If you’re looking for a small pet with big personality, the gerbil might be just the right match. These sociable creatures make great companions and are fascinating to bond with.
Gerbils are known for their friendliness with human and other gerbil family members, their tunneling expertise, jumping prowess, gnawing mastery and cute, cozy naps. These fabulous characteristics mean pet parents must be wise in choosing gerbil housing. That darling digging, chewing and high jumping can be devastating if your critter’s home doesn’t protect them from their instincts.
We spoke with Libby Hanna, a certified judge and president of the American Gerbil Society in Clermont, Florida, to find out how to pick the best cage for your gerbil and how you should set it up.
Popular Gerbil Housing Options
In looking for gerbil housing, there are three main choices that most people consider, Hanna says.
Glass Aquariums or Terrariums
Glass aquariums or terrariums are a popular option for gerbil cages and the one most often recommended, Hanna says. These containers are inexpensive, easy to clean and allow you to observe your gerbils more pleasurably. Most importantly, the gerbils cannot chew through these enclosures.
“It’s great for the gerbils themselves because they’re kept safely inside with virtually no chance of escape,” Hanna says. “It also keeps the bedding inside to keep things clean.”
If you decide on an aquarium or terrarium, you will need a mesh or wire lid securely fitted on top to provide air circulation. This also prevents your gerbils from jumping out of the cage and keeps any housecats from preying on your critters. You can buy the lid at a store or construct it yourself out of hardware cloth.
“These glass enclosures are economical,” Hanna says. “You can start with a second-hand enclosure by repurposing a fish aquarium or lizard terrarium.”
Another benefit of using glass aquariums or terrariums as gerbil cages is that this option works well in all parts of the country, regardless the climate, and it is compact for all living situations, she adds.
Another common option for gerbil cages is wire cages. Wire is effective to keep gerbils from chewing their way out and escaping. For example, Ware’s 4-story small animal cage features an all-metal, chew-proof design that includes shelves and ramps.
Be sure to select a cage with bars close enough together that your gerbils cannot escape or get their teeth, feet or tails caught. Bars 1/4-inch apart at most is recommended.
Wire cages offer plenty of airflow, but it can make the surrounding area messy because bedding inevitably will spill out. In some situations, where people live in extremely humid climates, the excessive humidity can cause more potent odor in the glass tank setup, Hanna says, and pet parents might find wire cages a better fit. However, she doesn’t recommend wire cages because “gerbils can get their teeth caught on the wires, and neurotic chewers can chew their teeth to nubs on them.”
Available in all plastic and plastic-and-wire combinations, these enclosures are another prevalent option for gerbil cages. These tend to be attractive to pet parents, especially children, with their fun colors and styles, but because gerbils chew everything, experts do not recommend them as primary housing.
“Kids think they’re fun and like the tubes, so these might prolong the period the children remain interested in the gerbils,” Hanna says. “But gerbils, unlike hamsters, are incredible chewers and will destroy every non-metal surface, and they often get loose because they chew their way out.
Some styles provide little ventilation and you must pay extra attention to the maintenance of these cages because they tend to smell more quickly. A compromise, Hanna suggests, is to use a plastic cage as a play structure for when you’re cleaning your gerbils’ main enclosure.
In line with the all-plastic option, Hanna says people are taking plastic storage tubs or containers and “turning them into perfectly acceptable enclosures” with ¼-inch hardware mesh fastened to the top. The main disadvantage, she says, is not being able to see through them well.
What Size Cage Do Gerbils Need?
When selecting your gerbils’ cage, keep in mind that these small mammals are social creatures. They need lots of room to burrow and run and enjoy other gerbil interaction.
“Never get one gerbil; always pairs or even-numbered groups,” Hanna says. “A single gerbil is a sad gerbil.”
While previously 5-gallons per gerbil was considered adequate, now the rule of thumb is 10-gallons of space per gerbil. So, if you have a pair of gerbils, a 20-gallon cage—or an average base of 12 inches by 30 inches—is a good minimum, she adds.
“Get the biggest housing you will actually clean—they appreciate the space,” Hanna says. “I emphasize it’s not just length but having depth and hiding spaces for them. It’s imperative for their happiness.”
She recommends terrariums since they are “lighter [in] weight than aquariums because the glass doesn’t need to be as heavy, which facilitates cleaning.”
Whichever size you choose, keep your gerbil cages clean and well maintained. Hanna recommends cleaning them out every 2-3 weeks.
“Dump out all contents except a handful of substrate from the nesting corner,” she says. “Wash the cage with mild detergent or vinegar, give a quick wash of all the equipment, air or towel dry, and refill with 2-3 inches of substrate. Add the handful of used substrate from the nesting corner back inside for the familiar scent in the nesting box.”
What to Put in Your Gerbil Habitat
Be sure to equip your gerbil cages with these necessities.
- A water bottle: Secure a 4-8-ounce water bottle to the side of the tank or cage so no water will drain out, and change the water at least a couple times a week. This freestanding Alfie pet bottle is a good option. “When you change clean the cage, remove the water bottle washer and give it a good scrub with your fingers and clean the underside/lip of the water bottle because that’s where bacteria can collect,” Hanna says.
- A nest box: Include a wooden nest box, which gerbils like to use for hiding, sleeping and a roof deck, Hanna says. Wooden hideouts and huts, such as Kaytee’s Tropical Fiddle Sticks hideout, are enjoyable for your critters as well.
- An exercise wheel: Provide a wire mesh wheel measuring 8-9 inches, like Kaytee’s Run-Around wheel. You can use Chapstick or beeswax to oil the wire mesh wheels and keep them from squeaking, Hanna says. She doesn’t recommend slat style wheels for gerbils because they can get their tails caught in them. The solid plastic styles are fine “as long as they’re not a thin plastic that your gerbils can chew holes in. If they start chewing a hole, get rid of it,” she warns.
- Toys: Toys are a must and should appeal to your pets’ innate desire to chew and burrow. Something as simple as a four-by-four wood piece with large holes drilled into it is great for climbing and chewing. Adding new toilet paper rolls and heavy cardboard boxes daily will keep your gerbils entertained. “Because of their indiscriminate chewing, avoid plastic tubes, plastic toys and plastic houses or hideaways,” Hanna says. “Chewing plastic can lead them to ingest shards, which can be dangerous.” The eCOTRITION Snak Shak , a favorite of Hanna’s, doesn’t have plastic. In fact, the entire structure is edible. “They love them and will destroy the roof in a day,” she says. For a longer-lasting option, check out the Kaytee Woodland Get-A-Way house.
- A sand bath: A sand bath with chinchilla dust is a special treat for gerbils. It’s good for them and relaxing for them. Hanna uses a dog or cat food bowl measuring at least 6-inches in diameter and offers the dust bath to her gerbils at least once a week. To avoid them using it for a potty, she recommends leaving it in the cage for only an hour or so and then removing it. “They love a chinchilla dust bath,” she says. “It helps reduce the oil in their coat and they enjoy it. We use it routinely as part of a pre-show beauty routine for our show gerbils.”
- Platforms: Finally, if possible, construct different levels within the cage for your gerbils to jump around on. And because gerbils love a challenge and constantly changing their surroundings, adding new toys and providing different climbing platforms will stimulate their creativity and keep them happy.
Gerbils are more motivated by activity and action than by food,” Hanna says. “So, giving them variety—like new boxes and toys—and then rotating them in and out of the cage is great for them.