Welcome to my gerbil health page. I have listed here my experience of illnesses that my own gerbils have had and I have discussed with my vets. The National Gerbil Society Diseases and Ailments page is one of the best pages for information about your gerbils health.
I am not a Vet and this information is only for guidance and identifying the problem. If you are concerned about your gerbil then take him straight to the vet. A good vet will charge very little to see a gerbil - usually around a tenner and there is no excuse for not seeing a vet with a sick animal. Charges can vary so ring around and ask what they charge. If you are really hard up the PDSA will treat the pets of people on benefits for free. When you take a gerbil to the vet take its cage mate(s) with you as it reduces stress and sometimes reintroductions can be a problem if the gerbil comes back smelling funny. It also seems to improve survival rates after operations to have your mate standing on your head!
The best advice that I can give about keeping your animals healthy is to handle each of them every day and to watch them carefully. For example gerbils stop chewing cardboard before there is any physical signs of problems with their teeth. Loss of weight in gerbils should always be taken seriously. This is one reason why owning a lot of animals is a bad idea - it is difficult to check that you have seen each of them every day and problems can go unnoticed for several days. It is also essential to feed them well and provide them with plenty of exercise, either a wheel or a deep tank to dig in and plenty of toys to destroy. Make sure that they eat all of their food and not just the bits that they like best and feed them small pieces of fruit and veg (paw sized) as treats rather than fatty or sugary treats.
There are a number of theories as to why gerbils get sore noses but in my experience it appears to be caused by an allergy to sawdust/wood shavings that gets infected. The only way that we have managed to stop this happening in gerbils that are prone to it was to stop using shavings and move to an alternative such as Megazorb or shredded cardboard - see the bedding page. Once a gerbil starts to get a sore nose it rarely seems to heal up on its own. My vet prescribes an antibiotic ointment which works quite well. The only problem is that it becomes a battle of wills between owner and gerbil to rub it into the nose. The best bet seems to be to "scruff" the gerbil (ie grab it firmly by the skin at the back of the neck) and get someone else to rub in the ointment or dab it on with your spare hand. If in doubt get your Vet to show you how to hold your gerbil firmly without hurting it.
Gerbils can sometimes lose teeth. If this is due to an injury then the teeth will grow back. However we had some of our older gerbils loose teeth that just fell out again each time they grew back. There are a number of possible causes - lack of calcium, lack of vitamin C, a genetic weakness, infection and even lack of sunlight.It is important to make sure that gerbils fed on a mix eat as much of it as possible, rather than just picking out the bits that they like. If you do not get a chance to look at your gerbils teeth the first sign of this can be that the animal looses weight due to not being able to gnaw their food - they will stop chewing cardboard quite a while before this so if your pet is not destroying cardboard boxes with it's normal enthusiasm have a look at its teeth.
If your gerbil looses one or more front teeth it is essential that any remaining teeth are trimmed by the vet every 2-3 weeks. Do not attempt to trim a gerbil's teeth yourself.The gerbil will also need to have it's food ground up smaller in a mortar and pestle so that it can be eaten more easily. If the teeth do not grow back normally you need to discuss quality of life with your vet. We had one gerbil Biscuit who survived for the whole last year of her life with one front tooth. We just took her down the vets every 3 weeks and had it trimmed and fed her crushed food. She was quite bright and had worked out not to try to gum her food but to shove it in the back of her mouth and chew with her back teeth. However I am unsure about how kind this was as it is difficult to know how much pain the clipping caused and may have been damaging the root. It is generally advised that teeth should be trimmed with a dental burr these days.
Scent Gland Tumours.
Male gerbils have a bald patch of dry skin in the middle of their tummy. This should normally be flat and dry although you can feel the scent gland as a small flat lump. If the scent gland becomes raised and red then this may be a scent gland tumour (there is a picture at the NGS diseases and ailments page). These tumours can be removed successfully by an experienced vet. We have had 8 male gerbils operated on. 5 survived the operation and went on to live for anything up to 18 months afterwards. Of the three that we lost, two were put down during the operation because the cancer turned out to be more extensive. Check the cost with your vet in advance. We currently pay about £35 for a "small animal procedure" but some vets will charge more.
Several of our animals have developed little benign tumours on their noses or ears. These are only a problem if the animal repeated scratches at them and causes them to bleed. They can be removed by vets. In the old days this operation was risky as they bled profusely but my vet now has a device that uses radio waves to cauterise the wound stopping this. Talk to your vet about their experience and what they will be using to do this procedure.We did have one successfully removed from the ear of one gerbil but he had to have his back foot wrapped in sticky plaster to stop him scratching it. The only time I have ever been really bitten by a gerbil was while trying to cut the plaster from his foot.
Like people, gerbils can get cancer. Our gerbils have had a range of different problems when they have got older. There is obviously no treatment for these in gerbils and you have to make a decision about your animals quality of life at some point. We did have one female gerbil who had a lump on her spleen that meant that she ended up almost as wide as she was long. It didn't seem to bother her at all and she merrily outlived all of her sisters before it became a problem. She was probably the UKs first gerbil to be examined with an ultrasound machine!
This can be characterised by the gerbil loosing a lot of weight and drinking lots of water. As with tumours there is no treatment except to look after your pet all the time that they are behaving normally and are not suffering.
Middle Ear Problems.
If your gerbil starts to tip over to one side starting with their head this can be a sign of a middle ear infection. This can be treated by your vet with antibiotics. This sort of behaviour can also be a sign of brain tumours or a stroke and as ever you need to see a vet as soon as possible.
Elderly gerbils can get strokes. The animal will loose use of part of it's body and fall over or have problems moving. They have the most amazing ability to get over strokes so make sure that your pet can reach food and water and keep him warm. Again you should seek advice from a vet as strokes and middle ear problems sometimes have similar symptoms.
Flu and Respiratory Infections.
If your gerbil appears to be having problems with breathing, particularly if you can hear clicking or squeaking sounds, take him straight down the vet. A respiratory infection can be treated with antibiotics (again usually a baytril injection). Sadly they are often a sign of a more serious problem such as lung tumours or organ failure in older animals but they are always be treated as soon as possible. We had a nasty outbreak of a respiratory infection a few years ago. The gerbils looked obviously ill and were wet around the mouth. It was very, very infectious and sadly two older gerbils succummed very quickly. However my vet saved the younger affected geribls with daily baytril injections and we kept them warm and made sure that they were near to the food and water.
Gerbils are amazingly resilient to inbreeding but there has been rather a lot of it done particularly for the new fancy varieties. This and other factors inevitably result in some birth defects such as club feet and tendancy to fit as well as shorter life expectancy. Problems can also be caused by Breed-back which is when the gerbils breed the minute that the female has given birth resulting in another litter developing why she is feeding the previous one. There are always gerbils in rescues so please don't breed.
The only suitable form of Euthanasia for any animal is to be put down by a qualified Vet. Sadly this is often the last kind thing that we get to do for many of our pets.If your pet is obviously terminally ill and suffering then you have to ask what the benefit is to prolonging the pain. In my experience most Vets are very reluctant to put an animal to sleep if there is any chance of saving them and so if your Vet recommends this action then it is probably the best thing to do. It is sometimes more difficult when you have got into the cycle of more and more heroic efforts to save your beloved pet - just because something is possible and you have a vet willing to do it, it doesn't necessarily make it right. Ask your vet for an honest assessment of likely success, the amount of pain likely to be caused and the life expectancy afterwards. So for example an amputation of a damaged tail on a young, healthy gerbil may be worthwhile as they would have an expectation of a normal, pain free, life expectancy after recovery, but extreme dental surgery on an elderly gerbil whose teeth are likely to continue to get worse and will continue to cause pain is probably not.