Pup Development

Authors: Libby Hanna, KJ Fuller

Gerbil young are called pups. There are usually 4-8 pups in a litter. Pups are often born in overnight or in the early morning. Mother gerbils will generally handle the birth process themselves without difficulty. The father may move out of the nest for a few days following the birth but shortly thereafter will move back and take an active part in raising his children. Even if your litter was a "surprise" that you prefer not to repeat, do not remove the father after the birth of a first litter. You will have an opportunity to do so later on (although not before a second litter is on the way.) See Separating Gerbils.

Pups will be grown up enough to go off to new homes in 35-42 days. Their parents will provide all their basic needs during this time. Your job is to provide adequate human socialization so that your pups will be friendly, tame, and likely to find and keep loving homes. This section will provide you with age-appropriate advice for socializing your pups.

Pinkies: Day 1-7

Newborn gerbil babies are furless, blind and deaf. Their mother may spend most of the first two or three days sitting on the nest nearly full time, wrapped around them as they endlessly nurse. Her husband may move out for a few days, or may jump right into the caretaking role. It is not necessary to remove the father; he will help raise his young, not cannibalize them (that's hamsters).

You should get the babies used to the feel of human hands by gently picking them up one by one for a few seconds each day. Count them, check their health and look for signs of nibbled toes or tail tips that indicate nervous or awkward parents. You can scoop the whole litter up and hold it gently in the palm of your hand. Most parents do not mind this, but be sensitive to their concerns which might be indicated by running around nervously or even nipping you. If you give them a toilet paper tube before you begin, chances are they'll be happy to have a "babysitter" for a while.

Toward the beginning of this period, the babies won't attempt to move much but toward the end of the week, they have have begun to discover their legs. Hold them right in your lap or low, just above the bedding, so that no one gets hurt if he or she leaps out of your hands. You can tell which will be pink-eyed and which dark-eyed; the color of their eyes shows right through their skin.

What Can Go Wrong Day 1-7:

  • Stillborns. If you find a tiny, white, dead pup in or around the nest, this was a stillborn. It happens. Remove it and dispose of it lovingly as best you can given your situation.

  • Pups that don't make it. A large litter will often have a runt or two that will not survive more than a couple of days. An inexperienced parent (especially the mother) or too many teenagers still in the nest may also increase mortality. Parents will often "clean up" pups that didn't make it, but human parents beware: gerbil parents are sometimes not as complete in this task as we'd like. To avoid upsetting your own children, have an adult be the first one to check the nest for the first week, and eliminate anything unfortunate that might be there.

  • Lack of milk. A single pup often cannot demand enough milk to keep up its mother's milk supply. Milk problems can occur for other reasons as well. You can actually see the milk in the belly of a nursing newborn. If your pups are not getting milk, they will get smaller and more wrinkly rather than fatter and smoother. The only realistic solution is to find a nursing mother and foster your pups. Supplementation will not work in pups this young. An AGS breeder may be able to help you, but you may just have to let nature take its course. Things may go better the next time.

Don't be afraid to handle your young litter safely.
Photo by: Karen Zelevinsky

Day 8-17

During the next ten days, the pups' fur will come and you'll be able to tell who is what color. It is also crucial to sex the pups during this time. The pups' ears will unfold now, so speaking to them while you handle them will help them associate your voice and touch. Have everyone in the family speak to the pups and start using their names. Toward the end of this period, you will notice the pups eyelids becoming darker, and the pups may scratch at them with their back feet. Their eyes are preparing to open.

Pups will increase the use of their legs during this time, so be extra cautious that they will land in a soft place from a short distance if they decide to "squirt" out of your hands. Taking them out individually each day is good practice.

What Can Go Wrong Day 8-17

  • Injuries. Pups are getting active, so falls from your hand are a risk. If the wheel is still in the tank and sits fairly close to the bedding, pups can be injured by getting near it or under it while it's moving, or even worse, being inside when Mom or Dad takes off. I often remove the wheel around Day 9 or when they start making siginifcant forays out of the nest. You may also be able to mount the wheel on the tank lid (use twisties) to lengthen the time the parents have the wheel. If there was a nest box, you may wish to remove it so no pups get wedged under or beside it. Remember they can't see what they are doing yet.

  • Deaths. If there is a pup with congenital difficulties, it may fade away during this period when its siblings are getting quite strong and push it out of the way. It is sad, but it is unlikely your intervention will make a difference for the long-term. Again, fostering is your best bet, and the runty pup will need to go with a younger litter.

  • Parental aggression. Some parents, especially mothers, get agitated when pups begin to exit the nest. Most aggression problems happen in the next phase, but do be aware of this. If you have a nervous mother, do not remove the wheel or nest box. Better the risk of injury than her losing her cool with the litter. This is rare behavior but important to be cognizant of.

Adorable pups look like grown-ups now but still have a lot to learn from you.

Day 18-28

This is where you come in! From the day the pups open their eyes, you must handle them gently, calmly and consistently so that they learn humans represent fun and adventure. They also have only about two more weeks to learn everything they need to know about being a gerbil from their parents and/or older siblings.

For the first two or three days after opening their eyes, pups are overwhelmed by the size of their human companions and often become quite skittish. This is the age where pups "squirt" right out of your hands, and you must be vigilant that they not sustain a bad fall. It is best not to scoop them and just lift them out: rather, teach them to explore and come out by letting them climb on your flat hand which you can gently lift. Don't worry if they are shy about it at first. Handle their parents and older siblings as much as they will allow - babies will imitate.

Another key responsibility now is the provide them with enrichment in the form of all types of gerbil entertainment, so that their parents can model how to use them. A wheel is a must again, but you may wish to install a smaller one (6-7", silent spinner a good choice) so that pups can get the hang of it without their parents jumping in and sending them flying across the tank. They need to enjoy their first sandbath, their first boxes and tubes, green and dried foods of all types, a variety of nesting materials, and anything else you wish them to know about, such as running balls (you'll need a mouse-sized ball at this point) or mazes. Handle them as often and as gently as possible, and if you plan to place pups, invite many friends, including children, to gently handle the pups under your supervision. Be sure their diet includes a food with some smaller, softer pieces - a canary seed mix blended with oatmeal and Cheerios is good "pup chow". Nothing is cuter that a baby gerbil with a Cheerio in its paws!

If the mother and father are still together and you don't plan to go on breeding them, you will need to separate them correctly during this time. You may also wish to weigh the pups regularly on a gram scale now, to keep an eye open for health issues such as respiratory infection (below).

What Can Go Wrong Day 18-28

  • Respiratory Infection. Weaning time is when respiratory infection is most likely. Pups may appear fluffed up, and you may hear a clicking or wheezing sound, as if breathing through a stuffy nose. They may stop gaining weight or even lose weight. Because pups are seldom drinking from the water bottle, ornacycline treatment is ineffective. You will need prescription antibiotics from a vet. Veterinary expense is a given risk for breeders; do not shirk it. For the cost of an office visit and a bottle of medicine, you can save the litter. If you have any doubts about the pups' progress or hear unusual respiratory noises, visit the vet.

  • Parental Aggression. If the mother is pregnant again her hormones are in a whirl now, and Nature is telling her it's time to move on from this litter and focus on the next. It is not unheard of for a parent (usually the mother) to turn on her pups during this period. Watch carefully for unusual behavior, such as one or two pups separated from the rest, hiding under the wheel, and squeaking when parents come near. If any pups are being picked on, you will need to watch carefully and remove everyone with the exception, if possible, of one sister who the mother is not angry with. All the pups should go with their father or another nurturing male or older sibling to their own tank. Since gerbils begin weaning as soon as their eyes open, they can survive a rejection in this period as long as there's an adult around to care for them.

  • Injuries. Pups' high level of activity and their still-unpredictable behavior when handled make this a prime time for injuries and deaths by fall. Sit on a padded floor when you handle pups. If young children will be handling them, teach them to freeze if a gerbil gets loose, while adults catch it. Pups are easily stepped on and crushed by a child trying to get out of the way to locate a loose gerbil. Consider a round "corral" fence for children to sit inside so that a loose pup can't go far.

  • Unexplained death. If a pup has had some underlying condition, weaning time will probably be more than it can take. It is sad, but it's nature's way. Warn potential adopters up front not to get too attached to any one pup or pair until they are at a robust six weeks