As Europe moves away from winter and towards warmer spring and summer weather, it's time to remind ourselves about gerbils and heat. And how to avoid heatstroke!

Origins of the gerbil

To better understand gerbils and heat, it is necessary to understand their origins.

Did you know that gerbils originate from Africa, the Middle East, Mongolia, and even China? This little mammal belongs to the family of sand rats, previously known as desert rats. Used to arid parts of the world, gerbils can tolerate heat well having adapted to their conditions.

However, despite their ability to withstand warm temperatures, gerbils can also suffer from the heat, particularly in domestic environments where they are reliant on their owner to decide what's best for them.

For example, a gerbil's digestive system will begin to slow down in temperatures above the low-mid 20s (degrees) as a means of conserving energy and keeping cool. This means they will require less food during warmer weather and should be given fewer treats. Gerbils can also develop heatstroke from overexposure.

The symptoms of heatstroke

Despite originating from arid climates, gerbils can be susceptible to changes in their environment as well as other factors more hardy animals can withstand. Like diarrhoea, heatstroke can be fatal for them.

If your gerbil has heatstroke, you will likely notice them behaving in some of the following ways:

  • They may pant.
  • They may move bedding around in order to find a cool place to rest.
  • They may become lethargic.
  • They may stay completely immobile and appear unconscious.
  • They may start to tremble.
  • They may become agitated or irritable.

What happens if my gerbil overheats?

If your gerbil's environment is hot and stuffy, and you witness the first signs of heatstroke, it's important you transfer them to a cooler, aerated room immediately, ideally in the dark. Do not drape a towel or sheet over their cage to create darkness as this will only make the air more stuffy. Ensure that you leave them fresh food (leafy green vegetables ideal) and cool (but not cold) water. Avoid handling if you can.

It's important to know that some impulsive responses to getting them cool again are not recommended. For example, dunking them in a tub of water or blowing a fan into their cage can be distressing and even dangerous to their fragile bodies. Just like gerbils and heat can be problematic, so too can gerbils and the cold.

Instead, here are some tips that will help to carefully reduce the effects of overheating:

  • Place a bottle of chilled water or a tile that has been chilled in the fridge, protected by a cloth, in their cage.
  • Change their water 2-3 times per day so that it stays cool (do not give them icy water as this could make them ill).
  • Place a damp cloth or two in their cage.
  • Add clay pots and tunnels to your gerbil's enclosure to provide a refuge point for your pet (clay tends to remain cool in heat).
  • Place a bowl of water on top of your gerbil's cage to increase humidity (you can also place a bowl or two around the outside of the cage).

What not to do 

  • Do not put your gerbil's cage near windows or in direct sunlight (even for short periods). This applies to all cages but especially glass ones!
  • Do not put your gerbil's cage in the attic or mezzanine areas where the air can become stuffy and the temperature suffocating.
  • Do not direct a fan into their cage or have it blow air nearby.
  • Do not take your gerbil out of their cage during the hottest hours of the day - leave them be.
  • Avoid giving your gerbil fruit and vegetables straight from the refrigerator.

Heatstroke can happen quickly so if you're worried about your gerbil take them to see a vet as quickly as possible!

Has your gerbil ever overheated?

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