A gerbil is amongst the more robust of small caged pets and they rarely get ill. Although they are hardy little animals and very friendly and inquisitive it is essential to keep a close eye on their health because being so small, once they are unwell they go downhill very quickly and can be hard to treat, especially as not all types of antibiotic is suitable for them and some kinds can quite literally poison them almost on the spot. It is a good rule of thumb but one which particularly applies to rodents, never give an antibiotic prescribed for one animal to another. (This applies to people as well, but that’s a whole different story!)
Signs to watch out for
A gerbil with a chest infection behaves much like a person does, except that the symptoms may not show until the problem has a very severe grip. As gerbils are preyed upon by practically everything that shares their desert home when in the wild, they are predisposed to hide it if they are ill; a poorly gerbil is a dead gerbil in Mongolia! So you might not notice how ill it has become until the infection is raging and the animal is off its food and has become lethargic and hot. It will show classic cold symptoms, with sneezing and a runny nose and eyes. The fur is probably ‘staring’ – this means unkempt and clumping and when you are close to the gerbil there will be a clicking sound as it breathes. This is because its lungs will be very moist and the click happens when the airway briefly clears with each breath. If any of these signs become apparent, the gerbil should be taken to the vet without delay.
Causes of respiratory infections in Gerbils
Gerbils can get both bacterial and viral infections, just like people and the catch them just the same way, including from their owners. It is therefore really important not to handle your gerbil if you have a cold and if they have one, the same applies. If they are housed in inappropriate beddings – spruce or cedar – this can give them an allergic reaction which in turn can become an infection, as the damp mucous membranes of the nose will be extra attractive to the bacteria which are naturally occurring all around the animal. The humidity of average gerbil habitat is much higher than it would experience in the wild and that makes it rather more prone to respiratory problems than it would naturally be. Also, although gerbils live in groups, they are not permanently together in such close proximity as they are in captivity. If one gerbil shows signs of respiratory distress, it is important to isolate it from any cage mates, just in case. If it is a youngster who is not weaned yet, it is important to get all of the litter and the mother any antibiotic therapy prescribed by the vet.
An antibiotic is almost always the treatment of choice, assuming that there is not just a simple allergy at the bottom of the symptoms. The choice of antibiotic is crucial and the vet will make sure that you are given the right one. Dosing is difficult; because gerbils drink so little, it is not an option to put it in the water bottle and anyway most antibiotics are denatured in light so after a very short while the dose would be useless. Hopefully, the vet will be able to instruct you in how to administer the dose with a syringe and this is really the only reliable way. Finishing the course and giving the right dose is absolutely essential.
Prevention of respiratory problems in gerbils
It is easy to prevent allergic reaction causing respiratory problems by avoiding bedding known to be an issue, such as spruce and pine. The ‘economy’ beddings sold in many supermarkets will almost certainly be this type and although they are very cheap compared to others it will probably prove to be a false economy in the end as the vet bills will probably rocket. If an infection keeps on happening, the gerbils are probably re-infecting each other and so it would be wise to keep them apart until both have finished their courses of antibiotic. Humidity remains the worst problem as far as gerbils and many other small caged animals are concerned. Even a fairly dry home is far damper than they are used to and if kept in a tank the humidity can be very high, encouraging mould to grow on bedding and all sorts of other problems to arise. Cleaning the gerbil’s habitat very regularly is one of the best ways to keep the humidity down and also will mean that the gerbil will have dry flooring, which is more comfortable, healthy and natural for them.
General Good Practice
A gerbil is very small and this has to be taken into account when looking after them. Environmental issues such as smoke, dust and smells will seem very overwhelming to their tiny noses and it is certainly a good idea to make sure that they never come into contact with large amounts of anything like talcum powder, which could be very damaging to them. Gerbils are very friendly and inquisitive and will love to play with you, becoming very tame. This is an ideal opportunity to check them over and get to know their normal behaviours. If you make this a daily routine, it will mean that whatever symptoms they are currently exhibiting, you will have noticed them well within 24 hours, which will mean quicker veterinary intervention and quicker treatment and recovery.