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 recognized early, your vet can treat most of these successfully. Gerbils are incredibly healthy compared to most other pet rodents, and 90% of them never need veterinary treatment. If you spend a lot of time with your pets, then it is likely that you would soon notice if anything were wrong.
What can I look out for?
If a gerbil is huddled in a corner all by itself, its fur is all bedraggled and it looks miserable, then something is definitely wrong and you should seek immediate veterinary treatment. Try offering a sunflower seed, if the gerbil does not immediately seize on it and eat it, then you should be very worried.
If a gerbil makes a clicking or rasping noise, it probably has a chest infection. This is particularly common in young gerbils just passed weaning and elderly gerbils when the weather is abnormally cold or hot. Prompt antibiotic treatment is essential.
Where is my gerbil's scent gland?
All gerbils have a scent gland in the middle of their tummy. This is long, thin and yellow in colour, and is sometimes mistaken for a wound or tumour.
Gerbils mark their territory by rubbing their scent gland on it. Male gerbils kept with other males are particularly prone to scent gland tumours which is caused by excessive marking of territory. It usually starts off just looking like a pimple, and sometimes never develops beyond this stage, but sometimes it grows rapidly and starts to bleed.
Although it does not spread to other parts of the body, it can grow internally as well as externally and compromise internal organs. If the tumour bleeds, it can also get infected. Removal is a simple surgical procedure and almost always results in 100% cure, so is well worth the expense.
What about my gerbil's nose?
Sore noses are one of the most common gerbil health problems. They can be caused by allergy to bedding, especially cedar, over-enthusiastic burrowing with the nose, or stress. Whatever the initial cause, the main problem is that a sore nose can become infected with bacteria and will need treating with an antibiotic ointment.
Do I need to check my gerbil's teeth?
Often the first time an owner realizes there is a tooth problem, is when the gerbil rapidly loses weight but otherwise appears healthy.
On examination it will be found to have lost one or more of its front teeth. This means it cannot eat its usual food and needs a soft diet, e.g. baby food, biscuit crumb, bread soaked in milk. Usually the tooth grows back again within a week.
Meanwhile, the gerbil cannot gnaw and the remaining teeth may grow too long and require trimming.
Is coat condition important?
You should examine your gerbil’s coat regularly. The odd scab, especially around the base of the tail, probably indicates fighting has broken out. This may have been a trivial argument over an extra-large sunflower seed, but it may also be a warning of worse to come, so be aware and monitor the situation carefully.
External parasites are rare on gerbils, however if your gerbil has an inflamed, scabby, bald round patch on its coat, then it could just possibly be ringworm. Ringworm is highly contagious, so take no chances and consult your vet.
What happens if my gerbil hurts its tail?
It comes as something of a shock when your gerbil suddenly emerges minus half of its tail. The gerbil’s tail with its striking black tip, is designed so it is easily shed if caught by a predator.
The same thing can happen if you pick up the gerbil by the tip of its tail or if the gerbil gets its tail trapped underneath something – it might look awful, and there will be a lot of blood and the tail bone will be exposed, but 99% of broken tails heal without veterinary treatment. Within a few days, the bone just withers away and the gerbil is left with half a tail. It many not look as beautiful but its ability to get around and generally get on with its life won’t be impeded in any way.
What else do I need to look out for?
Head tilt A tendency to go round in circles or hold its head in a tilted position suggest an inner ear problem. It could be an infection, so antibiotic treatment is a good precaution. However, the cause is more likely to be a small cyst-like growth in the ear. Once a gerbil has developed a head-tilt, it will never go away.
Lameness/paralysis If your gerbil is limping or holding one of its paws in the air, it could have a sprain or even a small break in one of its limbs. Unless the animal looks in distress, it is best to leave it alone and let it heal naturally. In most cases it will do so without veterinary treatment. If your gerbil appears paralyzed down one side or is dragging its hind legs, it could have had a stroke. There is not a lot you can do apart from keeping it warm and making sure it has access to food and water. This may mean you have to feed it by hand. If the gerbil is going to recover, it should do so within a week.
A slight disability such as a limp may always remain. If the gerbil does not recover sufficiently to allow it to have a reasonable quality of life, then it may be kinder to have it put to sleep.
Genital problems Females that have had many litters occasionally get a prolapse of the uterus, and males occasionally get swollen penises. Both of these conditions should be seen to by a vet who will administer appropriate treatment.