Gerbils are naturally a little nippy as they explore the world and often the behavior has been unintentionally strengthened. It takes a little time and patience to train them out of this behavior, but no Gerbil is beyond improvement. A Gerbil that never used to bite, but has become a biter may have health concerns.
A young rodent can be quickly trained within a few weeks, but an older Gerbil will often take months to improve. A fear-biter will need a gentle and slow approach, avoiding any form of punishment. A playful bite in an otherwise unafraid Gerbil will need redirection and gentle correction.
Reason for the biting
Gerbils explore the environment with their mouths and they have poor eyesight. They bite for oodles of reasons, so it is overly simplistic to say they bite for just one reason. A Gerbil might be communicating many things in the way of biting. This means just one method of control is not going to work for all situations.
Gerbils often play-bite, bite to get attention, to get put down, out of fear, or to initiate play. They do not realize those sharp little carnivore teeth of theirs are no fun for human hands.
Gerbils that have not been handled when young and are poorly socialized may bite out because of fear. The same can occur with Gerbils that had undergone rough handling. Some Gerbils lack confidence and are generally more prone to bite. The behavior is often strengthened when they are put down when they bite.
If they are punished with a tap on the nose or a scruff, this will worsen the behavior and make them even more fearful and prone to bite even harder. Start off by getting your Gerbil used to your hands by using treats. You can use any food your Gerbil loves.
For fussy Gerbils fish, oil, or whipped egg on your finger can work wonderfully. Reward calm behavior and gradually gain your Gerbil’s trust. Rather than attempting to pick you to Gerbil up, just place your hand nearby and give it a treat.
Gerbil must understand that hands are not toys and if he bites, all play from you will be stopped. If your Gerbil bites to initiate the play, remove your hands and turn or walk away. If he chases you, stay quiet.
Reward calm play behavior with attention and treats. As soon as the biting starts again, stop the play. Continue this until your Gerbil understands that biting means no fun for him.
Biting means communication
A Gerbil that bites to get attention or to be picked up, may first be giving more exact signals that it wants attention. Gerbils that do this have often tried other things first, such as bounding over to you and waiting, or cuddling you. If you ignore the first request, the Gerbil will often try a bite and will get your attention that way.
- He then learns to bite quicker for attention. You need first to pay close attention and pick up on early warning signs. Respond quickly to the more definite signals for attention. Avoid reacting to a bite and simply turn or look away.
- Do not give any form of attention to the bite, but reward calm and gentle interactions. Gerbils often bite to tell their owners to put them down, so try to pick up on signals your Gerbil has had enough before they resort to the bite. Keep play sessions short and if your Gerbil is not a fan of being held, avoid this and play with your Gerbil in other ways.
- You can train your Gerbil with treats to allow gentle handling, but never put him down when he bites, hold him for another 5 seconds or so, before putting him down. If your Gerbil really fastens on, scruff him and gently put your finger in his mouth to get him to let go.
Biting due to Sudden Deaf and blindness
If a previously well-handled Gerbil suddenly starts biting, take him to your veterinarian for a check-up. It may be a sign of illness or your Gerbil may be deaf or blind.
A resting Gerbil who is surprised can accidentally bite because he feels unsafe, so you need to work out a signal to let him know you are coming. Blowing on your Gerbil’s fur before you touch him will let him know you are there if he can’t hear your approach.
Gerbils bite when they are ill
Hormonal changes with the onset of oestrus, in breeding males and in Gerbils with the adrenal disease can all cause an increase in biting behavior. If your Gerbil was fine as a kit, then started biting as an adult, take him to the vet sooner.
Female Gerbils should always be desexed and males will often fight if there are females around. A Gerbil that is in pain is also likely to start biting, it may be the only way they have of communicating their discomfort.
Smell or noise may provoke biting
If your Gerbil bites when you are wearing a certain scent or after you have been preparing food, it could be that the smell is offensive and he is performing redirected aggression.
It could also be that you smell yummy and your Gerbil is having trouble differentiating your hand from food. If certain noises make your Gerbil bite, try to avoid them, or give him a toy to bite or somewhere to hide and escape.
Redirect the Gerbil to toys
If your Gerbil loves to wrestle when he bites, redirect his attention to a toy and remove your hands. Your Gerbil needs to learn the difference between hands and toys.
Toys are a great outlet for the behavior and all vigorous wrestling can occur safely. Just be careful to make sure toys are safe, as pieces of toy when ingested can lead to a very expensive sitting in the vet clinic for surgical removal.
If your Gerbil does bite and is becoming dangerous to himself or your family, the easiest way to remove him to time-out without hurting anyone is to pick him up by the scruff on the back of the neck.
This loose area of skin is where the mother Gerbil picks up her babies and there are few nerve endings here. Your hands are also safely out of the way. This is not recommended as a form of punishment, so don’t be hard.
Time out cages
Time out can be anywhere fairly boring such as a transport cage, but you should not put him in his normal cage, as this will teach him to bite if he wants to go to bed. Many Gerbil owners get a time-out cage that contains a bowl of water and a litter tray.
Gerbils have short attention spans so keep timeouts to 3 to 5 minutes so they remember why they were put in there. When you let them out they may bite as revenge, put them straight back in, soon the frustration of being in time out repeatedly will teach them.
Final hope – Punishments
Punishing with a tap on the nose, water spray, hitting, or throwing him will not teach your Gerbil an appropriate alternative behavior and will exacerbate fear biting. Time out is a gentle form of punishment but avoid any other more physical retribution.
Punishment tends to escalate behavior in the long term and teaches your Gerbil that aggression is appropriate. There are very few Gerbils who genuinely cannot be improved and taught not to bite. It does take patience and time, and a consistent technique.
Avoid punishment and use rewards for calm behavior. A Gerbil will take 3 weeks to learn to stop biting, perhaps even longer if the behavior is very firm or you have a fearful animal.