Gerbil Behaviour

Burrowing - Stereotypical Behaviour

In the wild gerbils are born and raised in a burrow environemnt, when a gerbil is not raised in a burrow environment they develop a certain type of stereotypical behaviour. This is observed when they continuously dig aimlessly in the corners of their tank. Gerbils can spend many hours in this fruitless endeavour. To remedy this behaviour try raising your gerbils in a more natural environment, a burrow system has been shown to greatly reduce the compulsion to burrow. In pups that are raised in a burrow environment they never adopt this behaviour at all. Click here for instructions on how to build an artificial burrow system

Gerbils Foot Thumping

Rhythmic foot thumping is a natural way of gerbils communicating with each other. A gerbil will thump its hind feet to signal danger to other gerbils if they become frightened or startled for some reason. They will also thump their feet to signal that they are ready for mating, this is also noticeable with Shaw's Jirds and many other gerbil species. This is perfectly normal behaviour in adults and also in pups.

Gerbils Gnawing





Like all rodents, gerbils teeth continuously grow. Gnawing is the gerbils way of preventling their teeth from becoming overgrown. Gnawing materials should be available at all times, cardboard, chew sticks, blocks of safe wood etc are excellent for this job, although your gerbil will probably gnaw whatever is in the tank! Care should therefore be taken with plastic, which can cause problems if ingested. Older gerbils may not gnaw as much so you may need to clip the teeth of these gerbils if they do become overgrown, if you are not confident in doing this yourself your vet will be able to do it for you.

Licking the Sides of Gerbil Tanks


This behaviour is thought to indicate that a gerbil is thirsty. In the wild a gerbil would be be able to access water from licking condendsation forming on the walls of cooler parts of the burrow, and from morning dew. Young pups are often observed licking the sides of the tank when they cannot reach the water bottle or have not worked out how to use it yet. They can also be seen doing this even when they do have access to moisture, and at times it seems this behaviour is very similar to how babies have to taste everything! If you see this behaviour though it's always worth checking to see if the water bottle is working properly, and that the young gerbils can access it.

Gerbil Burying and Hoarding Food


 This instinct is natural for gerbils and echoes their wild instincts. Quite often you will find a hidden stash of their more preferred foods, which they have buried to eat at a later date. When giving gerbils fresh fruit and vegetables always give in small quantities and do not allow them to bury or hoard fruit and vegetables, as they rot quickly. Remove whatever they don't eat at the first sitting.

Gerbil Scent Gland Marking



In gerbil hierarchies, the dominant gerbils will mark their territory, they do this by rubbing the scent gland on their belly on items in the tank and even on each other, this can look like one gerbil is trying to mate with the other but they are simply marking the subordinate gerbil with their scent gland. This is normal behaviour, but if you notice one gerbil constantly scent marking another gerbil it may be a sign of a dominance issue and could lead to fighting.  So always keep a close eye on the gerbils if you notice excessive scent marking.




Gerbils Eating Faeces


This is normal behaviour. Most rodents eat their own faeces. It isn't uncommon to see young gerbil pups adopting this practice. One of the reasons for this is because vitamin B12 is made during food digestion in their intestinal tract. The bacteria that is needed to make B12 is absent in young gerbil pups intestinal tracts, so eating faeces gives them the bacteria to enable them to make this important vitamin.

Gerbil Food Envy





A common sight is when a gerbil with a particularly tasty treat runs into a corner of the tank, then turns it's back sharply to hide this from other gerbils. Again this is a natural instinct for the gerbil as it is intended to keep this food safe from the other gerbils. In tanks however, it can be amusing to watch as usually the gerbil does this right next to a fellow gerbil, who promptly attempts to steal the food away.

Gerbil Eye Winking

When eating a tasty treat, gerbils are often caught winking one eye, and it seems to be an indicator of tasting something pleasant or even gratitude. It is also said that it can be a form of submissive behaviour as well, and can be an indicator of submission to another gerbil. It is also used as a form of greeting.


Gerbils will often appear to do this when they first meet, although they have been observed doing this at other times too. It is thought that they transmit messages such as gender and dominance through chemicals present in  their saliva and is perfectly normal behaviour.

Gerbils Boxing


 Gerbils box by standing on their hind legs and pushing another gerbil, this is a dominance behaviour and allows gerbils to sort out hierarchy without fighting or injury. Males do it most often but females can also display this behaviour.

Gerbils fighting





Fighting can lead to serious injury or even death. Gerbil introductions should be carried out with care, always try to use the split tank method to introduce gerbils. When fighting breaks out in an established tank it indicates that there is a dominance issue surfacing. Females can often fight when their dominance is threatened, perhaps by females pups reaching maturity. When a dominant gerbil ages and can no longer maintain its position it is common for younger gerbils to fight to determine who will replace the aging gerbil. Care should always be taken when separating fighting gerbils, they will not distinguish between a gerbil and your fingers! you could use a cup to cover one of the gerbils while you safely remove the other, having a pair of thick gloves handy is also a good idea.

Gerbils playfighting





This is a common behaviour in young pups and juvenile gerbils and is harmless. It is often done to help establish heirarchy in gerbil clans at a young age. It shouldn't be confused with the much more aggressive ball fighting behaviour.

Same sex mounting



Same sex mounting can often be a common sight in single sex tanks.  The act can be done to establish or reinforce dominance, but is also seen when gerbils are in heat too!  This will present little problems unless the gerbil who is being mounted doesn't want to be submissive , or the mounting becomes excessive and borders on bullying behaviour.  Most often though if the gerbil doesnt wish to be mounted it will stand tall on its hind legs, usually side on and push the other gerbil away firmly with their face, and an occasional boxing away of the other gerbil.

Gerbils moving pups around

Moving pups around the tank is quite common for female gerbils, and in some cases males also. Sometimes it is the mother trying to control temperature by regularly moving, covering and uncovering the pups. If a particular litter is large the mum may split them into two groups to make them easier to manage. Occasionally it may signal that the mum is feeling insecure so you should always ensure that the mother has private spaces to put the pups in, e.g cardboard boxes or other sheltered areas in the tank so that she can feel secure.

Active periods

Gerbils are active both in the day and night time, but are most active just before dawn and just after dusk.

Tilting head to one side




This indicates that damage has accured to the balance organs in the ear. This can be caused by an infection or by a cyst called a cholesteatoma. These cysts are not curable, but the chronic phase is very treatable, however they can often re-occur. Gerbils will adapt quickly to a slight head tilt and live relatively normal lives. If you notice this behaviour it may be worth visiting your vet to check if it is an infection that can be treated, especially if the gerbils appears unwell in other areas, e.g not eating properly.

Moving head from side to side

This is seen in pink or ruby eyed gerbils. Research has shown that there is a problem in the way information is transferred from the eyes to the brain in gerbils with pink and ruby eyes. The gerbils will sway their heads from side to side to make up for the distortion in their vision.  This condition is benign, gerbils cope easily with this condition and live normal lives.

Article by Eddie Cope 

Many thanks to Liz Arblaster for the gerbil pup licking behaviour pic, Gill Colling for the boxing behaviour pic, Eli Wolfmayr for the scent marking behaviour pic.  Also Thanks to Loz Whitmore for the video contributions and Aed for the "intro gone wrong" video