How Long Do Gerbils Live?

Gerbils are indeed adapted to live in arid environments and can survive with minimal water intake. However, it is essential to note that going without water for extended periods can be detrimental to their health. While the study in the Journal of Mammology suggests that gerbils can go 29 or more days without water, this is not a recommended practice for pet gerbils.

In general, it is crucial to provide your gerbil with a constant supply of fresh water to ensure their well-being. Dehydration can lead to severe health issues and even death. As a responsible pet owner, always make sure your gerbil has access to clean water to maintain its health and happiness.

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Gerbils were designed to live with very little water if need be. A study in the Journal of Mammology suggested that gerbils can go 29 or more days without water.

Answered from Frederick S. Goethel


Water is one of the most essential nutrients for all living organisms, and gerbils are no exception. As desert rodents adapted to arid conditions, gerbils can endure days without water by producing metabolic water and minimizing fluid loss. But pet gerbils rely on their owners to provide fresh drinking water daily. This comprehensive guide covers the science behind gerbils' water needs and how long they can survive without it.

Overview of Gerbils' Water Requirements

In their natural desert environment, Mongolian gerbils can survive up to a week without drinking water by getting moisture from seeds and plants. Their kidneys concentrate urine to preserve fluids, and they produce water internally through fat metabolism. But pet gerbils have a constant supply of water and drink much more frequently.

The average gerbil consumes 10-15 mL of water per 100g body weight daily. This equates to around 15-25 mL for an adult gerbil weighing 150 grams [1]. This is more than hamsters which drink 5-10 mL/100g, but less than rats drinking up to 30 mL/100g [2]. Gerbils have high water requirements due to their active, high-metabolism lifestyle.

Biological Mechanisms for Surviving Without Water

Gerbils' bodies have specialized adaptations that allow them to go days without water in the desert. These include:

  • Highly efficient kidneys that concentrate urine and minimize fluid loss. Urine osmolality can reach 6,600 mOsm/kg compared to just 1,200 mOsm/kg in humans [3].
  • Low metabolic rate and energy use, allowing gerbils to minimize internal water loss through respiration and heat [4].
  • Ability to meet water needs through metabolic water production. Gerbils break down fat stores, generating 0.07 mL of water per kcal [5].
  • Obtaining water from dry seeds and plants. Seeds can contain 5-12% water content [6].

But without sufficient external water sources, these mechanisms cannot compensate indefinitely.

How Long Can Pet Gerbils Go Without Drinking Water?

In the Wild

Studies show that wild Mongolian gerbils can survive up to one week without water in their native desert climate where food contains moisture and temperatures are mild [7].

In Captivity

Pet gerbils rely on owners to provide fresh drinking water daily in bottles or bowls.

  • Healthy adult gerbils drink every 1-2 days at minimum. They should never go longer than this without water [8].
  • In a 1958 study by W.R. Dunstone, gerbils survived up to 29 days without water, but lost 25-30% of their body weight [9]. This severe deprivation is extremely dangerous long-term.
  • Between 3-5 days without water, gerbils display signs of profound dehydration and are at high risk of kidney failure [10].
  • Without veterinary treatment, gerbils can die from dehydration within 4-5 days without water [11].

So while gerbils' biology allows them to endure a week without water in the wild if needed, depriving pet gerbils of water for over a couple days can be life threatening. Providing clean drinking water daily is imperative.

Impacts of Dehydration on Gerbils

When gerbils don't get enough water, they become dehydrated. Here are the physiological effects at each level of fluid loss:

  • 5% dehydration – Mild lethargy. Still mostly normal activity.
  • 10% dehydration – Increased lethargy, less interest in exercise or play. May have slightly wrinkled fur.
  • 15% dehydration – Muscle weakness, unwillingness to move around cage. Wrinkled coat, sunken eyes, poor skin elasticity evident [12].
  • 20% dehydration – Trembling, unable to stand or hold up body due to muscle fatigue.
  • 25%+ dehydration – Inability to control movements, seizures from electrolyte imbalance [13]. Potential kidney damage and organ failure.

Gerbils that become severely dehydrated (15%+ fluid loss) require immediate veterinary treatment with subcutaneous or intravenous fluids and electrolyte therapy to recover [14]. Euthanasia may be necessary for gerbils with prolonged fluid deprivation resulting in kidney damage.

Day-by-Day Impacts of Water Deprivation

Here is a more detailed breakdown of what happens when gerbils are deprived of water:

  • Day 1 – Mild signs of dehydration may be noticeable but most gerbils appear normal.
  • Day 2 – Increased lethargy. Wrinkled coat, slight depression of eyes. Urine appears more concentrated.
  • Day 3 – Obvious dehydration. Sunken eyes, lethargic, skin stays tented when pinched. Muscle weakness evident.
  • Day 4 – Severe dehydration. Unable to stand, may have tremors or seizures. Near fatal without veterinary care.
  • Day 5 – Kidney failure results in death if untreated.

These timeframes can vary based on factors like the gerbil's age, health status, and environment, but illustrate the devastating progressive effects of depriving gerbils of water.

Recommendations for Proper Water Access

To keep pet gerbils optimally hydrated:

  • Provide constant access to fresh, clean drinking water 24/7.
  • Use a sturdy bottle with ball bearing dispenser. Fill to top daily.
  • Change water completely every 2-3 days to prevent contamination.
  • Wash bottle thoroughly each week with soap and hot water.
  • Use a bowls for additional access if concerned about hydration. Avoid open containers.
  • Check water sources daily to be sure they are dispensing properly and gerbil is drinking.

Following these best practices ensures your gerbils stay properly hydrated.

Offering Supplemental Hydration

In addition to unlimited drinking water, you can provide extra hydration for gerbils by:

  • Feeding fresh produce like cucumber, apple, melon, lettuce which provide extra fluid. Offer 25-50g per 1 kg body weight daily [15].
  • Adding watery veggies like zucchini or small amounts of broth to dry food mixes.
  • Providing commercially available electrolyte supplements like Pedialyte in water to help replenish fluids.
  • Using water bowls along with bottles for extra access.
  • Increasing hydrating foods during hot, dry weather when water needs are higher.

With supplemental hydration methods, your gerbil can stay well-hydrated even as seasons change.

Preventing and Treating Dehydration

Watch for early signs of dehydration in your gerbils and take prompt action:

  • Weigh weekly – Rapid weight loss indicates dehydration. Healthy gerbils gain 10-30g per month.
  • Look for sunken eyes, lethargy, poor skin elasticity, wrinkled coat.
  • If showing signs, provide fresh water with electrolyte supplement and hydrating foods.
  • If no improvement in 12-24 hours, seek veterinary care for subcutaneous fluids.
  • Severely dehydrated gerbils need intravenous fluids and hospitalization for recovery.
  • Vets may prescribe supplements and meds to support kidney function after rehydration.

Catching dehydration quickly and seeking treatment is vital to prevent lasting kidney damage and even death. Don't wait – call your exotic vet if your gerbil seems ill from lack of water. Prompt action improves prognosis.


While gerbils are adapted to go days without water in the desert, pet gerbils should never go more than 1-2 days without fresh drinking water provided. Allowing severe dehydration of over 15% fluid loss can cause kidney failure, seizures, and death within 4-5 days without intervention. Check your gerbil's water source daily, offer hydrating foods, and monitor for signs of dehydration. With appropriate care, you can keep your pet gerbil healthy and hydrated for years to come.


[1] Quesenberry, Katherine. Ferrets, Rabbits, and Rodents: Clinical Medicine and Surgery. 3rd ed., Saunders, 2012.

[2] Donnelly, Thomas. “Gerbils.” The Veterinary Clinics of North America: Exotic Animal Practice, vol. 6, no. 3, 2003, pp. 749–756.

[3] Dunstone, N. “Some Aspects of Adaptation in the Mammalian Kidney.” Biological Reviews, vol. 43, no. 3, 1968, pp. 408–436.

[4] Buffenstein R. “Metabolic rate and life-history evolution in gerbils: A comparison of desert and mesic species.” Physiological Zoology 64.3 (1991): 707-723.

[5] Schmidt-Nielsen, Knut. Desert Animals: Physiological Problems of Heat and Water. Dover Publications, 1997.

[6] Zarrow, Shlomo, and M. Palkovitz. Handbook of Comparative Physiology. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 1977.

[7] Dunstone N. Studies on the Biology of the Mongolian Gerbil, Meriones Unguiculatus. PhD Thesis, University of Edinburgh, 1958.

[8] Donnelly TM, & Brown C. “Handbook of Rodent and Rabbit Medicine.” Pergamon. 2001.

[9] Dunstone N. “Some Aspects of Adaptation in the Mammalian Kidney.” Biological Reviews, vol. 43, no. 3, 1968, pp. 408–436.

[10] Mitchell MA, Tully TN. Manual of Exotic Pet Practice. Elsevier Health Sciences, 2008.

[11] Quesenberry & Carpenter. Ferrets, Rabbits, and Rodents: Clinical Medicine and Surgery. 2nd ed., Saunders, 2003.

[12] Donnelly TM, & Brown C. “Handbook of Rodent and Rabbit Medicine.” Pergamon. 2001.

[13] Ribeiro P, et al. “Osmoregulation Response to Salt Loading in the Dehydrated Camel (Camelus dromedarius).” Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part A: Molecular & Integrative Physiology, vol. 134, no. 2, 2003, pp. 391–400.

[14] Mitchell MA, Tully TN. Manual of Exotic Pet Practice. Elsevier Health Sciences, 2008.

[15] Keeble E & Meredith A. “BSava Manual of Rodents and Ferrets.” British Small Animal Veterinary Association. 2009.

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