2020 updates by Cathy Bickel
We define nipping as the application of a gerbil's teeth to your skin in a way that does not puncture the skin or cause lingering pain. It is a single action and hurts a little more than nibbling, which is repetitive and not painful, just a bit unpleasant.
Unlike biting, which is dramatic, painful, and generally traceable to a specific cause, nipping is more of a bad habit that can have many possible causes and requires some retraining of your gerbil and yourself.
Sometimes, gerbils will nip simply because they smell something interesting on your fingers. This sort of nipping is usually preceded by lengthy, focused sniffing. Move your hand away, wipe or wash it, and try again.
If your gerbil has picked up a nipping habit, start with the assumption that he is using a nip to express his displeasure. You must respond in two ways. First, puff air sharply on the gerbil's head to let your gerbil know you don't like nipping. Second, change the way you're doing things without rewarding the nipping.
If the problem isn't as simple as a smelly hand, nipping should be considered a communication from your gerbil about something he or she does not like. For example, say your practice is to place your hand in the tank and wait for your gerbil to hop in your hand. After several minutes of running about, he gives your finger a nip. His message is something like, "I don't want to jump in your hand. Take it out of here." Answer this nip with a puff of air, and by scooping him up promptly and taking him out.
Sometimes a gerbil will nip while he is in your hand, perhaps as a way of saying, "I've had enough handling.” In this case, try to look at it from his perspective, and think about how he may have been trying to tell you he was worn out before he resorted to nipping. Gerbils will sometimes signal this by digging in your hands or bumping you with their heads in an attempt to dig their way out.
Is he being handled too roughly, perhaps by an affectionate but clumsy child? A nip needs to be heeded as well as discouraged.
Some common reasons for nipping:
- Your hand smells strongly of food or cleaning products.
- Your hand is not positioned in a way that the gerbil can jump in: push your wrist down until your entire hand is flat and open on the bottom of the tank.
- You are nervous about handling them or getting nipped, and the gerbils sense your unease and want you to go away.
- The gerbil was startled when the lid was lifted without warning, and a hand suddenly appeared in his nest while he was sleeping.
- Your gerbils are overly nest-bound. These are the sorts that spend all day every day in their nest or nest box, and only come out when you aren't around. Take away their box, give them enough bedding to make a decent nest, put them in a room where there is constant traffic, speak to them constantly, handle them often, confidently and briefly to socialize them.
- The gerbil is being handled for too long without occasionally returning to the tank for a break
- Children are being unintentionally rough or excited when handling the gerbils.
Read the section on Taming for effective techniques to retrain nippers. Serious and consistent nipping can be rehabilitated in the same manner as biting.