In the wild, gerbils are a desert species that rarely drinks water; however, as pets they do require a constant fresh water source. They also need a higher protein level in their food compared to most rodents, so it is important to feed a food especially formulated for gerbils. Gerbils are similar to chinchillas and should have a “sand box” to use for a dry bath. Without regular dry baths, gerbils are prone to develop an oily and matted coat and skin problems.
Gerbils are prone to having skin problems. One of the common skin problems involves the face and nose area. Some owners call this condition sore nose. This condition involves the end of the nose initially. With time it can spread to most of the nose and face, and the hair in that area falls out. Eventually it will become infected and develop crusty lesions. It is thought that secretions from the Harderian gland (the red tear gland of the eye) irritate the skin and distal nose. This irritation leads to a Staph infection of the skin. Once diagnosed by a veterinarian, a Staph infection can be treated with frequent cleaning of the face and application of a topical antibiotic like Neosporin. More severe cases may need an oral antibiotic like Baytril (enrofloxacin) too.
The tail of a gerbil has a very thin layer of skin over it. This is quite different from the tails of rats and mice. You must be very careful when holding a gerbil’s tail because the thin skin can “slip” right off the tail. This will cause a raw, open wound with no skin over it. This wound can become infected and necrotic. If the tail is not treated, it can slough (fall) off. It is better to have the wound treated by your veterinarian after the initial injury. Treatment involves closing the wound with sutures or skin glue if the wound is small enough or amputation of the tail if the wound is too large to close.
The other common skin problem involves the large scent gland on the ventral surface of the body. In older gerbils this gland frequently becomes infected. It can also turn into a tumor (squamous cell carcinoma) in older gerbils. Infected glands can be treated with Neosporin topically and an oral antibiotic. Cancerous glands are malignant and need to be removed surgically as soon as possible.
As gerbils become older (2 to 3 years of age) they are prone to cancer, and cancer is frequently the cause of death in older gerbils. Tumors of the ovaries, called granulosa cell tumors, are common in older females. These can become large enough to grow into the ligaments holding the ovaries. These ovarian tumors are a malignant cancer, and with time they can spread in the abdomen. Spaying female gerbils that are not used for breeding can prevent this cancer.
In addition to the squamous cell carcinomas of the ventral scent gland, gerbils can also develop melanomas of the skin. Melanomas are commonly seen on the ears, the paws, and the rump area. These can be treated by removing them surgically. Gerbils can also develop a mass in the middle ear. Even though these are not a true cancer, they can cause serious problems. Unfortunately these are not normally removable because their location inside the middle ear makes this surgery too difficult to perform.