Gerbil Tanks & Other Accommodation

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Plastic or glass? The pros & cons

The advantage of using plastic over glass is that the tanks are very lightweight and therefore cleaning and moving them is easier. The disadvantages of plastic tanks are that gerbils will scratch the clear plastic, especially in the corners, and in time this will become unsightly, also excessive corner scratching will wear the plastic away and are potential routes for escape. Age and frequent cleaning will make the plastic brittle, which can again lead to them being easily cracked or fractured. Plastic can also be fragile and the tanks will easily crack if dropped or mistreated. While this can also be said for a glass tank, a broken glass panel is easily replaced with glass that is cut to size and a suitable aquarium sealant. Overall, a glass tank look more aesthetically pleasing and set-ups can be very beneficial for gerbils that are housed in deep tanks.

Housing for a pair of gerbils.

Companies like Ferplast and Hagen both make a small , clear plastic tank which is roughly around 15x12x10 inches (approx 6.5 Imp Gallon) and slightly smaller for Ferplast ones., and comes complete with a brightly coloured lid. You can expect to pay under£20 pound for these simple set-ups. Hagen also make a blue oval type tank of a similar size, however after feedback, we feel this type of tank is totally unsuitable for gerbils, except for the purpose of exhibiting gerbils or as a travel carrier. This second type also has very poor ventilation. It is these tanks that the NGS in their care leaflets are alluding to and recommend these as ideal sizes for a pair of gerbils, I have also read similar in articles in their journals. I personally feel that although this set-up may be adequate for a young (6-14 weeks) pair of gerbils, an elderly gerbil, or a hospital tank, this habitat is very small indeed, and not many toys etc, can be added before it's overcrowded. The tanks are only 6 Imp. Gallons and there is very little room to explore in the confines of this tank, and not enough substrate can be added safely to make a tunnel.

For breeding situations this housing is totally inadequate because there really isn't any room for the adult gerbils, and their offspring to have both a nest and a burrow, and will produce young gerbils with stereotypic burrowing behaviours. If you wish to raise healthy gerbils that do not show stereotypical behaviour, you will find it very hard to do so in these small tanks, as gerbils need a burrow system. Gerbils not born in a burrow system will always spend hours aimlessly digging and scratching in a corner and going nowhere.

There have been several scientific papers produced and a lot of research done on this subject. Gerbils bred by myself are raised in an artificial burrow system, and do not exhibit such behaviour. My Gerbil communities (that are initially raised in artificial burrow systems) are housed in 3.5 to 5ft tanks with ample substrate in which to build their own burrow systems.

Larger housing and housing for a small community of gerbils

If your intention is to keep a larger gerbil community, or simply feel that your gerbil pair deserve more spacious accommodation, then Ferplast, Hagen & various other companies make much larger habitats, these are the dunas and come complete with a grill for a roof. They retail from around £30 pounds upwards depending on size. While these make very good homes, they need to be customised for gerbils. These habitats have a small hole in the side of them for a water bottle, and two latches at either side of the clear tank roof, which secure the top to its base. These three areas are soon exploited by gerbils, and will expose them as weak links where they can gnaw, make the holes bigger, and if left to their own devices, will make a bid for freedom! These potential routes of escape have to be modified if you wish to use this type of housing.  A drawback with this type of accomodation is that the smaller versions aren't very deep, so you cannot add a lot of substrate to the gerbils environment.

Hamster type cages

These types of cages are totally unsuitable for gerbils. The bars themselves will be constantly gnawed at, and can injure the nose of the gerbil. As well as this, the plastic coating on the metal bars can present serious health problems if ingested. There is also the problem that on iron bars, the gerbil will stain all around the mouth area with constant gnawing, and while this isn't dangerous, it certainly doesn't look pleasant. The cages themselves aren't deep enough to allow the gerbils to burrow, so most of the substrate used is thrown out and goes over the floor. They can at a pinch be used to house sick or injured gerbils, and the extra air flow maybe beneficial, but they should never be housed long term in this type of environment

Rotastack/Crittertrail systems

Feedback on the e-gerbil forum suggests that when designed with thought, these systems can work quite well for a single pair of gerbils, although it is advisable to put anti-gnaw rings on the connecting tubes. Gerbils by nature will like to explore the tunnel systems and different chambers, but can very easily escape if there is a weak link in the components where they can gnaw at, or if one of the chamber lids can be pushed off. Very large set-ups can present major problems if more than a single pair of gerbils are to be housed there, as gerbils are territorial by nature, and if a gerbil decides a certain chamber is his/hers, then fighting will occur if any other gerbil intrude on this territory. Often these types of set-ups can be used very successfully as an add-on to a glass tank. This rotastack arrangement has a tube leading through the lid of the tank, which then gives the gerbil's tubes and chambers to explore, and the larger area of the tank to play and dig in.

The major drawback to these set-ups is that unlike a tank where cleaning and changing the substrate is a simple operation, complex arrangements of tubes and chambers need to first be dismantled before cleaning, and this can take much longer to do. Another thing to bear in mind is that if you analyse the burrowing behaviour of a gerbil more closely, it'll become clear that any man-made burrow is just a very crude copy of a natural burrow, and will never be able to mimic its complexity or its flexibility. They do need burrows though, and even in the most stark of of lab settings the gerbil will still be strongly motivated to retreat into a safe, dark burrow and those see- through bright plastic rotastack or crittertrail tubes offer neither.

Lab pens

Lab pens are designed to make the maintenance of rodents easier in a laboratory setting. They have a very heavy duty plastic base and a steel grill lid. All the components separate easily for means of repeated sterilization, and while at first this seems ideal, for gerbils it has many long term disadvantages. The bars will be gnawed at and will injure the gerbil, the environment itself is very poor and the gerbils have little to explore, and the tanks are not deep enough for a gerbil to dig in. Because there is little height to these set-ups, the gerbil cannot stand up and look around. It would be interesting to see just how many results from behavioural studies of gerbils or other rodents when maintained and housed in these primitive lab pens would differ if their rodents were housed in suitably environmentally enriched enclosures!

D.I.Y enclosures and storage bin tanks

Another way of housing gerbils would be to design and make your own habitats! I've seen many designs over the years, some being complex wooden enclosures, to simple storage bin designs, the only limits being your imagination and D.I.Y skills. With wooden enclosures, care has to be taken to ensure there are no areas where the gerbils can actually get a foothold and gnaw at the wood.

Storage bins and containers being used to house small pets were first popularised in the hamster community in the 1970's when the well known hamster breeder and author, Percy Parslow, hit upon the idea to use the Woolworths washing up bowls as housing for his breeding hamsters. I myself designed storage tanks with an artificial burrow for breeding gerbils several years ago, and they worked very well for breeding pairs, producing young gerbils with no stereotypical burrowing behaviours. As I saw it, the storage containers had enough room to house a breeding pair of gerbils, but the offspring all had stereotypical burrowing behaviour, so using Eva Waiblinger's design for an artificial burrow as a guide, I constructed my own burrow using ceramic tiles and aquarium sealant. This simple burrow design worked great when attached to the storage containers with a tunnel, producing healthy gerbils free of any stereotypical behaviours. It has to be remembered that my design was for a breeding tank, and as mentioned earlier, its far more desirable if you allow the gerbil to make it's own burrow, so there's nothing stopping you from getting a much bigger storage bin and filling this very deep with substrate so that the gerbils can make their own burrows.

With storage bin designs being varied by manufacturers, try to ensure that the insides can't be easily gnawed at, or the height of the bins are adequate and not too small. There are several ideas on the main websites D.I.Y. pages, including the artificial burrow design, which may help you design your own storage bin tank if you decide to take this particular route.

Glass Aquariums

Old glass aquariums can be sourced quite easily, and come in many different sizes. Second hand tanks are nearly always available in your local free papers, at car boot sales and even at your local refuse tip! It doesn't matter if the tank has a small crack, or even a missing pane, as these can be repaired or replaced very easily. Most aquarist shops sell silicone sealant for minor repairs and larger outlets will even cut a panel to size if you need to replace an entire section. Making a lid is straight forward and wire mesh can be bought cheaply from many D.I.Y. stores. This can be cut to the required size and stapled to a wood frame, or cut and folded to shape, and the sides tied with wire. Make sure that the wire gauge size of the mesh is above 50mm, as this size has the potential to trap a gerbil if its teeth get caught in it. This can easily happen if you use a large amount of substrate and the gerbil can reach the mesh.

There are several companies that make glass tanks that are reasonably suitable for gerbils, and most aquarium outlets sell sutitably sized aquarims for both pairs and communities of gerbils. One popular company is perfecto, which makes a 24 inch tank. This has glass ledges fitted inside the tank and retails for around £50. Although it is nicely designed and spacious, it is rather expensive, and has a small drawback, which is a small plastic air vent that gerbil may spot and gnaw at. This needs to be blocked or sealed as it is a potential escape route for gerbils.

There also exists ready made 'gerbilariums' which are basically a tank with a topper.  One that is mentioned a lot on forums though regarding suitable accomodation is the Savic gerbilarium. This is a small 10 gallon tank that has an additional tank topper of equal size. The total usable area being approx, 56(L) x26(W) x53.5(H) cms. This set-up is said to be suitable for a single pair of gerbils, and retails from around (£39).While this set-up may work for a while, the adults dont have adequate room to tunnel, and while the topper may appear to give the gerbil extra room, I should point out that the gerbil isn't arboreal by nature, and the extra room could of been offered in the form of a bigger aquarium with more available room in which to burrow.

Gerbil cribs

Article by Eddie Cope

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