Pet of the week: The Mongolian gerbil

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The Independent Online

This little chap sounds familiar

The gerbil (Meriones unguiculatus), or desert rat, is a native of Mongolia, and his influence has spread equally as far as that other famous son of the Steppes, Genghis Khan. However, he is slightly less aggressive than his fellow countryman, and as such has become a hugely popular pet the world over since the Fifties and Sixties.

Didn't everyone have a gerbil in their childhood?

If you didn't have one yourself, chances are you knew someone who did. They are fun, hoppity little characters with loads of energy. The secret of their success – according to Eddie Cope, the founder of, and wizard of all things to do with gerbils, jirds and jerboas – is that they are so adaptable: "Gerbils have been found living in the wild on the Isle of Wight and the Yorkshire Moors – they will survive just about anywhere."

How do I keep one?

Well, it is advisable to keep at least two of the same sex, as they are sociable mammals and enjoy human company as much as that of other gerbils. They dig digging, so a cage (typically about 50cm x 75cm x 50cm for a pair) must be furnished with plenty of sawdust and straw – but NOT plastic as they will nibble right through it. They are also fond of climbing – this is one of many traits which differentiate the gerbil from other pet rodents – so ideal points of interest would include toilet rolls (empty!) and a climbing frame.

Any other behavioural issues?

Not really – the gerbil is a bit of a dream pet, in fact. Although considered hygienic, the little fellows can keep you up at night as that is when they are at their most active, which is worth considering if you are planning on keeping gerbils in small people's bedrooms.

What does he eat?

In the wild, they are omnivorous, but in the suburbs they will need a balanced diet with enough roughage for them to gnaw on and keep their incisors in check. Most pet stores will supply a type of gerbil or rodent mix, which will contain all the good stuff that makes for contented creatures, and this can be supplemented with the odd piece of fresh fruit and veg, but not too much as they like to hoard food, and you don't want oranges rotting at the bottom of the cage, do you?

Ideal for

Just about everyone.

Where can I get hold of one?

As always, you must contact a reputable breeder in order to ensure that the highest standards of animal welfare have been maintained – some less enlightened breeders churn out pups by the hundreds. Contact Eddie Cope with any queries on 07575 109866 or via He will also be able to provide a full list of breeders in your area.