A healthy coat
It is very important that your gerbil’s coat is kept in very good condition. This prevents the animals from becoming infested with parasites and other problems. Gerbils look after their coat by bathing in the wild – not in water, but in sand. They roll in the sand, which gets between their hairs and absorbs all the grease and dirt. After their bath they shake themselves, so that the dirt leaves the cost with the sand. In this way, the cost remains untangled and aired, and therefore offers ideal insulation. Not all gerbil breeds need sand baths. Some hardly ever use it, others really need it. Mongolian gerbils really love to take such a bath, and it is always a very attractive show to watch. You should offer them the opportunity to enjoy themselves once in a while. Shell sand or special bathing sand for chinchillas is ideal. Shell sand is most often used in birdcages and consists of silver sand mixed with pieces of shell and aniseed. Gerbils love the seeds and sometimes even eat the shells to fulfill their need for calcium. The chinchilla sand is made of ground clay and is available in different structures, from fine to coarse. A disadvantage is that chinchilla sand is fairly expensive, but you can solve this problem by mixing it with shell sand. If the sand has remained dry during the bath, you can sieve it through and use it again. You have to replace it after the third time. When it is bathing time, put a bowl with sand into the cage. The animals will go for the sand straight away. Remove the sand after the bath. If you leave it in, the gerbils will dig and root until all the sand is mixed into the bedding and the nesting material.
Parasites are small creatures that live at the cost of their host. The best known are fleas on dogs and cats. Rodents seldom have problems with parasites, and certainly not healthy animals. Weak, sick or poor cared for animals, however, are far more likely to be affected. You mostly discover parasites only when an animal starts to scratch itself and gets bald patches. If you notice that your gerbil is itching and scratches itself frequently, then it’s probably suffering from mites (tiny relatives of spiders some of which feed on blood). These mites are often spread by birds, and gerbils sometimes pick up a flea from a dog or cat.
A pet shop or vet can advise you on dealing with parasites. Remedies sold for bird mites are often effective.
The skin mite is a particularly harmful parasite. Fortunately they seldom occur but if they affect your gerbil, you will have to treat it. The skin mite is a minute spider-like creature that creeps into its host’s skin, making the mite itself almost never visible. It causes scabs and eczema, known as scabies, which sometimes covers the whole skin within a month. Skin mites are infectious and can be passed on to other animals. Your vet or good pet shop will have treatments for skin mites.
In most cases the infected animal must be bathed in the substance. Dry your gerbil off well to prevent it catching a cold and put it in a warm place (minimum 25°C).
Fungal skin infections
Rodents can sometimes suffer from fungal skin infections, which cause small areas of flaking in the ears or nose. This is known as ringworm, and is cause by the same fungus as athlete’s foot. Skin fungi are infectious to humans and animals but easy to treat. But don’t let the problem go on for too long because the animal may suffer other ailments because of it. Yours vet has standard medicines against fungi, although athletes foot powder can be just as effective. Treatment may take a long time, several weeks, to make sure the fungus has been completely eradicated.
Obviously we hope that your gerbil will grow old without disease and pain. However gerbils live nowhere near as long as humans and you must accept that after a couple of years you have an aging gerbil to care for. An old gerbil will slowly become quieter and get some grey hair in its coat but can still live an active and happy life.