Do gerbils need company?
Gerbils are social animals, therefore should live in pairs or groups. They rely on one another for safety and security so it is very beneficial to keep them together.
Social behaviours in gerbils include:
Grooming one another
Sleeping together in the same nest
Sitting beside each other
Warning the other gerbil(s) of danger by thumping
Should they be housed in pairs or groups?
In general, it is recommended to house gerbils in pairs as oppose to groups.
Having a group of gerbils may increase the risk of territorial behaviour, however some groups of gerbils can live very harmonious lives with little to no aggressive behaviours.
With most animals, the larger the enclosure, the better chance they have of getting along, but with a group of gerbils, too much space can be a trigger for territorial behaviour. They still require a spacious home for enrichment.
What if a gerbil dies, then the other one is left alone?
In this situation there are a few options. It depends on the age, gender & temperament of the gerbil.
It is quite common in gerbil ownership that one will pass away, leaving the other gerbil by themselves. In this situation there are a few options which should be decided on an individual basis. Gerbils average life expectancy is 3-4 years, some live longer than this. If your lone gerbil could still potentially live another few years, it would be a good idea to consider getting them a friend so they do not get lonely.
Gerbils are highly sociable animals, therefore can become very lonely when they do not have any interaction with another gerbil. If your gerbil is very old, then it may be best to let them live alone. Of course it is very difficult to estimate how much longer they are going to live, but as an owner, you know your gerbil best, and therefore you should make the decision.
Although on the face of it, introducing gerbils to each other seems like quite a scary prospect, with a combination of time and patience, the introduction should go well. Of course each introduction is unique, and you can’t really predict the outcome, there are some important things to know before attempting any introduction (this could effect wether or not they get along!)
If you are in the situation where your gerbil has lost his cage mate, you should wait at least 1 week, but 2 weeks is best before attempting to introduce them to another gerbil (or gerbils). They need some time to get over the loss of the cage mate, but don't wait any longer than one month to introduce.
IMPORTANT: Never put gerbils who haven’t met before together in the same cage. Doing this is likely to lead to very aggressive and territorial behaviour. This often causes serious fighting, and some will even fight until death!
Introducing an established gerbil group(3+) to another gerbil is possible but should only be attempted by experienced owners and I would only attempt this with male gerbils. It is important that the right personalities fit together to create group dynamics which will be successful. In this scenario you should not introduce a dominant gerbil to an existing group. It is possible to introduce a more submissive gerbil to a group (preferably a group of younger gerbils). Remember bonding can take weeks and even months and you must take it slowly!
Males are generally easiest to bond, but it is definitely possible to bond female gerbils.
On the other hand, females are generally much more aggressive towards one another.
An adult gerbil will pair well with a very young gerbil, or a pair of gerbils aged 8-10 weeks.
At this age they are not yet sexually mature so the introduction has a higher success rate.
It is possible to introduce a lone adult gerbil to another lone adult gerbil, but this is more difficult.
There are several options when introducing gerbils who have never met before.
The first and most commonly used method is the split cage method.
This is one of the most effective options and when done correctly, often has a successful outcome.
Gerbils rely heavily on scent to distinguish a new gerbil. In nature they would naturally have a group scent. They would defend their territory if a new gerbil was to appear. If they do not recognise the scent of the gerbil, this will most likely lead to serious fights.
The split cage method is most effective because the gerbils can gradually get used to one another without being able to do any harm. This method requires a tank. The partition should have two layers of mesh so that the gerbils can see, smell and interact but not bite/attack each other. You should swap the gerbils each day (some owners will swap them a few times each day) so that their scents mix and they gradually get used to the smell. In the beginning, it is not unusual for dominant behaviour to occur. After a few days, this should calm down. If the gerbils are showing no aggressive behaviour after this time, you may remove one of the mesh dividers, so now there is just one mesh barrier separating them. You must only do this when the gerbils are showing no signs of aggression as they can still do harm through a mesh partition. At the very earliest, gerbils may be introduced after one week.
If there are still no signs of aggressive behaviour and it has been at least 7 days (2 weeks is usually better), you may put the gerbils on the same side of the partition. Ensure you are wearing gardening gloves in case a serious fight breaks out (if the gerbils are biting) and you should separate them immediately back to how they were. The setup should be very basic. It is a good idea to ensure they have plenty of things to keep them occupied including cardboard to chew, and also scatter feed them for a distraction. You may also provide a sand bath and possibly a wheel to reduce aggression (though sometimes a wheel can cause issues during the introduction). Observe the gerbils for several hours to ensure there is no serious aggression.
If all goes well and they seem to be getting along, you should leave them together in one side of the tank for a few days. If they are still doing well together, you may remove the divider and give them the whole of the tank. At first keep the setup very simple, then gradually add enrichment and increase the bedding depth once they have been together for some time.
What if my bonded gerbils start fighting?
It is possible for a bonded pair or group of gerbils to start fighting at some point. Initially you may want to ask yourself a few questions to get a better understanding as to why this happened.
Did you change their setup recently?
Are the gerbils going through adolenscense?
Have you just cleaned their cage (in particular a full clean)?
Have they moved into a new accommodation within the last few days?
Are their any new scents which may have been a trigger (e.g. toys from another gerbils cage)?
Did any of the gerbils show signs of illness in past days/weeks (withdrawn, lack of appetite etc)?
There are many potential causes for gerbils to start fighting. It is difficult to figure out a conclusive reasoning behind 'declanning' as there are so many factors which may contribute to it. Unfortunately once a serious fight has started, it can be difficult to bond the gerbils again.
Serious fighting can include the following:
Gerbils seemingly attacking one another / gerbil being attacked
Gerbils aggressively chasing each other/ gerbil being aggressively chased
Blood being drawn
Tackling to the ground
Gerbils attempting to bite the other
Many people use the rule of 'separate when blood is drawn' however for some this can be too late. If you have noticed your gerbils seriously fighting, or one gerbil being badly picked on in the ways described above, it is best to respond quickly before it escalates into something more serious - gerbils tend to go for the tails or back limbs of another gerbil, particularly a victim gerbil as this is an easy target for the other gerbil(s). If the gerbils are both aggressive towards each other, this may result in more injuries to the face as dominant gerbils are likely to put up more of a fight.
If you feel your gerbil(s) are in a dangerous situation and it seems the fight could result in serious injuries, then separating the gerbils as soon as possible is ideal. Remember that gerbils may fight until death if provoked, so if you notice the warning signs, act sooner rather than later.
Please note that some dominance is completely normal, and not a cause for concern, as this is common for gerbils to establish a hierarchy, such as humping and minor chasing. If the victim gerbil appears to be seriously threatened by the other gerbil and is showing signs of distress, this is when you want to intervene.
Having a spare cage is ideal for such situations where the gerbils need to be split immediately. If you have a group of gerbils on the other hand, this can be more complicated. Ideally you don't want the gerbils to be housed alone. If for example, you have an existing group of four, where one gerbil is picking on another, you may consider splitting the group into two pairs (in that situation you would separate the aggressive gerbil from the victim to prevent further injury). Another example would be if you have a pair of gerbil who are fighting, you may consider splitting them up and attempting to bond them with a new partner each. It all depends on individual circumstances.