your chinchilla’s diet must be made very slowly, adding just a very little of the new food to start with, and remember don’t feed anything too lush or watery.

High fat diets can cause liver disease and even death; this could be a cause of overfeeding sunflower seeds or peanuts.

Dental problems can be caused through lack of chewing; therefore plenty of hay should be fed along with a good quality pelleted feed. Teeth problems can also be due, in part, to poor calcium metabolism. Check your chinchilla’s teeth regularly to make sure they are healthy and to detect any early signs of dental disease – you can do this like you would check a rabbit’s teeth.

Digestive problems can be caused through feeding poor quality, mouldy hay. Ensure your chinchillas hay is stored properly; if rats or mice get access to it, then chinchillas may develop listeriosis, an often fatal disease which can also affect people.