Gerbil Ailments


Gerbils are generally very healthy robust little creatures who never have a day’s illness in their lives. However just occasionally they do suffer from various ailments. If recognised early most of these can be treated successfully by your Vet. Listed below are some of the ailments I have come across over the past few years. Remember if you are in any doubt as to your gerbil’s health always consult a Vet. If you need a vet with experience of treating gerbils then consult the Recommended Gerbil Vets page.

Gerbil Information Leaflet Number3 – Give your Gerbil A health Check is a companion to this page.

 Scent Gland Tumours
These are usually more common in older gerbils particularly males, who tend to mark their territory more than females. However they are not unknown in females. Starting off as a small hard lump on the gland they grow larger as time passes. As the tumour grows the gerbil begins to find it irritating and will sometimes chew at it. When large enough, these tumours can be successfully removed by your Vet, and stitches used are of the dissolving type. Your gerbil will feel sore for a few days (which is understandable!) and will need to be watched to check that he is not chewing at the stitches. I did have a gerbil who did remove his stitches but fortunately the healing process was well under way so there was no real harm done. Anaesthesia in small animals is improving all the time and the chances of losing your pet under the anaesthesia is slight. However you will be advised of the risks before surgery. I have had more than 30 gerbils operated on and in that time I have lost only two. Of these, I am convinced the deaths where not down to the anaesthetic, but to other complications. Tumours on other parts of the body are rarer and in some cases can be removed successfully. Unfortunately internal tumours can not be operated upon and in these cases when it is apparent that the gerbil is suffering it is better to have him put painlessly to sleep by a Vet. I recommend no other form of euthanasia.

Inner Ear Problems
Again this is more common in older gerbils, and is recognisable when the gerbil has a head tilt. This is caused principally by a cyst in the ear known as a cholesteatoma. These cysts are common in gerbils and are untreatable. However, my experience is that the chronic condition caused by these cysts, where the gerbil loses balance and often circles whilst holding its head at a very unusual angle, is treatable. Presumably this chronic condition is caused by an infection that is secondary to the cholesteatoma. The best treatment is an anti-inflammatory injection administered by your Vet, and treatment with antibiotics such as Baytril. In the majority of cases a reduced head tilt remains even though the chronic phase of the condition has passed, but your gerbil will adapt to this and will enjoy life as much as he ever did. Be aware that this problem can reoccur. If the chronic phase of this condition is not treated then the gerbil will often become totally incapable of caring for itself, it will collapse and quickly die.

Overgrown Teeth
This can occur in gerbils who have lost one of the front incisor teeth or in older gerbils who don’t tend to chew as much as their younger counterparts. It is usually first identified when the gerbil begins to lose weight. To prevent the problem you should regularly examine the gerbil’s teeth. Your Vet will be able to trim the teeth for you and it is not painful for the gerbil. Later, you may even be able to do this yourself.

Diarrhoea can be a sign of Tyzzer’s Disease although other infections like E. coli and Listeria can have similar symptoms. I have no experience of this in Mongolian Gerbils, however, I know that this is a very serious problem that some have encountered. If your gerbils show signs of listlessness and diarrhoea then it is important that you isolate them, and any gerbils they have been in contact with, from any other gerbils. You should then see a vet so that you can treat all your gerbils with antibiotics. The infections that cause this problem are very easily spread. You should make sure that you thoroughly clean anything, including your hands, that come in contact with the sick gerbils. From what I know of the problems others have had, treatment of gerbils with diarrhoea is rarely successful and most infected animals die within 24 hours. However, immediate treatment of apparently healthy gerbils with antibiotics is very successful in stopping the disease spreading to them. Not all gerbils with Tyzzer’s Disease will have diarrhoea as it is only one of many symptoms, including paralysis, that this very nasty bug can cause. Other causes of diarrhoea in gerbils are Listeria and Salmonella. These should be treated in the same way as Tyzzer’s disease. Both can be passed on to humans and in some circumstances can be serious so diarrhoea in gerbils should never be ignored.

There is more information on Tyzzer’s Disease in Gerbils here.

Although rare, gerbils sometimes suffer from cataracts. This is is where the lens of the eye becomes opaque and the gerbil’s vision is progressively reduced. At first you might see that the pupil of the eye has become greyish or cloudy. Eventually, as the condition progresses, the pupil will appear milky white. Cataracts are normally caused either by the long -term effects of an illness such as diabetes, or, probably more common in gerbils, genetic factors. If you discover your gerbils has cataracts you should consult a vet to confirm that it is not a sign of something more serious that needs treating. If the vet finds nothing else wrong then it may mean that the gerbil has a genetic predisposition to cataracts and should not be bred from. Indeed, as cataracts can be a sign of inbreeding, your breeding practises should be reviewed. Once a gerbil has cataracts there is no treatment that can remove them. Fortunately, gerbils manage very well with reduced sight. You may need to remove any obstacles etc from the cage or tank that might injure the gerbil, but in most ways he will adapt very well.

Sometimes gerbil will injure on another by fighting. This can get very nasty and they can kill one another. The injuries will usually consist of bites to the tail, rump and ventral area of the losing gerbil. There may also be bites to the face and throat. There is a site with some pictures of an injured gerbil. Not all the bites will be obvious as they are often hidden under the fur.
If one of your gerbils is injured like this it will normally recover on its own if it is eating and drinking. The wounds almost never get infected. If you find it immobile and cold it is necessary to warm it up with a heated pad or hot water bottle. You may need to encourage it to drink. If it has not picked up in a few hours you should seek veterinary help.
If a pair of gerbils that have lived happily together for a long time suddenly fight check the loser as it may have another illness or injury that has weakened it and lead to its dominance being overthrown.

There is a NGS page with further advice on avoiding fighting here.

Fortunately these are very rare, and can be treated with commercial dusting powder usually available from Pet Shops or alternatively your Vet. The cage should be thoroughly washed and disinfected with boiling water to prevent a return of the infection. Persistent infestation can be treated by your Vet.

Respiratory infections
The gerbil has a dull staring coat and the breathing is very obviously laboured and may be accompanied by clicking sounds. Treatment can be administered in the form of Baytril which is a relatively new drug also used on humans. I have found that rodents in general respond very well to this drug. If Baytril is not available chlortertacycline is also effective in most cases.

As in humans, these are more common in older gerbils. Recognisable by paralysis or weakness down one side. The best treatment is to try and make the gerbil as comfortable as possible and keep him warm. In some cases another stroke follows fairly soon after and the gerbil may unfortunately die. Recovery is possible in other cases and the gerbil may be left with little or no disability. The important thing is to make sure the gerbil can feed and drink until it recovers enough to do this itself.

Broken Limbs
On several occasions I have come across a gerbil that has broken its leg. I am not sure how this happens, although breaks in the back legs seem more common. Although this looks terrible with the limb being dragged limply behind these breaks usually heal themselves very quickly with no treatment. Surprisingly the breaks nearly always mend straight, or almost so, with no permanent effect on the gerbil’s mobility. There is no need to splint the limb and in fact that may cause extra damage as the gerbil will undoubtedly try and chew the splint and may damage itself. The break will have mended itself within two weeks and you will not know anything was ever the matter. There are only two things you need worry about. Firstly, if there is any sign of infection, breaking of the skin or inflammation take your gerbil to the vet. Saying that I have seen about half a dozen breaks and heard of many more but I have never known of any complications. Secondly, make sure that your injured gerbil can still get to food and water. A gerbil with a broken front leg may have difficulty holding food to eat. If this is the case you may have to help until the gerbil is better. I once had a gerbil that mysteriously broke both back legs and one front leg. It still managed to drag itself around and feed itself. Miraculously, the gerbil made a full recovery on its own. It is possible that these breaks may be a sign that the diet is deficient in calcium or other minerals. You might want to supplement the normal feed with either cuttlefish bone or dog food.

This fortunately is very rare in gerbils. Ringworm is a fungal disease which can also be transmitted to humans. It is recognised by circular hair loss which may scab over. It can be transmitted via wood shavings and hay. Your vet will be able to confirm Ringworm with the aid of a fluorescent lamp. Treatment is in the form of lotions such as Suralan or Canesten and in some cases when infection is particularly bad an antibiotic. To prevent recurrence it is essential that the cage is thoroughly washed and disinfected. As ringworm is very contagious always isolate any animals that have symptoms or have been in contact with those that do. Always wash thoroughly after handling any gerbils that you suspect may have ringworm.

Some gerbils are prone to fitting. In most cases this is due to stress, for example, being in strange surroundings or excessive handling and generally occurs in younger gerbils. The gerbil starts to twitch, the ears go back and the gerbil may drool at the mouth. If this should happen replace the gerbil back in its cage immediately and remove the cage to a quite area. Within a few minutes the gerbil will compose itself and go about its business. The gerbil generally grows out of these fits and the frequency becomes less as time goes by. If you are aiming to breed gerbils then it is not advised to breed from affected individuals as it can be passed down from generation to generation. It can be distressing for owners to witness these fits, however provided you follow the above instructions your gerbil will recover fully. There have been cases recorded where the gerbil has unfortunately died, however these are extremely rare and may have been secondary to some other ailment such as a brain tumour. There is more information on fits here.

Sore Noses
This is quite a common complaint. Usually the cause is allergy. Gerbils are easily irritated by the aromatic oils produced by cedar shavings. Many are also allergic to pine. Aspen or paper based bedding are better for gerbils. In the UK the shavings usually sold as bedding in pet shops is spruce and it seems to be less problematic than pine. Sore noses can also be caused by transferring Staphylococci bacilli to gerbils, this is one of the causes of sore throats in humans. Your vet can prescribe antibiotic ointment, Dermobion SA which is green in colour. As this needs to be smeared on the nose, it can often be a battle of wills between owner and gerbil! Gerbils kept in a cage will very often get sore noses. This is because the gerbil will chew constantly at the bars very often rubbing all the fur off around the nose as well. Simply remove the gerbil to an old aquarium where it will burrow around and be much happier.

Sore Eyes
This is not so common in gerbils. One of the causes of this is sawdust which can get into the membranes of the eye and cause irritation. The gerbil will produce copious quantities of red “sleep” like mucous. Treatment is in the form of antibiotic drops from the Vet. To prevent further recurrence use wood shavings rather than sawdust. Also follow the advice above on avoiding substances that are known to cause allergies in gerbils.

Sore Ears
Gerbils will often injure their ears by excessive cleaning. Because gerbils clean their ears with the long claws of their back feet they can sometimes do themselves an injury. This will often bleed profusely. Usually this injury results from excessive cleaning and can be due to mites. Mites can be treated with the sprays etc sold in petshops for birds. A serious infestation needs veterinary treatment. Gerbils will sometimes have a benign growth on the ear that can grow quite fast. It can look like a pink cauliflower. If the gerbil catches this when cleaning it can also bleed. These growths are harmless and do not need to be removed unless they grow so big as to block the ear canal.

Loss of Tail
As you probably know, a gerbil’s tail is quite fragile and rough handling can cause the tuft to come away. Very often the bone will be left behind. Whilst it does not look very pleasant, the bone will dry out and then auto amputate after a few days and the end will heal over naturally. I have come across cases where an entire tail has been pulled off. In these cases it is better to get the gerbil examined by a Vet to check that no other damage has been caused. The gerbil will learn to adapt to the loss and will hardly notice its injury.

Heat and Cold
Whilst Mongolian Gerbils come from an area with an extreme climate, with very high temperatures, and very low temperatures, there are still things you need to do to avoid heat stroke or Hypothermia. There is more info here.

Other Species
As well as Mongolian Gerbils I have experience of caring for other species. I have found that Pallid gerbils tend to be some what more delicate than Mongolian gerbils and do not take very well to any injections of any kind, quite simply they appear to go into shock and die. Neither do they respond particularly well to any type of surgery. I had a Pallid who did develop a tumour on his abdomen and unfortunately did not long survive surgery. Shaw’s Jirds on the other hand appear to be quite robust and survive surgery as well as their smaller Mongolian cousins.