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Why Do Gerbils Eat Their Dead? (Here’s Why)

Cannibalization is the act of eating all or part of another animal of the same species. Knowing that mammals like our fuzzy little pets are capable of or ready to commit the unthinkable can be unsettling.

A calloused, cold-hearted mindset or line of reasoning is most commonly associated with a cannibalistic brain.

If you’ve gone through the devastating experience, you may wonder how such an innocent-looking creature committed such heinous acts, especially against its cage mate.   

Although humans do not indulge in cannibalism, it is highly prevalent in the animal kingdom for a variety of reasons.

In this article, we will look into the reasons why gerbils eat their dead to better understand this strange behavior.

Why Do Gerbils Eat Their Dead?

Maternal cannibalism

Maternal cannibalism in gerbils is common whereby mothers eat their offspring that are dead or alive. 

Gerbil mothers eat their stillborn or dead offspring. They do this to get rid of the body so that it does not attract any predators to their nest through the smell of a carcass.

This protects the mother and the rest of her litter. It is a natural instinct and domesticated gerbils will also act like this.

The act of eating their dead offering also is a means of cleaning up the nest. Gerbils are clean animals and they work towards having a clean living and sleeping space.

A gerbil mother also eats their dead pups to recover nutrients lost after giving birth. The mother sacrifices a lot of her essential vitamins and nutrients throughout the pregnancy and to nurse her litter.  

Pregnancy typically takes three weeks and decreases her body of the vitamins and minerals she needs to care for her offspring.  

To survive, the mother must find a way to replenish the vitamins and nutrients she lost by producing and nurturing her offspring beyond infancy. 

The mother gerbil usually consumes the runt of her litter because she knows it has a low chance of survival, is already in poor health, or is dead.

This is a benefit to them because they will get extra nutrients to be able to nurse their offspring. 

Protection of the group from predators

It is quite common for gerbils to eat their dead to protect the group from predators when one of them dies due to old age or sickness. 

A decaying dead gerbil in a colony can attract predators because of the smell emitted from the dead body and this presents a danger to the rest of the group. 

Because of this, gerbils get rid of the bodies of their dead by consuming them which protects them from predators. 

This is a natural instinct to act like this and even though they are safe in your home they will still do this because it is a primal instinct.

Recommended reading: Why is my gerbil eating their bedding?

Lack of food

A lack of sufficient food can also push gerbils to eat the dead. This is simply because they are hungry and they do it for survival. 

You may wonder why they would do this despite providing them with enough food. Well, domesticated gerbils will still practice this because it is in their nature.

Naturally, because they are desert animals from an environment where food resources are scarce, they will instinctively preserve or use food resources even if it’s a dead cage mate.

Clean up after a fight

Gerbils are often sociable with other gerbils. However, if they fight, they must be moved because one or both of the gerbils will most certainly die. 

If there is only one victor, the victor devours his opponent and cleans the cage.

There are several reasons why gerbils get into fights.  One factor is the introduction of a new gerbil into an already established group or a display of dominance among cage mates. 

A gerbil group that is unfamiliar with a new gerbil will view the newcomer as an intruder and will respond with violence.

Gerbils of the same sex usually get along, but it also doesn’t mean they won’t fight.

Extremely stressed gerbil

For the most part, domesticated gerbils are delicate and sensitive animals; but they still possess their natural survival instincts.  

They may act abnormally when they are stressed, particularly if their anxiety is perceived by them to be unmanageable. 

 Sometimes, to cope, gerbils will fight with other gerbils in the cage until the other has died, then will proceed to eat the carcass.  

This can be prevented by identifying early aggressive or abnormal behavior issues with your gerbil.  

Factors that can cause your gerbil excessive stress may include loud noise, bright lighting or its placement in the cage, major changes to their environment, unfamiliar territory, excessive human contact or interaction, or overcrowding.

Recommended Reading: Why is my gerbil not eating?

Keeping their environment clean

If you know anything about gerbils, you’re aware of their love for burrowing, nesting, and cleaning their habitat. They are clean and prefer to live in dry and clean environments. 

It’s only natural that when one of the gerbils dies, they will dispose of the body as they see fit, through cannibalism.   

Additionally, removing the carcass will prevent invasion of their environment by flies, pests, and other nuances.


The animal kingdom is indifferent to the morals or values associated with cannibalism. 

Because their biological processes don’t convey the same kind of rationale or logic as ours, your pleasant, cuddly animal wouldn’t think twice about devouring its lifelong companion. 

There’s no need to be concerned because most small animals, such as gerbils, only eat their own when necessary and not as a delicacy.


Cannibalism is common in the animal kingdom

Small mammal cannibalism