Gerbils come from a very dry and arid area and are not used to the relatively humid conditions in which we expect them to live. They burrow constantly in very dry soil in their natural habitat and so problems such as nasal dermatitis, where the nose becomes very red and sore, do not naturally occur very often. It is important to discover the cause and eliminate it, whilst treating the initial problem with appropriate medication, which will include antibiotic cream if warranted. Gerbils do not tolerate oral antibiotics very well, so the cream to rub on is the best way to cope with an external infection.
Early Signs of Nasal Dermatitis
It is very important to catch the onset of nasal dermatitis at an early stage as it can spread to include the mouth, front legs and chest if not arrested with the appropriate treatment. The first signs are that the gerbil will lose hair from the top of its nose and the bald patch will look sore. Then the skin may break down and a crusted spot will develop. This rapidly spreads and the nose and mouth area will look as if it is bleeding, as the mucus from the nose will be blood-stained. This looks painful and is distressing to the gerbil, which will probably make things worse by constant grooming. The next stage is a potentially difficult to resolve bacterial infection, so early intervention is vital.
Causes of Nasal Dermatitis
There are several causes and all are reasonably simple to prevent in future. The gerbil may have been chewing the bars of the habitat, which is a common habit. This wears off the hair from on top of the nose and a sore patch soon develops. It may be allergic to its bedding, especially if cedar or pine shavings are being used. These are a popular choice with owners as they smell nice, but the oils in them are really too strong for small animals and they should not really be used for their bedding. The animal may have been burrowing – its natural habitat is a burrow and some become quite fixated on burrowing in captivity – and rubbing its nose raw on the bottom of the habitat.
Finally, it may have problems with its Harderian gland. This gland is present in other rodents (for example, guinea pigs) and secretes a fluid which the animal spreads over its face with its forepaws when grooming. If for some reason the gerbil does not groom enough, or the gland becomes over active, the fluid drains into the nose and gathers around the nostrils, making the area damp and eventually, sore. None of these problems would cause too much trouble, but opportunistic bacteria naturally present in the cage will soon invade the sore place and then the infection can spread very quickly and because of the gerbil’s intolerance to antibiotics in general and the difficulty of keeping the area clean, completely clearing up the dermatitis can be quite tricky.
Prevention of nose and mouth problems in gerbils
The sore nose and lips of an affected gerbil can seriously undermine its general health if not addressed, as it clearly will dislike eating and drinking – the drinking bottle will be very painful to use, for example – and weight loss and dehydration can quickly follow. On noticing the first signs, the owner should stop and consider what might be the cause and if the gerbil has been handled a lot and watched in its habitat it should not be too difficult to resolve. If there have been no changes to the bedding and the one in use is not cedar or pine shavings, it is unlikely to be that. Allergies do crop up out of the blue, of course, but it is unusual. A habit like bar biting and burrowing will have been noticed and if present may be the reason for the sore nose.
The simple answer is to move the gerbil to a tank if it is biting the bars. It would also be a good idea to give it more things to gnaw and play with in its habitat as it is probably bored or needs more things to gnaw on to control its teeth, which grow throughout its life and can cause serious problems if they overgrow. If it is burrowing, it may be that it feels exposed where it is, or there is a draught or a bright light which it is trying to get away from. In this case, giving it somewhere where it can hide will probably do the trick, or a system of ready-made tunnels, which are easily found in most pet shops. If the problem is seated in the Harderian gland the resolution is not quite so simple and the nose may become permanently affected. It is possible to remove the gland but the operation is difficult and few vets will attempt it. Because it is partly caused by humidity removing the gerbil’s natural desire to groom, using sand baths can work because they will dry out the face and so the animal will use the secretion to condition its fur. If the problem is too much secretion, the sand bath will help in that it will soak up the extra and it can be brushed off by the owner or by the gerbil.
Nasal dermatitis is not life threatening in itself but it is very distressing for the gerbil. If it is a child’s pet it is unwise to allow it to be handled because the bacteria causative to the infection which arises can be passed to humans and if there is just a small patch of damaged skin then the human can pass the bacteria to the gerbil. If the infection is so bad that it prevents proper eating and gnawing because the lips are sore, teeth may overgrow and the gerbil will become malnourished. At this point the decision made be made to painlessly euthanize the animal.