Gerbils are fascinating pocket pets that are best kept in pairs since they are social, but people who have gerbils as pets sometimes run into issues with them fighting. Some of these fights are brutal and leave gerbil owners wondering whether they are capable of fighting to the death.
So, can gerbils kill each other? The answer is yes. While it is rare, gerbils are capable of fighting to the death. In the wild, it is common for gerbils to fight, but the defeated gerbil can flee because it is not in a cage. In captivity, a defeated gerbil has nowhere to escape, forcing the fight to go on until death.
Seeing gerbils fight can be traumatic, but if you know how to keep gerbils properly, you might not ever have to step in and prevent a fight to the death. Keep reading to learn more about the social behavior of gerbils and how to prevent them from killing each other.
Why Do Gerbils Fight to the Death?
Gerbils fighting is a fairly common occurrence since they are a territorial social animal, but most of the time, it doesn’t leave lasting damage to either animal. Here are some of the reasons that gerbils will fight:
- Stress. Gerbils that are kept in a cage that is too small for them will not be able to establish enough personal territory and will eventually come into conflict with each other. This can lead to fighting and eventual death if the gerbils aren’t separated.
- Lack of bonding between adult gerbils. Because they’re territorial, adult gerbils that are strangers can’t be put into an enclosure together without causing territorial fighting. This is one of the reasons it is better to adopt a pair of young gerbils together.
- Play fighting. Like many other mammals, young gerbils will play fight to practice their agility and bond with each other. The mood of these play fights will be much less intense and gentler than a real fight between gerbils.
- Declaning. Gerbils form a social group called a clan, but sometimes in the wild, a gerbil will want to leave the clan because of social conflicts and either go it alone or join another clan. In captivity, since the declaning gerbil cannot leave, this often leads to severe fighting.
- Introducing an opposite-sex gerbil to a bonded same-sex pair. This almost always causes declaning and fighting in the same-sex pair because of mating conflicts. Gerbils fight for the hierarchical right to mate, and all fights in captivity have the potential for lethality.
No matter the reason, once gerbils begin fighting seriously, the only solution is to separate them (either temporarily or permanently, depending on the severity of the fighting behavior). A cage means that there is no way for the losing gerbil to “surrender” the fight, which ultimately leads to more severe injuries than if the two gerbils were fighting in the wild.
How to Stop Gerbils from Fighting to the Death
There are a few signs you might see that your gerbils have progressed from a minor spat into a serious conflict. Here are a few things to watch out for if you have a pair of gerbils that seem to be fighting:
- Fast-rolling/fighting in a ball formation that seems especially intense
- Aggressive chasing that doesn’t let up or results in biting attacks
- Drawing blood
- Loud or shrill vocalizations (gerbils are typically quiet animals outside of a conflict)
In comparison, gerbils that are only play-fighting will “box” with their front paws, hop around each other in game-like motions, groom each other, or gently wrestle. Once you’ve owned gerbils for a few weeks and have observed their behaviors, the difference between real fighting and playing will be like night and day.
When you’ve determined that gerbils are fighting seriously and not just playing, the two gerbils should be separated quickly. The safest way to do this and avoid being accidentally bitten in the process is to wear gloves such as thick leather gardening gloves. It’s a good idea to have a back-up cage available if you have multiple gerbils just in case you have to separate them temporarily.
After they’ve had a chance to cool off, clanned gerbils should be reintroduced (with a mesh divider in the enclosure) within twenty-four hours. This will ensure that they do not lose each other’s scent, which will cause a declaning and prevent the gerbils from being integrated into the same enclosure again.
How to Prevent Gerbils from Fighting and Killing Each Other
Along with stepping in and preventing death when severe fighting occurs, there are many things gerbil owners can do to help prevent severe fighting from starting up in the first place. Here are some rules of thumb for owning gerbils that can help reduce aggression and conflict:
- When it comes to habitats, the bigger, the better. Most fighting in captive gerbils is the result of territorial spats that have nowhere to dissipate. If you were stuck in a studio apartment with your roommate for years with no ability to come and go, you’d probably get hostile, too. Larger habitats give bonded gerbils a chance to forge their territories.
- Do not keep unbonded gerbils together. Throwing together two adult gerbils who have never met each other before is bound to lead to fighting. If you keep gerbils, getting two same-sex siblings from the same litter can lead to a bonded gerbil pair without any worries of unwanted breeding or issues with introducing strange adults to each other.
- Do not introduce an opposite-sex gerbil to a same-sex bonded pair. This will inevitably lead to conflict and fighting because of how gerbil mating rituals work. Gerbils should ideally grow up together to prevent fighting.
- Do not keep more than two gerbils in an enclosure. It’s recommended to keep gerbils with a partner since they’re social animals, and they need plenty of same-species socialization, but owning three or more gerbils in the same habitat is a fast way to increase territorial spats.
- Provide plenty of enrichment. Bored animals are more likely to pick fights with one another for lack of anything else to do, so providing plenty of toys, treats, and other enrichment objects in a gerbil enclosure can help prevent boredom-based fights.
- Reintroduce gerbils through a divider. Using a mesh divider allows the gerbils to see and smell each other but prevents physical contact, which allows them to work through their conflict with each other without being able to fight physically. After about a week, the mesh divider can usually be removed. If the gerbils are still fighting at this point, they are unlikely to get along in the future and must be separated permanently.
Sometimes, due to interpersonal conflicts, a bonded pair of gerbils will declan and cannot be safely kept together anymore, no matter what reintroduction measures are taken. In these cases, the gerbils should be rehomed in separate habitats.
Gerbils Killing Each Other is Rare
While it is not common that gerbils will kill each other in fights, it is more likely to happen in captivity where one gerbil is unable to escape the other. To prevent this kind of deadly conflict, a gerbil owner needs to be observant of their animals and make sure that any kind of fighting observed is only of the play variety.
Knowing how gerbils generally interact in a group setting and making sure that they have a suitable place to live are the two best ways you can prevent a tragedy in your gerbil cage.