Abscesses are swellings that form as a response to bacteria. They can be hard or soft, and are formed when there has been an injury which has subsequently been infected with bacteria. In an attempt to stop the spread of the bacteria the animal's body forms an abscess capsule around the afflicted area. This will be full of pus, and can be painful to the touch. Abscesses can form anywhere, but a symptom to look out for is localised hair loss above the lump. If you notice that your pet has an abscess, it’s best to take your pet to the vet to get it treated so that the infection doesn’t spread or cause your pet more pain.
If the abscess has already burst before you notice the problem, rinse it out with a gerbil antiseptic, and dress it with gauze and micropore tape, to stop other gerbils from nibbling at it. If you haven’t done this before, or if you feel nervous about the procedure, visit a veterinary nurse for a demonstration.
Gerbils sometimes need a bit of medical care
Like humans, gerbils can sometimes have allergic reactions to materials found in and around the home. If your gerbil has a runny, red nose, crusty or watery eyes, wheezing breaths, or is sneezing a lot, it may be an allergic reaction. As a first action, change the type of bedding you are using in the enclosure. Take the gerbil to the vet for further diagnosis and advice. The allergy-like symptoms could possibly be a symptom of an underlying condition, rather than an allergy.
Gerbil's limbs are fragile, and a fall or a panic-induced tussle with ladders or other cage fittings can lead to breaks. A broken limb will be visible as distorted legs, limping, an unwillingness to move, or unusual sounds - i.e. of pain and discomfort. A trip to the vet is essential.
Coughs and Colds
Gerbils occasionally catch a cold, and the symptoms are similar to the ones we experience when we have colds. In other words, sneezing, runny noses, and wheezing. Colds can develop into more serious illnesses in gerbils, so it’s good practice not to handle them if you have a cold yourself.
Coughs and colds are sometimes transferred from human to gerbil
They may have evolved as desert animals, but gerbils still need constant access to fresh water in captivity. If they don’t have enough they will become dehydrated. A suffering gerbil will sit or lie limp in the cage.
This is a condition that it is very easy to prevent - simply make sure there's always water available. Keep your gerbils out of very warm places - direct sunlight, hot radiators, or fireplaces, for example. Regularly check that your pets’ water bottle is not only full nut is not blocked. To check the latter, run your index finger over the ball in the water bottle spout. If the finger becomes wet, the bottle is working; but if the spout is dry then the bottle has a blockage and will need to be replaced. Give the gerbils a shallow bowl of water as a temporary substitute while you sort out a replacement.
Diarrhea can be a life-threatening condition in gerbils, as it may be a sign of Tyzzer's Disease. Any animal showing signs of diarrhea should be separated from your other gerbils. A vet will need to treat all your gerbils with antibiotics. The infections that cause this problem are easily passed on, and the others might have been infected without yet showing the obvious signs. Everything that has come into contact with the gerbils, including your hands, should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. Not all gerbils with Tyzzer's Disease will have diarrhoea as that is only one of many symptoms. Paralysis is another.
Diarrhea isn't always a sign of Tyzzer's Disease - it could be Listeria or Salmonella. These problems 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, underlining the message that diarrhea in gerbils should never be ignored.
An ear problem can result from excessive cleaning or mites. Mites can be treated with the sprays or Ivermectin, available in pet stores. Serious infestations may need veterinary treatment. Gerbils can sometimes develop benign growths on their ears, and these can grow quickly. It often resembles a tiny pink cauliflower. If the gerbil catches this growth with a claw when cleaning, it can bleed. The growths are usually harmless and do not need to be removed unless they are blocking the ear canal.
Inner Ear Problems
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, 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 using antibiotics. 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.
If your gerbils’ eyes are swollen, puffy, red or runny, they might be suffering from an eye infection. This could be due to your pet having something stuck in its eye - a piece of hay, for example.
It’s important to not try to remove things that are caught in your pets eyes by yourself - this can often do more harm than good. If your pet appears to be in pain then we recommend taking them to the vets so that they can get the proper treatment.
A gerbil's eyes should be clear and bright - even when they're feeling sleepy!
Some gerbils have fits. In most cases these are due to stress. Things that can stress out a gerbil include strange surroundings, excessive handling, nearby predators (e.g. dogs and cats), and too much fuss and noise. Stress is commoner in younger gerbils. The symptoms start with a twitch, the ears are then folded back, and the gerbil may start to drool at the mouth. If this happens, get the gerbil back in its enclosure and remove any of the offending stress factors.
After a few minutes the gerbil will calm down and be back to normal. Your pet will generally grow out of these fits as they get older. The 'nervous gene' can be passed down from generation to generation, so it's best not to let nervous animals breed. There have been cases where the gerbil has unfortunately died, but these are extremely rare and the animals usually recover very quickly. In fatal cases the issue may have been linked to some other ailment such as a brain tumor.
A gerbil with this condition may have labored breathing and there may be swelling in the abdominal area, sign of a build up of fluid. You should consult a vet at once, and they may be able to draw off the excess fluid and make the gerbil more comfortable. Unfortunately the prognosis is not good in these cases.
Hypothermia is the state in which your pet becomes very very cold - too cold for it to function properly. If your pet is in a cold place, in a draft, or is damp then they are at risk of developing hypothermia.
This is fairly common and often caused by an allergy. Gerbils' nasal passages are easily irritated by aromatic oils produced in cedar shavings, or household air fresheners. Some are also allergic to pine. Using Aspen or paper-based bedding is much better for gerbils that have allergies.
Another cause for sore gerbil noses is Staphylococci bacilli. Your vet can easily treat this and prescribe an antibiotic ointment. Gerbils kept in a cage will very often get sore noses. This is because they chew constantly at the bars, often rubbing all the fur off around the nose area. Provide the animal with some wood-based chews to take its attention from the bars, or, if your cage is the problem, invest in a modern model such as the Qute, or relocate the gerbils to an old glass aquarium without the metal bars.
These are confined to older female gerbils and it will look like the gerbil is pregnant with a swollen abdomen or look like there is a bulge on one side. This is normally an ovarian cyst. These can get very large, but are usually harmless and can be ignored. There can be problems where the cyst presses against a nerve or organ and stops it working properly. If your gerbil appears to be less active than normal or otherwise unwell consult your vet. It may be possible to remove the affected ovary, but this is a major procedure and your vet will be best placed to advice you of the best options in each case.
Since gerbils are kept in captivity, their nails don’t usually experience the wear and tear of their wild counterparts. This means that their nails are unlikely to wear down naturally, meaning that they are at risk of becoming overgrown. If your gerbils’ nails are long enough to start curving back towards their foot, it’s time to give them a trim. We’ve created a page to help - have a look at our How To Trim Gerbils’ Nails page for more information.
Many rodent species have teeth that grow throughout their lives - gerbils are no exception. Since they eat very tough foods in the wild, their teeth need to keep growing to keep up with the wear and tear. In captivity, they sometimes don’t get all the rough foods and materials they need to keep their teeth worn to a reasonable length.
Symptoms of overgrown teeth involve the inability to eat, as well as the presence of small nicks and cuts over their body. These are caused by little teeth grazes as they try groom themselves with overly-long teeth. If your pet’s teeth get too long they will need to be taken to a vet to get them treated.
To prevent your pet’s teeth from becoming overgrown in the first place, many owners have had a lot of success with gerbil chews and gnaws. These are specially-made wooden items that are safe for gerbils to chew on, enabling your pets to regulate their own tooth length.
Parasites and Infections
Unfortunately, gerbils can contract a number of different kinds of parasites, such as fleas, ticks, mites and fungal infections. Gerbils can suffer from both internal and external parasites, so as well as keeping an eye on your pet’s body, it’s good to keep checking its weight so that you can diagnose some problems with its stomach and digestive system too. You can read in more detail about parasites in our Gerbil Parasites page.
Respiratory infections are serious in gerbils - like a lot of other pet rodents they will attempt to hide symptoms until the disease becomes very advanced. If your gerbil is wheezing or ‘clicking’ as it breathes, then the condition is very serious and it will need to be taken to a vet immediately. Other symptoms include a lack of appetite, a temperature, a runny nose and coughing or sneezing.
Respiratory infections can be caused by various factors, from high humidity to the wrong types of bedding (many wood shavings can cause this - never give your pets pine or cedar). It’s wise to be on the lookout for symptoms of this condition so that you can take your pet to the vet promptly. It’s also important to move the affected gerbil out of the enclosure away from its friends (unless it’s a juvenile that’s not yet been separated from its mother, in which case they will all need treatment). Infections can be spread, so it’s best to keep it on its own in a separate container (with lots of food, bedding and water) until the infection has passed and they can rejoin their friends again.
These are commoner in older gerbils. The affected gerbil will develop paralysis or weakness down one side. Make the animal as comfortable as possible, keep it warm, and seek immediate veterinary treatment. In some cases another stroke follows fairly soon after and the gerbil may unfortunately die. Recovery is possible though, and in some cases and the gerbil may be left with little or no disability. The important thing is to make sure your pet gets enough food feed and drink until it recovers enough to fend for itself again.
If you think your gerbil has had a stroke, take it to the vet. The cause could be a different underlying condition, but if it has been a stroke, the vet will be able to examine the gerbil and inform you of any extra care your pet may need.
Scent Gland Tumors
Scent gland tumors are one of the most common problems with gerbils. The glands are located on the gerbil’s stomach, and the tumors will appear as lumps in that area. The problem can occur in either gender, but some reports suggest that these tumors are more common in males, possibly because their scent glands tend to be a little larger than females’.
Scent gland tumors can cause a number of problems. If left untreated the tumor can grow and spread to other areas, disrupting bodily functions and eventually proving fatal. Another problem that can occur is bacterial infection - if the gerbil tries to get rid of the tumor itself then it will scratch and bite the area, leaving the tumor susceptible to infection. If you think that your pet has a scent gland tumor, get it treated by a vet asap.
Gerbils' tails are fragile, and rough handling can cause injury. Often the tufted area at the tail's tip will come away and bone will be left behind. While this doesn't look very pleasant, the bone will dry out and then auto amputate - i.e. drop off - after a few days. The wound will then heal over naturally. Very occasionally an entire tail may be pulled off. When this drastic accident happens, 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, surprisingly.
As well as scent gland tumours (above) gerbils can develop tumors in any other area of their bodies. Some of the most common tumors are of the skin, testicles, and teats, but it’s helpful to be aware that they can develop anywhere.
Tyzzer’s Disease, like wet tail, is a bacterial infection of the digestive system. It’s a dangerous disease that will need veterinary attention as soon as possible if the animal is to survive. Symptoms of Tyzzer’s Disease include diarrhea, lethargy, untidy hair, a strange posture, pain, and dehydration.