and how to avoid it
This article first appeared in the June 2001 issue of the NGS Journal
Gerbils are well adapted to extremes of temperature, for example in Mongolia,
the temperature can rise to plus and minus 40C. However like us and other
animals they can suffer from heat stroke, especially if they are left in areas
of direct sunlight and areas where there is insufficient ventilation.
Although coming from an area with an extreme climate, gerbils shelter from
the worst excesses of temperature by burrowing underground. The burrow
temperature varies far less than the surface temperature. Even so, gerbils cope
very well with temperatures as high as the low 30s Celsius. Above about 25C they
will become less active and lie spread out when resting. As the air temperature
rarely gets high enough to injure gerbils it is especially important to avoid
allowing the gerbils to become trapped in strong sunlight, or be kept in a room
with still heated air where pockets of much higher temperature can arise. Strong
sunlight can make some rooms much hotter than the outside temperature For
example, with the outside temperature being about 30C, the temperature in a
building exposed to the sun can easily get to higher than 40 unless it is well
As we are still in the height of summer, you may want to reconsider where
your gerbils are sited and move them to a cooler part of the house. If you keep
them in a shed or other outbuilding, it is worth investing in a good quality
extractor fan which will draw cooler air in from the outside. A stable door and
opening windows fitted are also useful. Make sure you have a grill fitted which
keeps cats and other unwelcome visitors out. As an added precaution, move the
tanks down on to the floor on hot days, where there is cooler air. Not very tidy
but it does the trick! Even if you are unable to ensure that fresh air is sucked
in from outside, you can stop pockets of warm air forming in the hottest parts
of the room using a standard desk fan. The most dangerous thing is if the air is
allowed to heat up and stand still. Even a little movement will help distribute
the temperature more evenly and make your animals more comfortable.
The first signs of heat stress are easily recognised, the gerbils lie prone
in their tanks or cages and they will be panting, sometimes moving bedding out
of the way in their search for somewhere cool to lie. If you notice this, move
the gerbils immediately and situate them in a cooler part of the house or shed.
You can keep a large smooth stone in the fridge and place it in the cage for the
gerbil to lie on if it so wishes. In more advanced cases, the gerbils will be
wet around the mouth area and may well be unconscious. This is a sign of serious
heat stress. It is vitally important that you get the gerbilís temperature
down as quickly as you can, otherwise it will die. To get the temperature of the
gerbil down, use cool rather than freezing water. If the water is too cold, the
shock of the change in temperature may well kill the gerbil. It is also
important to try and get some fluids into the gerbil, again do not use freezing
It is important that you get your gerbil to a vet immediately.
Heat stroke can cause irreparable damage to internal organs and if the gerbil is
not strong enough to drink, may well need an injection of fluids, which the vet
will inject subcutaneously.
A related problem is hypothermia. This is obviously more of a problem in
winter, although a gerbil that gets soaking wet can quickly lose heat so it is
worth bearing in mind at any time. Gerbils are well protected from cold by their
thick fur and hairs on the tail, ears and feet.. However, if left for too long
in temperatures below freezing they can become seriously affected.
In severe cases the gerbil or gerbils will be very cold to the touch and will
be huddled together in a group. They will not respond if you touch them. It is
possible to revive the gerbil, using gradual heat. I use a heated pad sold more
commonly for reptiles. You can place the gerbil in a show pen, or other small
plastic container, on the pad. Place some bedding in the pen, so that the gerbil
is not in direct contact with the pad. Having bedding in the pen will allow the
floor to heat up gradually, so that the gerbil is warmed gradually. Always have
a part of the pen off the heated pad, so that when the gerbil has recovered, it
can go to the cooler end of the box if it so wishes.
If you have no heated pad, then you can use a
hot water bottle. Wrap a towel around the bottle so that the gerbil is not
directly exposed to the heat. You will need to keep a close eye on the gerbil so
that it can be moved once it is conscious and able to move around on its own.
Another method you can try which I have used successfully in the past and on
a more recent trip to Belgium, is to place the gerbil next to your skin under
your clothes. It restricts your movements somewhat, but is a very successful way
to revive a torpid gerbil. If nothing appears to be happening, do not give up,
it can take at least an hour before the gerbil starts to move.
Once the gerbil is moving around offer it some fluids and seek veterinary
treatment and ensure it is kept warm and comfortable.
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Last updated 22 September 2007