You can tell quite a bit about a gerbil's thoughts and feelings by watching his or her body langauge. This chapter of the Gerbil Care Guide was adapted from the September 2006 Tip Of The Month.
Hello! If you have a pair of gerbils who live together, you've probably seen what looks like kissing. Often, one gerbil runs over to the other and touches her mouth or nose. This is a gerbil's way of saying hello. Gerbils can recognize each other by the taste of their saliva, so when your gerbils greet each other this way, they are saying,
Hello! It's just me. How are you?
I'm feeling comfortable & relaxed. Some animals wash themselves when they're nervous, but a gerbil usually stops to wash his face, sides, stomach, and tail when he's feeling relaxed and relatively safe.
I'm concerned and on alert. If your gerbil stands up really tall on her hind legs and holds her front paws together, as if she were praying, she is on alert. She may not be scared, but she is definitely concerned. She is looking out for danger and is ready to take cover or alert other gerbils if she sees anything that frightens her.
Hey, what's going on? I'm curious! When your gerbil is curious, he will stand up in a similar way as he would if he were on alert. However, he won't hold his front paws together like he's praying. Instead, his front paws will be apart and held loosely in front of his chest, like how Hope's paws are in the photo to the left. Hope is the gerbil who is standing up. Often, a curious gerbil will look around, too, whereas a gerbil who is concerned and on alert will stare straight ahead and not move. When your gerbil stands up tall with his front paws apart, he wants to see what's going on in your home.
Please groom me. When a gerbil rolls over onto her back and exposes her belly to another gerbil, it's a submissive posture. She's telling the other gerbil that she trusts her and that she's in charge. She's also asking the other gerbil to please groom her. Your gerbil may also request a grooming by placing her chin on the ground, with her nose under the other gerbil's mouth.
I'm irritated and ready to fight. If your gerbils are standing side by side with backs arched to the side and fur fluffed up, they may also be pressing the sides of their faces into each other forcefully. This is the sign of two irritated gerbils. Make sure you keep a close eye on them and separate them if they start fighting.
Look out! If you hear your gerbil thumping his hind legs rhythmically, something has startled him, and he is warning any other gerbils who might be in the area that there might be danger. (This is similar to how prairie dogs will bark to let the other prairie dogs know if there's a threat.) Usually, if one of your gerbils starts thumping his feet, the other gerbils within earshot will also start thumping their feet. What types of things might make a gerbil thump? Usually, it's something like a sudden, unexpected movement by a human in the house. It might also be a shadow on the wall or the silhouette of a bird against the window shade. It might even be a noise outside the house that your gerbil can hear but you can't. Gerbils may also thump their hind legs when they are interested in mating, but the rhythm is a little bit different. Most of the time, if you hear thumping, you can assume that your gerbil is scared of something and trying to warn other gerbils.
I'm not really sure what I'm doing! You've probably seen your gerbils dig in the corners of the tank. This is something that gerbils do when they live in a cage or tank instead of their native underground burrow system. Your gerbil will dig and claw furiously at the corner of the tank, but if you watch her body language, you can see that she doesn't appear upset or frustrated. This digging is just your gerbil's natural instinct to make that digging motion with her front paws when she hits a dead end. A lot of people are worried that their gerbils are trying frantically to escape, but as you get to know your gerbils better, you'll be able to tell the difference between a happy gerbil and a frustrated gerbil, and most of the time, a gerbil who is digging in the corner doesn't show any signs of being frustrated or unhappy.
I'm thirsty! If you see your gerbil licking the glass walls of the tank, he is thirsty. A gerbil will lick a smooth surface, such as the glass walls, to try to find moisture if he can't get water from his water bottle. If you see your gerbil licking the walls, make sure that the water bottle isn't empty. You should also tap the end of the water bottle a few times to make sure that the water is flowing freely and that the bottle isn't stopped up.
I'm extremely happy. Some gerbils actually purr! You can't hear them purr like a cat, but you can feel them purr when they sit in your hand. Not many gerbils purr, but there and some who do purr when they're held by someone they trust. If you feel your gerbil vibrating in your hands, she is content and happy.