If your gerbil becomes sick there are several things that you can do to help him feel better and to help him get well. The most important things, other than making sure he gets any medication your veterinarian prescribes, are making sure that he’s eating, drinking and warm enough. In some cases you may also want to limit certain activities.
As always follow your veterinarian’s instructions first and foremost.
If your gerbil becomes dehydrated it will cause him to become weak and will, in a short time, be the cause of death. No living thing can live without water. To tell if your gerbil is dehydrated gently pinch the skin in the scruff area, if it appears to ‘tent’ then he is dehydrated. Even if he isn’t, it doesn’t hurt to offer extra fluids in times of illness. Your veterinarian can inject fluid subcutaneously (under the skin) which will help. At home you can help by making sure your gerbil has access to fresh, clean drinking water in his bottle and making sure that he can get to it.
Moving the bottle closer to his nest will allow him to get to water without having trek across the entire cage when he’s not feeling well.
You can also offer water via oral syringe (without the needle!), taking care not to cause him to take water into his lungs, which will just cause more problems. Take a 1 cc syringe, which is available from a pharmacist or your veterinary clinic, fill it with water and offer it to your hamster. It is safest to put the syringe in the side of his mouth just behind his teeth to reduce the risk of aspiration of fluid into the lungs. He may start drinking from it himself, slowly depress the plunger making sure he has enough time to swallow any fluid, 1 cc syringes will generally allow you to drip water drop by drop.
Another way to rehydrate is to use a children’s electrolyte solution, such as Pedialyte. Mixing it 50/50 with water works well. You can again syringe this to your gerbil, or add a second water bottle with the 50/50 mixture. It is not recommended to change his main water bottle to this as some animals will stop drinking if there is a change in taste to their water. Flavoured Pedialyte is OK but avoid those with citrus or lemon juice.
Sometimes gerbils will stop eating when they are not feeling well. This can become serious quickly due to their size and fast metabolic rate. Moving his food dish closer to his nest will give him access to his food without having to go too far. The addition of higher protein foods will also help build up some strength. Plain scrambled eggs, tofu and milk soaked bread are some easy to eat favourites. Baby food that is free of onion, garlic and lemon juice is a well liked addition to their diet and can be syringe fed. Gerbils are desert animals and care should be taken when feeding baby food that it does not cause diarrhea due to the high moisture content.
Syringe feeding with baby food is done in the same way as giving fluids. Put the syringe in the side of the mouth behind the front teeth and slowly depress the plunger. Many times the gerbil will wrap his paws around the syringe like a baby with a bottle and will eat on his own. Generally speaking they will stop eating when they are full, but if he seems to be eating a great deal give him a short break and then offer more.
Yoghurt can also be fed in smaller amounts during illness to counteract the effect of antibiotics on the intestinal tract. The yoghurt should contain active pro biotic cultures and should not be fed within 2 hours of the antibiotic.
Keeping Your Gerbil Comfortable
If a gerbil is dehydrated or not eating, they often feel cold. That being said you also don’t want to over heat him as this can cause heatstroke..
Making sure that he has plenty of plain, unscented toilet paper in his nest is a good way of making sure he can wrap himself in as much or as little as he needs to. Often they will snuggle into a huge mountain of toilet roll.
If you have a small hot water bottle you can fill it up and put it under the cage in an area near the nest, this will allow him to move closer to it if he’s cold, but still get away from the heat if he gets too warm. Note: if you are treating for heat related illness such as heat stroke, use an ice pack in place of the hot water bottle in the same way. Place it under a part of the cage so that he can lie near it to cool off, or move away from it if he gets too cool.
If he’s comfortable with it, and not fighting you, then holding him wrapped in a small towel will also warm him. Due to feeling ill many gerbils become very lethargic and will simply curl up and sleep on you. Your body heat, plus the warmth from being wrapped in a towel will warm him.
The only time it is recommended to take a gerbils’ wheel out of the cage is when he’s ill or injured. Due to their nature of trying to hide illness they may run on their exercise wheel when they are too weak to be doing that. Removing the wheel for a week or so can help your gerbil to take the time he needs to rest and recover.
If you have a multi level cage, and are able to, cut it down to a single level to prevent too much activity and also to prevent falls. If the cage does not allow removal of levels make sure that all food and water is brought to the lower level, or whatever level the gerbil has his nest on. If he uses a litter box or gerbil potty make sure to move this also.
As gerbils are social creatures it is often asked “should I separate my sick/injured gerbil from his cage mate?” This often depends on the situation. If the injury was caused by a fight between the gerbils, then you should separate them immediately and they should not be returned to the same cage. In most other circumstances it is better to leave them together unless the one who is ill is being bullied. If the illness is contagious there is a good chance the other gerbil(s) are already affected and should be treated. Being separated from his cage mate will only stress your gerbil out more and make him lonely. The other gerbil(s) will help in keeping the ill one warm, will provide comfort and it has been observed that the others will bring the injured/ill one food and/or bedding. If you feel that the situation may warrant separation, check with your veterinarian for advice.