What I Learned About Gerbils After Graduating From Vet School

From nose scratching to cancer to neurologic problems, gerbil health issues are more understood today than ever.

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Older female gerbils are prone to cancer of the ovaries, while older male gerbils are prone to cancer of the scent gland. Via benmckune/Flickr
Dr. Jerry Murray

When I was in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University, I had a brief “everything you need to know about gerbils” lecture. Needless to say the professor only covered a few topics in his short presentation, and it was definitely not everything I needed to know about pet gerbils. There were very few articles on pet gerbils in the veterinary journals back then, and the only textbook at that time was The Biology and Medicine of Rabbits and Rodents. Unfortunately this textbook focused only on lab animal gerbils. It would be six more years before the pink book (Ferrets, Rabbits, and Rodents Clinical Medicine and Surgery) would come out. The pink book was a big step forward for pet gerbils.

Gerbil Nose Rubbing Or Nose Scratching

Sore nose is one of the most common problems in gerbils. Back when I was still in college, it was thought that allergies or irritation from wood shavings (cedar, pine, etc.) caused a gerbil to rub and scratch at his nose. This self-trauma would lead to hair lose, inflammation and eventually infection of the muzzle and face. Now it is thought to be a more complicated syndrome with multiple factors contributing to it.

Stress from high humidity in the cage or from too many gerbils in the cage causes an increase in red tear production from the Harderian gland. The red tears contain porphyrins that irritate the skin on the nose. This leads the gerbil to rub and scratch at the nose. Soon the staphylococcal bacteria on the skin multiply and cause the skin infection. The skin infection is also itchy, so a vicious cycle of scratching and rubbing makes the inflammation and infection even worse. Wood shavings can add to the itchiness and inflammation, and increase the problem.

Treatment for this condition involves correcting anything that could be causing stress to the gerbil, a topical antibiotic ointment, and frequent cleaning of the nose and face. It is also recommended not to use wood shavings and to use a dry, sand bath to help prevent this condition.

Cancer In Gerbils

Cancer of gerbils was not covered at all in college, but gerbils are prone to some types of cancer.

One of the common cancers in older male gerbils involves the scent gland on the abdomen. These can be malignant (squamous cell tumors, adenocarcinomas or epitheliomas), so surgical removal as soon as possible is recommended.

Older female gerbils are prone to cancer of the ovaries (granulosa cell tumors and interstitial cell tumors). These are frequently malignant tumors also, so it is recommended to spay the gerbil as soon as possible when ovarian cancer or ovarian cysts are found.

Gerbils are also prone to melanomas on the skin on the base of the tail, ears and feet. These are usually small enough to remove surgically.

Neurological Problems

I do not remember anyone covering gerbils with epilepsy back in veterinary school, but young gerbils are very prone to having seizures. It has been estimated that more than 20 percent of gerbils have seizure activity when they are roughly 2 to 6 months old. These seizures tend to be mild and only last for a few minutes. The seizures are caused by a deficiency in an enzyme in the brain, and stressful events seem to trigger the seizures. Some seizure-prone gerbils will outgrow the disorder as they get older. Fortunately the seizures do not seem to cause any long-term problems for the gerbil.

Gerbils can also develop a head tilt. This is usually from a rather unique condition called a cholesteatoma. Cholesteatoma is a cyst that develops in the middle ear. Then the cells from either the ear canal of the eardrum proliferate in the cyst. This produces a very malodorous fluid in the middle ear and can cause a middle ear infection. It is still not clear why these odd cysts form, but it is thought that chronic inflammation and chronic ear infections contribute to the cholesteatoma formation. These masses are not cancer, but they can cause destruction of the middle ear and spread into the brain. Surgery to remove the cholesteatoma is the best way to treat this condition, but it would be an extremely difficult surgery to perform due to the very small size of the gerbil’s ear. Most cases are treated with antibiotic and cortisone eardrops to control the infection and inflammation. Unfortunately I never heard of a cholesteatoma while I was in veterinary school. I do not know of any other animal that is prone to developing cholesteatomas, but humans can also get this condition.

In general gerbils are friendly, rarely bite and make a good pet. Even though I did not learn enough about gerbils while I was in veterinary school, I have learned a lot since then. New information and new medications continue to improve our ability to treat even the smallest pets, and constantly learning something new is one of the wonderful things about veterinary medicine.

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Article Categories:
Critters · Gerbils