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Can You Give a Gerbil a Bath? Do They Need Them?

gerbil mice in humans hand

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Dr. Lorna Whittemore

Vet, MRCVS

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Gerbils are popular little rodents that make adorable and fun pets for many families. They come from desert environments, so you may be wondering how or if you should give your gerbil a bath. Do gerbils even need a bath?

Gerbils should never be given a water bath unless it’s a spot-cleaning kind of situation to remove a stubborn or toxic substance. They actually bathe themselves regularly in sand.

Here, we look at why water baths are not recommended and the best ways to give your gerbil a sand bath.

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A Little About Gerbils

Mongolian gerbils (also called Mongolian jirds) are small burrowing rodents, the most popular species kept as pets. They are typically found in the highlands of Inner Mongolia and in adjoining countries, such as northern China and southern Siberia.

They live primarily in sandy deserts but are also found in clay deserts, scrub, mountain valleys, arid steppes, and grasslands. They dig out small burrows in soft sand or soil, usually near a plant, and live in small groups consisting of up to 20 family members.

If you’ve ever noticed your pet gerbil being less active during the heat of summer and the cold of winter, this mimics their instincts in the wild. Less activity in the hottest and coldest parts of the year helps conserve energy.

Gerbils in the wild regularly sandbathe, which helps maintain their fur and remove any excess oil accumulating on their skin. But their natural oils are still essential to help maintain and coat health.

Gerbil
Image Credit: PublicDomainPictures, Pixabay

Why Should You Not Give Gerbils a Water Bath?

There are several reasons that giving a gerbil a water bath isn’t a good idea. For one, gerbils are desert animals, and getting them wet could result in hypothermia. Gerbils do not naturally bathe in water and as small mammals they may become too cold after bathing in water.

Small animals like gerbils are also prone to becoming stressed easily, which is likely to occur if they are suddenly placed in a tub of water. Swimming is not something that gerbils do, so it would end up being an unpleasant experience overall. Stress can lead to other health issues, and gerbils are especially prone to sudden seizures induced by stress.

Also, when you strip their skin of its natural oils due to bathing, this can result in the overproduction of those oils. This can irritate the skin and possibly cause a bacterial infection.

In general, a full-on water bath is not recommended, but if there’s a situation where you need to spot clean your gerbil, you can use a damp cloth or any kind of pet wipes that are unscented and chemical free. But if your gerbil is at all wet, be sure to dry it carefully and thoroughly so hypothermia or pneumonia won’t develop.

Why Sand Baths?

Gerbils come from arid climates with little rainfall, so without regular access to water, they’ve developed the ability to use sand to clean their coats and control the excess oil.

They need the right balance of oils on their skin and coats, and while water baths can strip those oils, sand baths keep them in the right balance.

gerbil mice
Image Credit: sonjafurter1, Pixabay

What’s the Best Way to Give Your Gerbil a Sand Bath?

You’ll need to start with the right kind of sand. It should be specifically made for small animals, like chinchillas and gerbils. The sand must be dust and silica free, or it can lead to respiratory problems.

You’ll also want a container to hold the sand that is big enough for your gerbil to roll around in. You can use a shallow ceramic, glass, or metal bowl, but it should have a flat bottom so it won’t tip over. Many gerbil owners like to use cat or small dog bowls for this purpose, but you can buy one made for just this purpose.

The bowl should be at least 3 inches deep and wide enough for your gerbil to roll around in. The more gerbils you have, the wider the bowl should be.

You should pour about an inch of sand into the bowl — this ensures that it’s not deep enough for the gerbil to burrow into. There should be just enough sand for rolling and playing.

Place the bowl in an open area that isn’t near where they typically go to the bathroom, or they might only use the sand as a toilet.

How Long and How Often Should Gerbils Have a Sand Bath?

Once the container with sand is in the cage, leave it there for about 10 or 15 minutes so your gerbil can get good and clean, and then remove it. While you can leave it in permanently (provided that you replenish and clean the sand at least once a week or sooner), it can end up becoming problematic. Some gerbils might start using it as a toilet or won’t use it as a bath at all.

Many gerbil owners put a sand bath in their gerbil’s cage about once or twice a week, leave it for 10 or so minutes while the gerbil uses it, and remove it when it’s done.

The choice is yours if you want to leave the bath in there permanently or just once a week with you closely monitoring it. But if you leave it in permanently and your gerbil doesn’t seem to be using it the way that it should, consider going to the once-a-week option. If you have more than one gerbil, you may see them grooming each other.

A Few Notes

Be sure to buy sand and not dust. Some people refer to bathing a gerbil as it having a “dust bath” but they still mean in sand and not dust.

If your gerbil doesn’t seem to use the sand for a bath, don’t interfere and put the sand on top of it. It is best to give your gerbil time to explore and become accustomed to the sand.  You may get sand in their eyes or nose if you put it on top of them when they are not expecting it.

If your gerbil doesn’t even get into the container, gently pick it up (under the belly) and place it in the container. That said, it’s usually best to let your gerbil do its own thing, for the most part.

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Conclusion

Now you understand why it’s not a good idea to get gerbils wet. They groom themselves and take sand baths, which are both effective ways for gerbils to maintain their coats and overall health.

You can place a container of clean sand in your gerbil’s enclosure permanently or just once or twice a week for a short period of time. The issue with leaving the bath in permanently is that if gerbils take too many sand baths or too long of a sand bath, they could potentially dry out their skin.

It might take a little trial and error, but most gerbils take to sand baths like ducks to water. Also, it’s cute to watch these little critters rolling and kicking around in the sand!


Featured Image Credit: Milada Vigerova, Pixabay

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