The purpose of this blog is to share general information and is written to the author's best knowledge. It is not intended to be used in place of veterinary advice. For health concerns, please seek proper veterinary care.
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Gerbils are amazing animals that one can keep as a pet if you don’t mind the fact that they tend to have extremely short lifespans. They have their own little personalities and they can have a surprisingly strong character, despite how small they are.
Naturally, if you choose to take care of a gerbil or two, you are going to want to make sure that you have a good understanding of the way that gerbils behave and what their natural behaviors can encompass.
If you have ever looked up what you can give your gerbil as a treat, there’s a good chance that you have come across people telling you that you should give your gerbil some cardboard.
As long as the cardboard is nontoxic, it can be a great way to slowly dispose of some small cardboard objects, such as toilet paper tubes. However, you might wonder why gerbils seem to chew so fervently at their cardboard pieces.
Gerbils don’t necessarily enjoy cardboard itself so much as having something that it can chew on. Cardboard just happens to be made from a material that seems to be particularly satisfying for the gerbils, especially considering that the broken and gnawed-on bits of cardboard can then be used to continue building a nest for the gerbil.
If you are worried about the idea of a gerbil chewing on cardboard, you shouldn’t be. In fact, giving your gerbil some cardboard is actually highly recommended, as it will help your gerbil’s health in the long run.
Gerbils and Chewing
Gerbils are not unique in their need to chew on everything in sight, whether it be the bars of its enclosure or a cardboard tube that you bought for it. This is a problem that has existed in nature for hundreds of millions of years and it is found in just about all animals that fall under the rodent species.
Rodents have teeth that do not, and will not ever, stop growing. Rather than having roots in the gums in the same way that humans do, rodents’ teeth will continuously grow for all of the rodent’s life.
You can think of this in a somewhat similar way to how your fingernails continue growing throughout your whole life, and to manage that, you use nail clippers to trim your nails down on a regular basis.
As gerbils cannot necessarily cut their teeth like we cut our nails, gerbils will gnaw on hard surfaces to physically grind their teeth down to a comfortable level.
If a gerbil, or any rodent with this kind of teeth, doesn’t have a surface to gnaw on, then the teeth will continue growing to a problematic extent.
First, your gerbil will have problems eating, as it won’t be able to get its food around its teeth. This will lead to malnutrition and injuries as your rodent tries to eat.
The teeth will continue growing, and in a worst-case scenario, their teeth can pierce through the opposite jaw, with either the upper jaw piercing the lower one or the lower one piercing the upper jaw.
As this can be fatal, (as can the malnutrition), gerbils absolutely need a surface of some sort to gnaw on to keep their teeth at healthy levels.
Gerbils have a couple ways of naturally solving this issue. Some gerbils will grind their teeth, which will help keep the tips of the teeth flat and sharp so that they can continue grinding down their teeth without a problem. This only works so much.
The other tactic that gerbils will use is that they will chew on anything and everything they can get their mouths on to grind their teeth down. This is where some problems can come into play.
Gerbils and Their Teeth
You may not know it, but the truth is that a gerbil’s teeth are actually about as tough as a solid rock, being harder than iron. This is what gives them their ability to quite literally chew through the bars of their enclosure if you are not mindful about how you house your gerbil.
Given the time and patience, gerbils can chew through metal pipes as well because of how hard their teeth are. This is actually why a gerbil’s bite hurts as much as it does, as their teeth are so physically hard compared to their tiny stature.
Gerbils, being relatively dumb rodents, do not really have a sense of what they should and shouldn’t chew on. If you present them something that feels like something good for them to gnaw on to wear their teeth down on, then they will gnaw on it without regard for what it might do to them.
This can be a problem, as your gerbil may be interested in trying to chew on things that it really shouldn’t chew on.
The main culprit for sickness that comes from chewing on something bad for the rodent is plastic. A lot of people purchase the inexpensive, colorful plastic enclosures for gerbils, and while it might look appealing, this can actually be very dangerous for your gerbil.
They can, and will, chew on the plastic of their enclosure, not only opening up a hole for them to escape through but also making themselves sick as no animal has a digestive system that is meant to handle plastic like that.
Always be mindful of what your gerbil has in its surroundings to chew on. Gerbils should not chew on any plastic surface, which means that there should be no plastic in the gerbil’s enclosure for it to get its teeth on.
Gerbils shouldn’t chew on the bars of their enclosure either. In this situation, the bars will either be made of a metal softer than iron, leading to the same problem as the one with having a plastic enclosure, or the bars will be harder than iron and your gerbil could break its teeth on it.
The goal of a gerbil chewing on things is to only gradually wear the teeth down to a more manageable size, not to break the teeth physically, as this can pose considerable health issues.
To avoid this problem, your gerbil should be housed in a glass aquarium tank with a breathable mesh lid, and it should only be given things to chew on that are softer and weaker than their teeth so that they can gnaw on things in a healthy manner.
This is where the cardboard comes back into the equation.
Gerbils and Healthy Chewing
Now that you have a better sense of what your gerbil can and cannot chew on, you will want to make sure that they have something productive they can chew on.
Naturally, most chew toys that are made specifically for gerbils (and sometimes other rodents, but it is best to be cautious) will be perfectly fine for you to have around the enclosure.
More often than not, these toys will be made from wood, which tends to be good for chewing on as well. Any untreated wood (it can be vegetable-dyed) is fine for a gerbil to chew on.
Straw, wicker, natural grasses, and twine can all make for good chew toys, though you should be careful about twine. If a gerbil eats too much twine, it can cause digestive problems, so it is best to make sure that you only give it small amounts of twine at a time.
You can even play games with your gerbil with these chew toys, the same way you would lure a cat around with a piece of string.
Gerbils love brown paper bags. Not only do they make for productive chewing and gnawing, but your gerbil can get much more out of it than just that. A paper bag can become a hiding spot, a way to play with other gerbils in the enclosure, and the shredded bits of paper can make for comfortable nesting material.
If you have spare paper bags lying around and you want to give your gerbil a treat, these can be an inexpensive way to provide endless amounts of fun for your gerbil.
Finally, there are cardboard tubes. Cardboard tubes provide much of the same enjoyment that paper bags can. Your gerbil can move through them, which can feel like tunneling, which is something that the naturally burrowing gerbil will find fun and entertaining.
Gerbils can play with them, move them around within the enclosure, and even hide in them if they feel the need to.
The pieces of cardboard that they tear and chew off can also make for good bedding and nesting material, and since gerbils tend to enjoy building a little burrow for themselves, this is all the more reason for you to add some cardboard tubes to your gerbil’s enclosure.
Just be mindful that if you are using one from another product (such as toilet paper tubes) that it does not have dye, glue, or any sort of other substance on it. All you will need for your gerbil is an enjoyable basic cardboard tube for it to be happy with you and its environment.
These are just a few of the toys that your gerbil can have a grand time chewing on, and that will be productive to your gerbil’s need to wear down its teeth.