I was in the 10th grade, the day I excitedly walked in the back door of our family home one afternoon, home from school and carrying a pair of agouti Mongolian gerbils–male and female, compliments of my biology teacher. I don’t think my mother spoke to me for a week. It was the maddest I had ever known her to be at me. The moral of the story?
Always ask your parents before bringing reproducing rodents into the household.
I had been told the pair of gerbils had been together for a while but no breeding had taken place and so no babies had been produced and that they were “probably sterile.” Yeah, right. Oh, gullible me!
My mother informed me that the care of the gerbils would be my responsibility. Feeding, watering, and cleaning their cage would be solely left to me. I wanted it no other way. We decided for temporary housing, we would use an old parakeet cage. I retrieved it from the attic and washed and sanitized it. They lived in this parakeet cage for the remainder of their lives because they seemed so happy in it. Knowing nothing about gerbils, I decided a trip to the local pet store was in order. I purchased food, a water bottle, chewing treats, an exercise wheel, and bedding material. I found this very informative little book, which I read through many times.
The book taught me everything I needed to know about feeding and caring for my new little friends. I also checked out books about gerbils from our public library and I read all I could about them. I learned a few interesting facts about gerbils.
- Gerbils are for the most part quiet, friendly, calm, and curious little creatures and make excellent pets
- They are very social animals and get quite attached to their human owners
- They are quite playful and will box and wrestle with each other, making them amusing to watch
- They mark their territory by rubbing their abdomens on cage bottoms and various objects, even their babies
- A gerbil’s life span is 3-4 years in captivity and 2-3 years in the wild
- Their natural habitat is the desert so they drink less and therefore produce less urine
- Their waste is odorless, unlike other rodents often kept as pets
- Gerbils are very clean animals
- They love to burrow
- Gerbils eat a variety of things: nuts, fruits, veggies, and seeds
- They are diurnal, meaning they are awake during the day
- Their teeth always grow
- They are food hoarders but have no cheek pouches like hamsters
- They have a very stable family unit and they make great parents
- They are generally monogamous (meaning they usually mate for life)
I was fascinated with these little creatures and I quickly became attached. While it may have taken my mother a while to admit it, she fell in love with them too. By the time she did admit it, I had already known it because it was so evident by her behavior. I often caught her sneaking little bits of apple, carrots or raisins to them or adding extra bedding to their cage on cold nights. And I witnessed her on many occasions bending over their cage, talking to them or giving them a scratch on the head.
I named the male gerbil Algernon and strangely, the name I gave the female was Alsatian (don’t ask me why because Alsatian is another name for a German Shepherd dog). They were both docile and I enjoyed observing their behavior. Since gerbils like to burrow, I put a lot of bedding material in their cage and they liked to make tunnels in it. They loved shredding paper towels and tissues and mixing that into their bedding. I used juice cans for permanent tunnels and toilet paper and paper towel rolls for temporary tunnels (they loved to chew and shred the cardboard rolls up, so they never lasted long). When I would put a fresh cardboard roll in their cage, they always made it a habit to run through them very fast several times and then the chewing began.
My mother and I noticed right off the bat how clean and organized their cage always was. They arranged it so that one corner was their bed and sleeping area, one corner was “the bathroom, and one corner was their food and water area.
I only had the gerbils about two weeks when I noticed the female’s abdomen seemed to be growing as evidenced by the fact that she could no longer “squeeze” through the cardboard tubes I was putting in the cage. I debated on whether or not I should even tell my mother but I didn’t have to. She had eyes and could see for herself.
Three weeks after I had acquired them, my “sterile” female gerbil gave birth to six little pinkie baby gerbils. And the fun began. Oh how we enjoyed watching this little family of gerbils. Everything I had read about gerbils being attentive parents was SO true! I fell even more in love with these gerbils after their first litter was born. The father gerbil was such a good daddy and helped care for the babies. I witnessed him cleaning the mother as she nursed her young. I witnessed him even bringing food to her as she nursed which was so sweet. These gerbils were definitely the doting parents. Gerbils are born pink and hairless and blind and deaf. They are only about the size of the end of your pinkie when born but grow quickly.
And let me tell you, there’s nothing cuter than a 2-3 week old baby gerbil!
So once about every 26 days, my female gerbil gave birth. It was always six babies (average number being about 4-7). At about six weeks when they would become weaned, I’d have to part with them and it was always so difficult. I had a deal worked out with the red-headed owner of the pet shop I frequented a lot (who reminded me so much of Susan Sarandon). I would take her my six weaned babies and in return she would give me two boxes of gerbil food. I kept her supplied in baby gerbils and she kept me supplied with food. I made her promise to not feed my babies to snakes. She promised.
Gerbils have what’s called a postpartum heat and usually breed right after the last baby is born. I did try once to separate the male and female after a litter was born to give the mother a break from pregnancy and birthing, but it didn’t go well. They DID NOT like being apart and showed visible signs of stress. Gerbils have a thumping behavior when they’re scared or stressed. They pound their back legs in a rapid motion and this behavior on the bottom of a metal cage can be quite loud. Baby gerbils thump just to thump and do it quite often. Male gerbils can thump when they’re in the mood to breed. When they were separated, every gerbil body was thumping. So I put them back together and never separated them again.
The years flew by and eventually the gerbil litters became smaller (a sign of age in the female). Males can breed for life, but females usually lose their fertility. Yes, the litter size dropped and there were also some stillbirths. At one birth, three babies were born. Two were stillborn and then a very small tiny live baby. I thought for sure the lone survivor wasn’t longed for this world but miraculously, it survived. My mother gave it the perfect name. Uno. I remember to help the mother gerbil out with her dwindling milk supply, I read in a book to give pieces of bread soaked in milk. So I did and she LOVED this little treat. Uno was slow to grow, seemed somewhat unthrifty, and didn’t grow hair on the top of his head for a full year. When Uno was weaned, there was no way we could part with him so we kept him. We joked that we would just have to keep him since we knew the pet store lady wouldn’t give us a box of gerbil food for just one scrawny gerbil.
Life with baby gerbils was never dull. There was the day all the babies escaped between the bars of the cage and got under my sister’s dresser. They were easy to catch. I slid a paper towel roll under the dresser, they all ran in it, and that was that.
Uno was the sweetest gerbil of them all. He never tried breeding with his mother (proof to me that she was indeed monogamous). She did go on to have one live litter after he was born, and he too helped to care for the babies. He took care of his mother (and his father) in their old age and it was heartwarming to see. Uno was the only one of my gerbils to have epileptic seizures, which is very common in gerbils. Seizures can be brought on by handling or even just putting something new in the cage. The seizures are inherited and they usually recover fine from them. Uno’s were just about always brought on by handling, so he wasn’t handled except when he needed to be removed from the cage for cleaning.
I went off to college and left my family of three gerbils in the care of my parents. I knew they were in great hands. I missed them like crazy but came home every weekend. About a year after Uno was born, I was home for the weekend and I awoke on a Saturday morning to find his mother had died during the night. She was around four years old and had lived a good long life. Uno and his father had partially cannibalized one side of her face before I found her. In all honesty, this traumatized me a bit and made me mad at them. But I had to remind myself that these were desert animals and that was how they were going to dispose of her. A year or so later Algernon died.
So it was just little Uno and he went on to live about five years (a pretty long life for a gerbil). I’m sure his little heart just failed him. He died in my cupped hands and my mother and I cried buckets of tears. Our sweet gerbil family, who we were so attached to and loved, was gone.
I think my mother took Uno’s death harder than I did. Who would have ever thought the woman who went an entire week without speaking to me when I brought that pair of gerbils home from high school that day, would grieve them so deeply. As we sat there with tears streaming down our face, I reminded her how mad she had gotten the day I brought the gerbil pair home. She wiped her eyes, nodded her head, smiled, and we both laughed hard. Then we both busted into tears again. We buried Uno in the backyard next to his parents. God rest all their sweet little precious souls.
So when I’m asked what makes a good pet for older children? My answer without a doubt is always, ALWAYS gerbils.