This article refers to the most common Gerbil variety kept as a pet in the UK, the Mongolian Gerbil - which in captivity is now available in a variety of colours.
A glass or plastic aquarium is ideal. Two Gerbils will happily live in a tank 45 x 30 x 25cms. An aviary wire lid can be constructed to cover the tank. It is best not to have Gerbils in open wire cages, if you don’t want their bedding kicked all over the room. Additionally, gnawing the bars of such a cage (a rodent’s instinct is to gnaw things it can get its teeth round) can injure a Gerbil’s nose.
Provide plenty of bedding to dig into (though do make sure your Gerbil is not allergic to the bedding you give it) and toys to play with such as bark, branches and sticks to gnaw, cardboard, old loo rolls, pine cones, etc.
Gerbils are very clean; eating, sleeping and making a toilet in different areas of their tank so they do not need cleaning out as frequently as other rodents. Once a week or even once a fortnight should be sufficient if the animal is healthy.
Gerbils are very sociable animals that live in colonies in the wild. They should not be kept singly. Get two same sex Gerbils if you are not interested in breeding them - the two should bond very happily.
Once your community is established it will difficult to introduce new Gerbils to it. Scent is very important to Gerbils and any new introductions involve a careful process of getting each party used to the scent of the other.
Gerbils should not be mixed with other family pets. Although they are pretty fearless little creatures, a cat or other large petl could kill a Gerbil very easily.
As the Gerbil is very sensitive to scent, allow it to get used to your smell and make sure you don’t enter its space with strong smells on your hands - wash them in unscented soap first. Allow your Gerbil - a naturally inquisitive creature - to get to know you by putting your arm gently in the tank where the Gerbil can approach and smell it at its leisure.
Never pick a Gerbil up by its tail. They can allow their tail to break when it’s trapped, this will not harm the Gerbil (unless the damaged end gets infected) but it will not grow back. When you pick them up (once they know you) scoop them up and keep your two hands firmly under the Gerbil to make it feel safe.
A basic seed mix such as that prepared for Hamsters is ideal along with a small amount of fresh vegetables and fruit - but not too much of these. Sunflower seeds are loved by Gerbils, but should be offered sparingly as they are fattening. A mixture of seeds instead, such as that prepared for Budgies would be fine for variety. A supply of water should always be available, a small water bottle with drip feeder is fine.
Gerbils are generally healthy pets with few problems compared to other rodents. The large majority of Gerbils never need to see a vet. You should however check your Gerbils each day. Check your Gerbil’s nose is not sore (from allergies or friction). Have a look at its teeth (it may have lost one - which will be replaced but the Gerbil will need special care in the meanwhile). Check its coat (for signs of fighting or ringworm). Check for swellings on the scent gland - males kept together will particular rub their scent gland a lot to mark territory. A lop sided head could mean inner ear problems. Dull eyes may indicate illness. Basically anything abnormal could be a sign of illness, so be vigilant.
Keep your Gerbil’s diet in check and it should not get stomach upsets. If you do see diarrhoea present, take the Gerbil to the vet. The Gerbil could have Tyzzer’s disease. A fatal disease of the liver and intestine, Tyzzer’s disease is highly infectious and can be caught by all small mammals.
When treating a sick Gerbil don’t separate it from its community - this will cause it more stress personally and alienate it from its tank mates.
When buying a Gerbil, if it is awake, it should be lively and nosey, with soft fur, and large bright eyes. It should be quite stocky with a long tale with a tuft on its end.