Natural Gerbil Behavior and Instincts
Veterinary & Aquatic Services Department, Drs. Foster & Smith

Common natural behaviors

You may witness your gerbil rubbing his abdomen on objects in the cage. Gerbils have a scent gland on their abdomen and rub on objects to leave their scent. This marks their territory and is a behavior similar to a cat rubbing up against your leg or the edge of a cupboard.

A behavior common to all gerbils is their method of greeting one another. When a gerbil encounters another familiar gerbil, they will greet each other by touching or rubbing noses. Sometimes, they may try to touch noses with their owner, as well.

You may see your gerbil appearing to wink at you. Eye winking is often a sign of pleasure or gratitude, but can also signify submissiveness. Try winking to your gerbil and they will often respond by winking back.

Gaining a gerbil's trust

Winning your gerbil's trust is accomplished through patience, gentleness, and positive reinforcement. Be very careful not to frighten your gerbil when interacting with it; fright can cause your gerbil to bite. Begin all handling and play sessions with the sound of your voice, pitched gently to alert the gerbil that you are coming but mean no harm. Use small amounts of treats as an introduction to each session, first placing the treat in your palm and allowing your gerbil to take it at will. Eventually, your pet will trust you enough to take treats that you extend to her. The trick is gentle, regular handling and patience.

Behavioral sounds

Gerbils are fascinating creatures to watch because of the variety of behaviors they exhibit. "Thumping" is made by pounding both back feet on the floor at the same time and could signify a sexual display or a warning to other gerbils of some perceived danger. Once one gerbil begins thumping, it is mimicked by other gerbils in the group, producing an amazingly loud noise in relation to the size of those making the noise. Young gerbils seen thumping are often just "practicing."

Gerbils will squeak loudly if they feel they or their group is in danger.

Gerbils will also make a vibrating sound similar to the purr of a cat. You may feel this as you hold your pet in your hand. This conveys a message of feeling safe and content.


Sometimes, it is hard to tell whether your gerbil is acting aggressively, playing, or is, perhaps, frightened There are many things in an environment that can contribute to aggressive behavior, such as overcrowding or threatened territory. An animal reacts to a direct threat to the safety of themselves, their offspring or sometimes, their mate, with a "fight or flight" response. A threatened gerbil will often first respond with a loud squeak. If you are housing gerbils together that are showing aggression toward each other, separate them. If your gerbil is behaving aggressively towards you, look at how you approach and handle your pet. Always be quiet, calm and gentle. If you honestly can not find an environmental cause for the aggressive behavior, consult with your veterinarian. Your pet could have an illness and be in pain.

Indications of stress

Gerbils display symptoms of stress in ways similar to other mammals. They become increasingly susceptible to disease, for example, often displaying vague symptoms referred to as "not quite right." They can become irritable and more aggressive, or they can become depressed and less active. Stress can have serious health and/or psychological effects. It is always a good idea to make an effort to determine what the stressor is (there may be more than one), and then correct it.

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