I get lots of questions every day from caring people who just want to be better pet owners. But there’s one question I expect to hear year after year: “Mom, can I have a hamster for Christmas?”
For the last 16 years or so, the answer was, “We have so many pets already and you know the dogs will eat him, so I’m going to say probably not this year.”
Well something changed in me this year. Maybe it was the eggnog, maybe old age has me forgetting things, or maybe it’s that we have a daughter heading to college this fall and will have a spare bedroom and a lonely younger sister.
So we went there, sort of.
After doing some research — that means talking to my crew of veterinary technicians who know far more about pocket pets than I ever will — we decided that two gerbils would make a better gift than one hamster for the Dascoli house.
So, as Santa is my witness, that’s what appeared by our Christmas tree this year: two young male gerbils, now named Mario and Romeo. Santa placed them up high that morning, and I got to witness just how creative my Scotties could be in their quest for a tiny snack all Christmas morning.
Gerbils are social animals and do better in a group than as lone pets. They aren’t known to be biters and don’t have an odor. They are active in both the day and evening hours. They love to burrow and dig tunnels and are relatively easy to care for. That sounded like the perfect pet for the 16-year-old.
When getting a pet for someone as a gift, research is the most important thing, and this case was no different. Gerbils are readily available from pet stores, but those can be less healthy and more fearful than gerbils that come from breeders.
Yes, there are gerbil breeders. As luck would have it, there is a wonderful and knowledgeable gerbil breeder in Morgantown. So I pleaded with my most wonderful husband who had a meeting in Parkersburg before Christmas to “swing by” Morgantown on his way home and pick up the gerbils. Now I know Morgantown is 1½ to 2 hours out of the way, and I did get an extensive geography lesson. He said OK and now we have gerbils.
Caring for gerbils is not so difficult. They should have 2-3 inches of non-scented soft bedding in a 10- or 20-gallon aquarium. This way they are safe from cats and dogs and can burrow as needed. On top of the aquarium, attach a secure wire cover or a second attached wire cage they can travel up to for play and eating.
Mongolian gerbils, the most common kind, will live 2-3 years and grow to 2-3 ounces. They are omnivores and like seeds, veggies, insects and fruit. You can actually train them, using sunflower seeds as treats, to play with you and even learn tricks. They can do agility exercises if trained well!
Gerbils have some enrichment needs in their cages. They like to take a sand bath a few times weekly to keep their secretions down. They also love to chew, so old paper towel and toilet paper rolls can go in as treats and chew toys to keep them happy. It’s a great way to repurpose these to boot!
They drink out of a water bottle secured to their cage, so they need clean water daily. They love to hide, so a “hide box” is a must. Our hide box is made of plastic, but the gerbils love to chew on it, so it’s starting to lean and extra holes have appeared for coming and going. The next one will be made of unpainted clay with an entrance and an exit, so it won’t be destroyed so quickly.
Also in the cage is a wheel. A solid-material wheel should be attached to either the top or the side of the cage top for gerbil exercise time. Mario and Romeo don’t seem to care about exercise, but love tunneling under the wheel and burying it in bedding. It reminds me of how some people have a piece of exercise equipment in their room and turn it into a mini-closet or clothing stand.
From a medical point of view, gerbils don’t require any vaccines and develop few diseases. They can get skin issues from bad housing conditions and are also known to have seizures when stressed. They can unfortunately lose their tail or the skin on their tail if handled improperly.
Of course they can also develop cancers as older pets, namely ovarian and melanoma. Compared to dogs and cats, as a vet, that’s not too bad.
So here we go into the New Year as new gerbil owners. For any other questions, I will have to go back to my technicians for answers. For now, we will love them and play with them and continue telling the Scotties that they are friends, not food. Happy New Year and wish us luck.