and Cathy Bickel
Gerbils live a happy and active but short life.
Signs of Aging
Even by 18 months, a gerbil may show signs of aging. She may slow down a bit, move less around the tank and sleep more. She may have less interest in her wheel and may chew up tubes and boxes with less gusto. Water consumption may increase. These changes may be most noticeable in comparison with her partner; if you regularly see one gerbil up and about while the other sleeps soundly in the nest, it may mean that one of your gerbils is slowing down.
When your gerbil reaches two years of age, monitor her health and behavior more closely. Consider investing in a digital scale and weigh your gerbils once a month or more, keeping a written record. Any steady or sudden loss or gain of weight could be a sign of trouble. Weight loss could mean your gerbil’s teeth are getting too long or that perhaps an underlying medical condition is present. Weight gain, particularly rapid gain, can indicate a tumor or other disease. These conditions should be brought to a vet’s attention promptly.
Elderly gerbils require few concessions to their age. As long as their teeth remain healthy, they can eat their regular food. It might be helpful to boost the protein count to 16% or even 18% for gerbils who lose weight; other gerbils will put on ounces and might need their diet to include a bit more hay and veggies and a bit less seed. High-quality rodent lab block such as Harlan Teklad can provide extra protein plus a workout for teeth. It should supplement, not replace, the normal seed-and-veggies diet.
Gerbils who become somewhat wobbly might like a more enclosed wheel like a Wodent Wheel which gives them a bit of lateral support. They might prefer the bedding be kept lower, and might prefer a good tunnelling material such as Clean and Cozy over aspen or corncob, which require more nest-making. It is important to continue to provide them with exercise and stimulation: an active gerbil lives longer. A gerbil who finds herself alone becomes eligible for one of nature's most stimulating toys: a pup friend.
Diseases of Old Age
- Scent gland tumors: See Tumors
- Melanomas: See Tumors
- Internal tumors: See Tumors
- Ear infections and growths: See Ear Infection
- Strokes: See Stroke
- Tooth problems: See Teeth
- Respiratory infection: See Respiratory Infection
- Ovarian cysts: See Tumors
- Eye problems: If an eye is dry but won’t fully open, the gerbil may have had a stroke. Red discharge from an eye may be caused by a number of problems, among them allergies, tooth problems or the development of an ear growth.
The End of Life
End of life decisions must take into account two factors: quality of life and stress.
Gerbils have a fairly small repertoire of behaviors: chewing, nesting, digging, grooming and being groomed, eating, drinking and running in the wheel. Quality of life decisions should take account of whether your gerbil can or cannot take pleasure in these normal activities. As long as your gerbil is doing what gerbils like to do, she is enjoying quality of life.
The second factor is stress. As prey animals, gerbils are hard-wired to hide their symptoms from predators and to flee from danger. This survival mechanism of concealing symptoms is why even an experienced gerbil owner often won’t pick up on an illness until it is dire. A gerbil who is obviously ill and cannot move around freely is stressed by her vulnerability. While you and I know that a hawk is not about to pounce on her, she does not share your confidence. When a gerbil gets to the point that she is unable to move about safely, or is so burdened by pain that all she can do is hide from perceived predators, stress has affected her quality of life. When she reaches the point where she doesn’t even try to eat, she is giving up. At this point, a caring owner owes it to his or her pet to consider humane euthanasia.