Gerbil Epilepsy, sometimes called fits, is a common condition seen in 20-40% of all gerbils. It is believed to be inherited and therefore strongly associated with certain breeds of gerbils. In fact, lines have been bred to be seizure-resistant and seizure-prone for use in clinical research on human epilepsy. The seizure-prone gerbils spend less time performing social activities, such as scent gland marking. The seizure activity is due to a deficiency in a brain enzyme, cerebral glutamine synthetase, and is classified as “spontaneous epileptiform seizures.”
Gerbil seizures are triggered by sudden stress or an introduction of a novel toy in to the environment. Excessive handling, new toys, or a new habitat can stimulate seizure episodes.
Gerbil seizures range from mild hypnotic state to full grand mal episodes. During hypnotic/cataleptic seizures, the gerbil freezes and twitches the ears and whiskers. If the gerbil is picked up during a hypnotic seizure, he may appear limp. Grand mal seizures are characterized by violent muscle contractions and rigidity. Most seizures are very short and last less than a minute. These short seizures do not cause permanent damage. Rarely, seizures last more than a minute and can be a sign of serious brain injury. Death from seizures is uncommon, with fewer than 1% of gerbils dying after a seizure episode. After the seizure the gerbil may take up to ten minutes to recover to normal function. Researchers have noted that some gerbils appear more active in the days following a seizure.
Seizure activity in gerbils generally begins at two months of age. The seizures often increase in severity until six months of age. With advancing age, the tendency to seize reduces in almost all gerbils. There is evidence to suggest frequent handling in the first three weeks of life can significantly reduce the frequency and severity of seizures.
Treatment of gerbil seizures is not usually recommended due to the brief episode and lack of lasting effect. However, if your gerbil suffers from grand mal seizures or seizures lasting longer than a minute, anticonvulsant medication may be prescribed. The most common anticonvulsants used are Phenobarbitol and Dipheyldydontoin.
Unfortunately, there is very little you can do for your gerbil during and after a seizure episode. If your gerbil seizes, place him in a dark, quiet area and check in on him periodically until he fully recovers. Please contact a veterinarian if your gerbil does not recover from a seizure for an excessive amount of time, has grand mal seizures lasting more than one minute, or repeated (cluster) seizures without a period of normal rest.
Lauren Devine (Class of 2012, Kansas State College of Veterinary Medicine)