Q: I am a medical doctor living in Colombia. We don’t have gerbil experts in here. My two 2.5-year-old, male gerbils are having problems with their feet. One of them ate his hind leg nails and part of its toes. (I say “ate” because we saw his partner eating his nails six days ago, but neither of them had traces of blood in their mouths.) He was limping but after awhile he looked normal: eating, chewing, etc. This is the first time this happened. This was five days ago and he has bled several times from the same foot afterward. Yesterday night when we reviewed his partner foot, it looked like it was full of blood that you could see through its skin, and an hour later he was bleeding through the big toe of that foot. So apparently both have the same disease. Do you have any idea what could cause this? Could it be an infection than can be transmitted to humans, too? I have talked to many veterinarians, and they have no idea.
Here is more information.
Family history: Healthy until about two months ago when we took him to the vet for increased size and bleeding of his scent gland. An infection was diagnosed and he was back to normal after a few days with antibiotics.
Family history: Hamtaro has lived all his life with another male gerbil, they get along perfectly.
Environment: No changes in cage, things to chew or food. Both gerbils eat a diet formulated for gerbils and hamsters. The only recent change is that we spent two months in a much warmer city (around 77 degrees Fahrenheit instead of the usual 65), but they were always in a fresh room. They never showed any changes in behavior while we were there, until last week when the first one ate its nails. Now that we are home, what I have described happened to the other one, Hamtaro.
Physical examination: The only abnormality is the lack of nails and part of the toes in its hind leg, with some exposed bone. This was treated by a vet. No mites or signs of fungal infection. Everything else looks normal.
A: What you describe is seen occasionally in gerbils. There is no easy answer to this. When this is seen, three possible causes are considered.
First, it is a syndrome of self-mutilation. For some unknown reason, the gerbil starts chewing and biting its feet. This causes bleeding, pain and sometimes infection in the gerbil. If you find this quickly before there is severe damage, you can sometimes stop this by placing bandages and trying behavioral modifications with the cage and cagemates of the gerbils.
Another cause can be chemical. If a known chemical is placed in the cage or the living area of the gerbil or if new bedding is used that has a chemical on it, the delicate skin on the feet of gerbils can get irritated and the gerbil’s response is chewing and biting of the feet and nails. Like self- mutilation, if this is found in time, bandages may help save the gerbil’s feet. Sometimes we need to also apply antibiotics.
Finally, we sometimes see dry gangrene on a gerbil’s feet. This is very serious, because the blood supply is lost and the skin and other tissues of the gerbil’s lower leg start dying. To make this situation even worse, gerbils will chew at the area and cause further damage. With this condition, we amputate the dead tissue and try to halt the spread of the dry gangrene.
These conditions are not contagious to people or other animals, but we can see it affect all gerbils in one cage.