Caring for Hamsters and Gerbils
Gerbils and hamsters are busy, burrowing, tunnel-digging critters that, if well cared for, can live for about four years. Gerbils are active during the day, while hamsters, on the other hand, are nocturnal - they sleep all day and play all night.
The Mongolian Gerbil is the species most commonly kept as pets and can grow to about 8" in total length - 4" of body length and another 4" in tail length.
There are three species of hamsters commonly found as pets - Syrian, the Dwarf and the Chinese. Syrians grow to about 7" in length. They are the most common of the hamster pets, but also the most incompatible with other hamsters. Dwarfs are more social and grow to about 3". Chinese hamsters are similar in size to Dwarfs and sometimes get along with other Chinese hamsters, but not very often. Different species of hamsters should never be housed together.
Gerbils on the other hand are social rodents, which is why it is best to own them in pairs. However, males and females should not be housed together, unless you want to be overrun by baby gerbils.
If you choose to only have one gerbil or if one of a pair dies, introducing a new gerbil to the fold can prove challenging. It is easiest to introduce a young gerbil (one that is under 10 weeks old) to the one already there. It is not, however, impossible to introduce older ones, it just takes more time and patience.
The IntroductionDivide your cage into two separate and secure cages. Place one gerbil on either side of the divider. Swap the gerbils from side to side throughout the day - which will help get use to the each others secnt. Once the gerbils appear curious and not aggressive towards each other, the divider can be removed. If they fight, go back to the divided cage and start the introduction phase again. However, if they do get along after the initial 20 minutes, they can be left alone to live in harmony.
HousingIn order to avoid a free-running rodent, house them in a wire cage or aquarium equipped with a wire mesh cover for ventilation.
A pair of gerbils can live in a 12" x 24" x 12" enclosure. But being the active critters hamsters and gerbils can be, the larger the enclosure, the better. Glass aquariums are preferred for gerbils, as they tend to be deeper, which enables for a thicker layer of burrowing.
Wire cages can be used, however, their bar spaces cannot exceed ½" wide. With all of their activity, gerbils tend to kick their bedding out. They have also been known to chew the wire, resulting in sores on their noses. Hamsters live happily in wire cages or aquariums.
Plastic cages are completely out of the question for both rodents, as they will chew right through them.
BeddingAvoid pine or cedar shavings. While they control odour and have some natural insecticidal properties, the pleasant odour is caused, in part, by aromatic hydrocarbons and phenols, which have been linked to respiratory problems.
ExerciseGerbils and hamsters are small, but have enormous amounts of energy. So their cages need to be equipped with an exercise wheel - one without openings that can catch their tails. Bigger is also better, as a too-small wheel will cause them discomfort. Their cages should also have toys strewn about, however, avoid ones made of soft plastic or cardboard as they will be chewed to bits.
In addition to the wheel, there are hamster run-about balls, which can be used outside the cage. Balls don't provide enough exercise, especially for hamsters, but are good variations. However, because they are used in open spaces, precautions must be taken. Never leave hamsters or gerbils in the ball for more than 15 to 20 minutes at a time as the rodents can overheat. Also, keep the balls away from stairs - the tumbling ball can injure the rodents.
Gerbil HandlingIt is important gerbils are used to being handled. Start by hand-feeding them small treats. When they appear comfortable with that, try picking them up - scoop the gerbil into the palm of one hand and lightly cover the gerbil with the other hand - to prevent an escape. Never pick them up by the tail as it can cause injury to the gerbil.
Once the gerbils are hand-trained, you can allow them to run in a supervised and enclosed area outside their cage.
Hamster HandlingHamsters have a bad reputation for biting. However, being bitten can be avoided, as it is generally the result of stress or fear.
A hamster may also be stressed because of an inappropriate living environment, being disturbed too often or during the day, as well as being subjected to excessive noise.
Taming takes time and patience. Once the hamster is accustomed to its new environment and appears calm, spend more time around its cage quietly talking to it to get the hamster used to your voice. As the hamster becomes more comfortable with you, offer it some of its favourite treats (sunflower seeds or dried fruit) by hand. Once it happily takes the treats from your hand, you can start scooping the hamster in your hand.