Gerbils make nice pets and are fascinating to watch. But what does their interesting behavior mean?
Gerbils are very social animals, and it is not a good idea to keep them singly. Pair-bonded or family units of gerbils are usually quite affectionate with each other. They will play, chasing each other around, wrestling and boxing. They will also groom one another, sleep in piles, and cuddle together.
Your gerbils will be much happier if kept at least in pairs (same sex unless you plan to breed, which requires a lot more care).
However, some gerbils will fight - although this can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from the play wrestling or boxing commonly exhibited. Often, one animal will appear distressed and loud high-pitched squeaks may be heard, and the activity is more intense and violent than play. The Gerbil FAQ states that gerbils who have fought severely may never be able to live together in harmony. Not unlike people, some gerbils just cannot seem to get along. This is true even for families - young gerbils in the wild are sent off to find their own territories, so family groups may begin fighting as the babies mature. If so, they need to be separated.
It is best to keep a group of similarly aged gerbils that are raised together from a young age, but if you need to introduce older gerbils, see "How to Introduce Gerbils." Often, if you have a gerbil greater than 10 weeks, it is easiest to introduce a youngster (less than 10 weeks), although older gerbils can sometimes be successfully introduced.
However, sometimes certain gerbils just don't get along, so if gerbils persist in fighting it may be necessary to just keep them separated.
This is something gerbils do when they are excited or stressed, as a warning to other gerbils. The thumping is produced by pounding both hind legs on the ground. Often, if one gerbil is startled and begins thumping (described as a quick "da-dum, da-dum" sound), others in the enclosure or room will also begin thumping. It varies in loudness and tempo, depending on the urgency or meaning, but can be quite loud considering the small creature that produces the sound! The infectious nature of the thumping means that if some activity in the home produces a rhythmic thumping or clicking type noise, the gerbils may join in.
Young gerbils may do quite a bit of thumping, but often it seems that it is just a learning activity rather than a danger warning. Thumping is also an important part of the mating ritual.
Gerbils will often groom themselves, including one another. As well as the benefits to their coats, this is an important part of their social interaction. They also appreciate being offered sand for taking a dust bath (they will roll and play in the sand, which helps clean their fur).
Gerbils make a high pitched squeak - but mainly as youngsters. Adults usually vocalize only when playing, excited or stressed.
Gerbils, like most other rodents, are avid chewers and will chew their way through cage furnishings somewhat regularly. It is important to provide appropriate chewing toys, like wood blocks and branches, to allow the gerbils to indulge this natural activity.
In the wild, gerbils live in a complex system of tunnels and burrows, so it is nice to allow the gerbil's room to burrow in their enclosure. A deep layer of wood shavings combined with hay will provide some room for burrowing.
Gerbils have a scent gland on their abdomen, and this is used to mark items in their territory. Gerbils that rub their stomachs on their cage furnishings are simple marking their territory.