One of the comments I get from people, and by “people” I mean both people who own gerbils and people who don’t, is how tame and human my two gerbils seem. “They really think you’re a gerbil,” they’ll say in surprise. “I didn’t know gerbils acted like that!”
Until I started being more involved with the American Gerbil Society, I genuinely thought all gerbils did act like that and people either didn’t know much about gerbils or were flattering me. But when I joined and still had people messaging me going “I know someone who wants to have a relationship with their gerbils like you do, can I give them your contact info?” I realized I might have a tendency to raise unusually friendly gerbils.
For this Valentine’s Day and Tutorial Tuesday, I’ll be sharing with you my rules of socializing gerbils. As a disclaimer, though, I should say this – there is no single right way to socialize your gerbils. Gerbils are significantly less complicated to raise than dogs or children, but like dogs and children, they do have distinct personalities, and those personalities mean that what works on won’t necessarily work on another. If you raise gerbils the way I suggest, you will end up with unnaturally friendly gerbils, but they will also be much, much more needy and reliant on you. If part of what you prize about your gerbils is their independence, socializing gerbils the way I socialize gerbils is not for you. But if you want a gerbil who is deeply bonded to you, here are my rules for how to get there:
Rule One: Establish A Schedule And Rituals
When you’re working with a gerbil, the first thing you have to understand about them is that in the wild, they are prey, and that means that they have prey instincts even when tame. This makes their social needs and reactions very different from cats and dogs, who are predators. The biggest difference you’ll notice between an animal who mainly functions as prey (like a gerbil) versus an animal who mainly functions as a predator (like a dog or a cat) is the level of anxiety and skittishness. Gerbils are naturally very, very anxious and skittish. The more vulnerable a gerbil is, the more instinctively skittish they are, which is why gerbil pups are so fast and will jump like popping popcorn out of your hand if you so much as breathe too loudly.
The easiest way to calm anxiety in any animal is to establish routines and rituals. If you think about it, to a gerbil, there are three categories of things that happen to them: threats (bad), forces of nature (neutral) and gerbil/clan (good). The key similarity between the good and neutral categories versus the bad categories is that they are predictable. A gerbil can predict other gerbils, or the seasons and the weather, but they can’t predict when a hawk’s going to come swooping in to make them their lunch. Everyone’s aim with gerbils, even if they don’t aim to be as close to their gerbils as I am to mine, is to be either neutral or good to them, and that means being predictable and sticking to a schedule.
The good news is that as a human, you already have a schedule of when you sleep, eat, and work, and all you have to do is fit gerbils into it by, say, feeding them when you’re already feeding yourself. Like humans, gerbils don’t need schedules to be on the dot – if you normally feed your gerbil at 5:00 and one day you feed them at 5:15, they are not going to have some sort of mental breakdown. (They may act like they’re having one depending on how spoiled they are, but that’s just them being dramatic.)
What’s more important to a gerbil than a schedule that adheres to time is a schedule that’s ritualized. A gerbil wants you to be predictable, so if you want to socialize and interact a lot with your gerbil, make it predictable. Always talk to them when you feed them, for example, or always give them a small treat after they’re done playing. My favorite one I do with my gerbils is when I come back to my room after being gone for a long time, I call “hello, babies!” as soon as I get upstairs, so by time I get to my room, they’re waking up and ready to greet me. Gerbils love rituals so much that they’ll decide seemingly arbitrary things are rituals and be distressed if you stop doing them. I got a whole lot of scolding when I tried giving them a cherry tomato cut widthwise instead of lengthwise like I usually do, for example. Or last semester I was taking a Statistics course online, and for two weeks in a row while I listened to the lecture with my gerbils on my bed and some treats laying out for them. After doing this twice, my gerbils had learned to distinguish my professor’s voice from the other sounds that come out of my computer and began insisting on coming out to play whenever they heard it. I had to shut that one down for pretty obvious reasons (and you can do that, just know you might get a whole lot of scratching and jumping up and down and indignant squealing), but it does go to show that gerbils really, really like structure, especially if that structure involves getting food.
Rule Two: Start As You Mean To Go On
One of the biggest differences between my technique and the official techniques you’ll find is that I do not give gerbils a warm-up period. When I take gerbils home, they’re treated as though they’re tame and spend time with me from the start. I don’t do the whole process of slowly coaxing them to take food from my hand, I just throw them in the proverbial deep end of snuggling and trust they’ll learn to swim through the waves of kisses.
I have a few reasons for this. It’s partially philosophical (gerbils are anxious, anxiety doesn’t deal well with the fact that coaxing your gerbils involves a set of constantly changing rituals), partially preferential (I don’t want to wait for snuggles), and partially because some gerbils will never want to take food from your hand because that’s just who they are. It’s way too easy when you’re trying to ramp up slowly to take any hint of a gerbil showing a contrary personality as a sign they’re not friendly, and that’s almost never the case – gerbils are just contrary by nature because they’re gerbils and they can be.
A good example of this is my gerbil Sasha. Sasha was a rescue from a hoarding situation, which I suspect is what made him so weird and territorial about food. He won’t take it from my hand like his brother Rizzo, who was bred. He doesn’t even like to eat when he’s out of his cage unless he’s really hungry or I put out particularly good treats, and when he’s in his cage, he always has to drag his food to a corner and hide unless he has the security of Rizzo eating with him. If I’d tried coaxing Sasha into my hand with food, he never in a million years would have come to me.
As you can see, though, Sasha’s not exactly a shrinking violet.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say he’s the opposite – he was a gerbil who was most likely born friendly and by time I took him home he had already decided in his tiny gerbil brain that I, along with everything else, belonged to him. He also decided somewhere in the first few hours of being with me that he not only wanted me to pick him up and cuddle him all the time, he deserved being cuddled and paid attention to all the time and would be very put out if I shirked on my duties. And despite all this neediness, he still rarely eats food out of my hand or lets anyone who isn’t me hold or touch him. He’s just a special, contrary boy like that because he’s Sasha and again, he can be.
Now I start socializing with my gerbils from the moment they come home with me, but the good news is you can start this any time you want. Gerbils are too small to have large, complex brains, which means their memory isn’t so great and they’re not going to be like “hey, wait a minute, what’s with the new rules here” for very long because they’ll forget it didn’t used to be that way. The most important thing to maintaining this level of socialization with gerbils is, as always, consistency. The reason my not coaxing gerbils into being tame works is because it’s something they can grow used to and predict. It eventually achieves the same end of having human interaction be something they learn is safe and enjoyable, it just skips a few steps along the way.
Rule Three: Understand and Respect Your Gerbil’s Personality And Boundaries
To the more tenderhearted among you, it’s going to sound an awful lot like I’m advocating torturing your gerbils by telling you to just start picking them up and handling them from the moment they arrive home. Your gerbils may, in fact, act like you are torturing them and spend a very long time evading being picked up when you try and play with them, even years into owning them. After fifteen years of owning gerbils, though, I’m pretty sure that’s less a distress signal and more that they think evading your hand is a fun game of tag like the ones they play with each other.
What’s key to making sure your relationship with your gerbils remains a healthy and positive one is to understand the difference between your pet being contrary – which gerbils are by nature – and being in genuine distress. Never, ever push through trying to socialize with a gerbil if they bite you hard enough to draw blood. This is either a sign that a gerbil is in extreme distress or has been previously traumatized. If you know a gerbil is coming from a difficult situation and frequently bites hard enough to draw blood, ignore everything I said – you will absolutely need to ramp up slowly into interaction. Other signs of extreme distress in gerbils are excessive peeing and pooping that isn’t characterized by the normal peeing and pooping rituals, trembling, and loud squealing. This squeal is different from the chatty squeaks gerbils usually do, and you’ll know this squeal when you hear it, because it sounds like a scream. Also unlike those cute little chattering little squeaks, it will immediately make you feel like a monster.
Rule Four: The More You Give Your Gerbil, The More They’ll Give You Back
When you get down to it, really, the reason my gerbils love me so much is because I love them so much, and I spend so much of my time and energy dedicated to loving them. The more you give a gerbil, the more you’re going to get from a gerbil in return. The best way to show gerbils you love them is to spend time with them. You don’t have to spend as much time with your gerbils as I do – after all, I doubt most of you also work from home in the same room you sleep in and share with your gerbils – but you do have to spend a significant amount of time with them. To be happy gerbils only need a half hour or so a day, but I recommend to get really close to your gerbils that you spend at least an hour a day interacting with each other, and more never hurts.
The easiest way to do this is to move your gerbils into the room you spend the most time in, and whatever you do in there that you can safely have the gerbils join you for, have the gerbils join you. I, for example, spend a lot of time with my gerbils in my bed while I’m on my laptop doing schoolwork. I lay down a blanket (and if your gerbils will be playing with you in a bed, you should always lay down a blanket you don’t mind getting holes chewed in), put their wheels and toys and some food on the bed next to me, and give them free reign to run around or on top of me for an hour or two. If you have a big enough wire enclosure you can use as a run, you can do this exact same thing on any floor. You can spend time with them by cleaning the food out of their cage that they don’t eat (they like supervising and finding treats they hid and forgot about), or talking to them. Some people even manage to teach their gerbils tricks, though I’ve never been that ambitious or had gerbils that were that smart.
The most basic definition of a relationship is that you give something to someone or something, and then the object of your attentions gives you something in return. So the more you give to that object of your attentions, theoretically, the more you will get in return. What I like about gerbils, and all animals really, is that this is generally a 1:1 relationship. The more you give them, the more gerbils will give you back. If you want your gerbils to love you, then you just need to love them – love them as they are, for what they are, and as much as you possibly can. Reward and treasure their quirks. Allow them to get used to yours. Give them security and food and affection, and they will reward you.