The Pet Behaviour Centre
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Gerbil's Wheel of Mis-Fortune

Gerbil PictureA common means of providing environmental stimulation to caged animals is the running wheel or the more modern running ball in which the animal is placed to run around the room.

However, all may not be what it seems. Studies have shown that solitary gerbils activity is quite different from those kept in a semi-natural environment with other gerbils. Where more natural behaviours are able to be expressed, eg burrowing, foraging, gnawing and nest building, as well as wheel running, then the amount of time spent running was reduced with the number of revolutions never reading above 50 revolutions per hour. The isolated/solitary animals run at speeds of 2,000 revolutions per hour for hours at a time, stopping only briefly. Some animals recorded over 20,000 revolutions per day (Roper, T J and Polioudakis, E; 1977).

Such excessive behaviour has been interpreted as an obsessive-compulsive disorder (or stereotypic), indicating an environment, which is less than ideal. Such behaviour became very difficult to alter. Another interesting feature found in the study was the difference between the isolated and community animals; isolated animals were nocturnal whilst the social animals were diurnal in their activity patterns (which resembles the patterns of the species in the wild).

Keeping your caged animal happy requires a little lateral thought and the knowledge about its “natural” environment. Obviously, social animals are better to be group-housed rather than keeping one on its own. Provision of nest building and gnawing material, tunnelling opportunities, pipes to hide in etc will all help to reduce the stress of living in a “hostile” environment.

Not fully cleaning out the cage (i.e., leaving a small amount of used litter) will help maintain friendly smells, which help animals recognise their home environment – imagine how you would feel if you came home from every weekly shop to find all the furniture moved, house redecorated and rooms changed. Once might be fun but every week…

Roper, T J and Polioudakis, E; 1977 The Behaviour of Mongolian Gerbils in a Semi-Natural Environment with Special Reference to Ventral Marking, Dominance and Sociability Behaviour, 61: 207 – 237.
Further Reading: - The Psychology of Human-Small Vertebrate Interactions, McBride, E. Symp Zool. Soc. Lon. 1996.

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