Abscesses are swellings formed as a response to bacteria. An abscess can be hard or soft, and is formed over an area of the body in which there has been an injury which has allowed bacteria to get through your pet’s skin. In an attempt to stop the spread of the bacteria the 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 burst by the time you notice it, then you’ll need to gently rinse it out with a gerbil antiseptic, and dress it with a piece of gauze and micropore tape in order to stop other gerbils from nibbling at it. If you haven’t done this before then we recommend that you see a veterinary nurse first for a demonstration.
Gerbils can suffer from a lot of the same health problems as we do
Just like humans, gerbils can have dangerous allergic reactions to materials in and around their home. If you notice that your gerbil has a runny, red nose, crusty or watery eyes, wheezing breaths or is sneezing a lot, then your gerbil may be having an allergic reaction. It’s advisable to change the type of bedding that you are using for their cage, and to take them to the vet, who may be able to provide some relief and advice. Another reason to take your pet to the vet is that It’s also possible that your pet could have an underlying condition, one that is not caused by allergies.
If a gerbil suffers a fall or has the wrong bedding, then they can break their small limbs. Signs of broken limbs are distorted legs, limping, unwillingness to move, and pained vocalisations. A broken bone is very painful, so a trip to the vet is needed.
Coughs and Colds
Like humans, gerbils may occasionally catch a cold. Symptoms are very like ours, often with sneezing, runny noses and wheezing. Colds are capable of developing into more serious illnesses, so it’s best to avoid handling your pets whilst you are unwell.
Some coughs and colds can be transferred between you and your gerbil
Gerbils, though desert animals, need constant access to water whilst being kept in captivity. If they don’t have enough they can enter a serious state of dehydration - your gerbil will be lying limp in its cage and not moving around if their level of dehydration is severe.
To prevent dehydration, make sure that you keep your pet out of very warm places, such as areas that are in direct sunlight, near radiators or fireplaces. It’s also crucial to regularly check that your pets’ water bottle is full of clean water and is not blocked. To check for blockages, run your index finger over the ball in the spout to see if it’s wet. If it is, it’s not blocked, but if the spout is dry then the water bottle has a blockage and will need to be replaced immediately.
A big indicator of poor health in gerbils is their droppings. If you notice that your gerbils’ dropping are wet, then your pet could be suffering from diarrhoea, which has a number of causes, including the potentially fatal Tyzzer’s disease. Since gerbils are prone to this disease, it’s important that this particular species of pet be taken to the vet quickly for a diagnosis.
If your gerbils’ eyes are swollen, puffy, red or runny, then they could be suffering from an eye infection. This could be due to your pet having something stuck in its eye such as a piece of hay.
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.
It’s very easy to misdiagnose eye infections, as many of their symptoms are very similar to those that your gerbil would have if it were having an allergic reaction or a cold. You might be better off taking your pet to the vet for a professional diagnosis.
Healthy gerbil eyes will be very clear and bright
Some gerbils are prone to fits or ‘seizures’ as soon as they start their adult lives. Seizures can be brought on by a number of things, particularly experiences which your gerbil finds stressful. If not handled enough when young, then handling your gerbil may be one of these stressors. During fits, your gerbil may suffer muscle spasms, or may simply freeze for a few minutes. It’s wise to be aware that very severe seizures can result in brain problems.
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 draught, or is damp then they are at risk of developing hypothermia.
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 My Gerbils’ Nails 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.
A number of animals can live on or under your gerbils' skin - learn what to watch out for
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 a number of 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.
Gerbils can have strokes just like humans. This will be quite scary for both of you, but it won’t necessarily lead to anything permanent. However, it’s quite common for the animals to lose the use of one of their legs, or to have a slightly distorted body afterwards.
If you think your gerbil has had a stroke, we recommend you take them to the vets - it could be a different underlying condition, or if it has been a stroke, then the vet will be able to examine them and inform you of any extra care your pet may need going forwards.
Scent Gland Tumours
One of the most common problems with gerbils are tumours in their scent glands. The scent glands are located on a gerbil’s stomach, so tumours will appear as bumps there. This problem can occur in either gender, but some reports suggest that the tumours are more commonly found on males, possibly because their scent glands tend to be a little larger than females’.
Scent gland tumours can cause a number of problems. If left untreated the tumour 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 tumour itself then it will scratch and bite the area, leaving the tumour susceptible to infection. If you think that your pet has a scent gland tumour, it’s best to get it treated by a vet as soon as possible.
As well as scent gland tumours (above) gerbils can develop tumours anywhere else on their little bodies. Some of the most common tumours are of the skin, testicles and teats, but it’s wise to be aware that they can develop on any part of your pet’s body.
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 diarrhoea, lethargy, untidy hair, a strange posture, pain, and dehydration.