Basic handling, taming and selecting gerbils for breeding

Basic Handling

When you eventually get your gerbils home, the first instinct is always to get them out and play right away. However, this isn’t fair on the animals which is why some new owners instantly think their animals “hate” them, or are “nasty”, simply because they rushed in and ended up getting bitten.  Wherever you get your new gerbils, be it pet shop, rescue, or even a breeder, they will always need some time to recuperate from the journey and become accustomed to their new surroundings.

Websites and forums recommendations for new gerbils vary, but most the time it seems that two days of leaving them alone is the most commonly recommended amount of time. I find this may be too long, but with some skittish animals a longer period may be beneficial, however it doesn’t necessarily mean leave them in complete silence with no social interaction from you.

I find a few hours sufficient, especially if you have bought the gerbils from a good breeder, but work on what your gerbils tell you.  Gerbils don’t have to speak for us to understand how they feel, if they run and hide from your presence, they’re not up to being scooped out of their new home which, understandably, can be quite scary at first!

However, even if your new animals are nervous, that doesn’t mean that you can’t make baby steps towards handling.

Make sure to thoroughly wash your hands first, and just place a hand into the tank, palm up. Gerbils are naturally inquisitive, so don’t be surprised if they come over to have a sniff or even a nibble; for young gerbils, this is similar to how young babies put everything into their mouths. It won’t hurt, and try not to flinch as this will spook the gerbils. If you find you can’t help jumping, or the gerbils are biting harder, wear some thick gloves until your confidence has grown. If you have cardboard to hand, you can also hold it for them as they chew and stroke around their ears, and offer them popular titbits such as sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, small pieces of bread, etc, from the palm of your hand.

None of these methods involve picking up the animals, and are always a good starting block to taming your new gerbils.

Once you’ve gained the initial trust with your gerbils, you can move onto the next step. Naturally, only move at the pace your gerbils are comfortable with, if they’re particularly nervous, make sure to go nice and slow to avoid scaring them unnecessarily. Generally as a species, gerbils are very friendly, and taming doesn’t take very much time at all, but there are some that need you as their carer to go the extra mile and accommodate their own individual needs.

Some gerbils won’t need scooping up, there are those that will leap onto your hand at the first opportunity. For those of us with gerbils that need scooping, remember these steps;

  • Be calm, don’t start to panic or think that it won’t work. May seem like a silly step but animals can sense fear, especially so with gerbils as they have a very acute sense of smell and can even smell the adrenaline in your sweat. 
  • Use both hands at first; experienced owners can do it single handedly, for those with new gerbils or new to the gerbil world, use both hands. Place all fingers together so your hand forms a scooped shape.
  • Make sure the gerbil knows you’re there; don’t swoop and scare! Instinctively a gerbil will flee if it sees a shadow above them. It will think your hand is a predator.
  • Cup both hands around either side of the gerbil, gently moving your hands together so that the gerbil has to step up onto your palms.  If the gerbil continually moves away, pause for a bit, and then try again. If this continues, try scooping them from a corner of the tank.
  • If the gerbil is adamant that it will not step up onto you, try persuading it into a jar or coconut to lift it out and onto your lap or hand. Let the gerbil choose when it wants to leave, don’t tip it out.

Basic Training

Training for gerbils is a little trickier than other species, not because the gerbil is dumb, but because of the way its mind works. Put a gerbil into a maze and it will want to explore the entire thing, even once it has found the treat at the end, compared to a rat which will learn to go directly to the food.

However, like all other animals, you can teach them little things, but bear in mind their insatiable curiosity; they won’t learn similar to other rodent species. However, if you remember this and Pavlov’s research on conditioned reflexes in canines, you may find your gerbils learning little tricks!

Things you can try are coming to the front of the tank at a certain time, or running from your palm to your shoulder. Make sure to always reinforce these positive behaviours with lots of fuss and a favourite treat. The key things to remember are;

  1. Always make sure that when they're with you, it's fun. Even just running on your lap or through the sleeves of your jumper is like going to a fairground for a gerbil (make sure you choose clothes that you don't mind being nibbled!). I think this is the key to success in taming gerbils most of the time.
  2. Don't punish them for "bad" behaviour such as nipping by blowing in their face, drenching them in water, or pushing them around etc. These practices, especially blowing hard in their face, can easily trigger off a seizure in your gerbil, so shouldn’t be practiced nor recommended. When I say "bad" behaviour, this may not be necessarily so for your gerbil, because to gerbils, it's their natural behaviour and they aren't necessarily doing it to be nasty or to hurt you; to them there may be a good reason.  It usually arises from the gerbil being frightened, or in the case of mild nipping or nibbling, just being plain inquisitive, as nipping or nibbling in young pups and juveniles is normal and they will most often grow out of this behaviour. Some older gerbils may nip if they haven't been handled much but should soon grow out of it. If they nip, try to keep your hands still if possible or just slightly move your hand away and say "No" or similar (swearing seems to be the norm!), do not blow in their face, as I have mentioned earlier, in seizure-prone gerbils this can easily trigger an episode.
  3. Hand-feeding treats!  One excellent way of improving relations with your gerbil, and a method that is very satisfying for an owner too, is to hand feed your gerbils treats. However, If they associate your hand too much with food, they may start nipping your fingertips to try to get a snack; if this is the case, ease back on the treat-giving so they don't associate your presence or smell to food and don’t give in and treat them if they nip at you.  Remember only reinforce good behaviours.
  4. There are some gerbils that just plain and simply do not like being held. If this is the case for anyone and their gerbil, don't push things and get yourself bitten to death (gerbil bites hurt like crazy plus I can’t say it’s much fun when you have to have a tetanus jab). Just enjoy their company up to the point where they're comfortable, even if it means just watching their day to day business in their tank and only meddling to feed, clean, etc.

Remember that you may need to adjust your approach to your gerbil depending on their behaviour and to what extent they allow you to interact with them. It's a lot easier to make compromises yourself rather than to attempt or force your gerbil to change their behaviour completely.

Selecting gerbils for breeding

Although I’m not going to delve into this in depth in this article, but one of the most important factors when selecting gerbils for breeding should be the selection of tame and social individuals. Of course there are other important factors, like health, type, size, colour, and a previous history in the breeding lines of good parenting etc, but a tame and social gerbil should be sought if you are planning to breed.

As you can see, taming doesn’t come instantly, but if you purchase a gerbil from a good breeder, you should expect it to be easily handled from the beginning. So never accept or buy a gerbil that is skittish, especially if your aim is to breed it on further.

Also it is worth enquiring if the gerbil’s breeding line is social. Will it get on in a clan? Often a breeder will retire both males and females after a few litters. They will separate the mother from the father, and placing them along with their last litter of pups, into all female and all male groups or clans,  Sometimes these clans may involve young gerbils from other litters from different breeding lines. So it’s worth while checking if this is normal practice with the breeder, or are they just pumping out litter after litter, and do not check if the offspring do well in groups. At a later date you may wish to do this too with the offspring, and need to know if your gerbils breeding line does well in groups.

by Loz Whitmore