You want a furry pocket pet. Either a gerbil or may be a hamster...
But you are confused...
...and not really sure which one to get...
After all both these pets seem so similar and from what you can see are almost equally popular
You have done a fair bit of research already and now you really have to decisively know which amongst these two will be a better pet for you and for your kids?
Let see if I can help...
I should say this right at the outset...
Both gerbils and hamsters are hugely popular and lovely pocket pets. And they are both reasonably suitable for kids.
This page is about helping those lovely pet parents who haven't yet brought either of them home and have to necessarily choose one amongst two
These pets seem similar and at first glance they may look similar as well (both are really cute 🙂). But they are not same. Not at all.
They belong to different animal species and have huge differences in terms of their needs and their behavior. There are differences that are not insignificant. And you should know of them before you bring your beloved pet to your home.
In this guide, I will cover all key differences and hopefully, by end of it, you will be able to make the right decision.
Some aspects I will cover
- Size comparison between two pets
- Can you detemine who is who by just looking at their tails?
- Cute look A vs Cute look B - who wins?
- Who amongst them has stronger legs?
Varieties : In one case you have a choice of 5 sub-species, in other it's mostly one
Personality and Behavior differences
- Who bites less: hamster or gerbils?
- Who will be awake when you are awake
- Energy levels for both the pets
- Which pet to get if you only want one pet and not a group
- Who will try and escape more often
Ease of Care differences
- Do they smell? Does it matter?
- How much time you should have with you for both?
- Food and Housing needs for gerbils and hamsters
- How often would you need to clean their homes?
Hibernation: One amongst these pets hibernates, other doesn't. Note this if you live in a wintery climate.
Lifespan: How long would they live? Is there a significant difference
Costs you can expect over lifetime of pet ownership
Health Risks that these pets may carry
Legality of these pets in your area
So without much further ado, let’s get going...
Length and Mass
Gerbils are typically about 4-5 inches and will weigh between 50-90 grams.
Hamsters come in two sizes.
The most common pet hamster, the Syrian hamster (also called golden hamster), will grow to about 6 inches in length and will weigh between 100-125 grams. Dwarf hamsters, on the other hand, are approximately 3-5 inches long and will typically weigh around 25-40 grams.
Essentially Syrian hamsters are slightly larger while dwarf hamsters are slightly smaller when compared to gerbils. But either way, all of them are good sized pocket pets and will easily fit the palm of your hands.
Gerbils have a tail that covered with fur and is almost as long as rest of their body (i.e. almost 4-5 inches long). It has a tuft of hair at the end and looks graceful.
Hamsters, on the other hand, have short and stubby tails.
In most cases, these tails are less than an inch in length. Chinese hamsters have slightly longer tails though still not as long as that of a gerbil. Hamster tails are also mostly hairless.
In fact, tail length is one of the quickest ways to differentiate between a gerbil and a hamster.
If the animal has around 4 inches of tail that’s covered with fur and has a tuft of hair at the end, it’s most likely a gerbil.
Both hamster and gerbil are cute but they are not exactly identical when it comes to looks.
A gerbil is leaner and has a longer face than a hamster. Their snout is longer and pointed. This gives them a look similar to that of mice (though they are not mice)
A hamster has rounder and wider face and has a shorter snout.
This shorter snout is the reason behind chubby cheeks look that has almost become a trademark for hamsters.
Their small, round and furry look is really cute and drives many impulse purchases.
I personally like both the pets though many people really dig how cute a hamster looks while others swear by their gerbils. It's down to personal choice mostly.
Did you know: Hamsters can use their cheek pouches to store a lot of food. Watch video further below in the post to see this in action. Its incredible.
Both gerbils and hamsters can get up on their hind legs like a kangaroo.
However, a gerbil has stronger hind legs as compared to hamsters. They have relatively larger feet and longer legs and are excellent jumpers.
Hamsters don’t jump around and have short legs. Though they will routinely sit up on their hind legs especially while feeding or chewing.
Almost all pet gerbils are actually just one species - Mongolian gerbils. Though due to selective breeding over years, there are now about 40+ colors available within that sub-species. Broadly the choice with Gerbils is mostly on color.
Recently another species of gerbils, fat-tailed gerbils, has been domesticated though it's still early days for them
You have much more choice when it comes to Hamsters as they come in about five common subspecies
Syrian or Golden Hamsters
Campbell’s or dwarf hamsters
Siberian or winter white hamsters
The most common pet hamster species is Syrian Hamster, also known as golden or teddy bear hamster. Dwarf hamsters is also fairly popular.
Personality and Behavior
Gerbils, if tamed well, rarely bite.
To be more specific, gerbils bite out of self-defense. Any gerbil that is used to handling from a young age should not be afraid of humans and hence chances of them biting their handlers are relatively much lower.
Hamsters, on the other hand, get spooked easily even if tamed well. Like a gerbil, when spooked or scared, they will bite out of self-defense.
A hamster can also bite if they are startled and woken up suddenly from a deep sleep. In some cases, a hamster will bite if your hand smells of food and they are hungry. To prevent that, it’s recommended to wash your hands before you or your kid picks up a hamster.
Net net, you can expect a friendlier and relatively less bitey pet in gerbils.
Wakefulness & Active hours
Gerbils are diurnal. What that means is that they will have alternating phases of being asleep and being up through out 24 hours. They essentially operate in shifts and this will make them a better pet for young kids.
Hamsters are crepuscular. They will sleep during the day and will be active during late evenings, nights and early mornings.
This is important if you have really young kids who may not be awake when the hamster is and vice versa. Also if you are planning to place hamster’s cage in the bedroom (and if you are a light sleeper), be aware that a hamster can run on its squeaky wheel all through the night.
Also if you are expecting to play with your hamster during the day time, you are bound to be frustrated. Late evenings or early mornings are ok though. Do note that a hamster woken up suddenly from its nap may get cranky and bite.
Gerbils are curious animals. They love to explore and play and are easily the more energetic of two pets. They love burrowing and will typically be active whenever they are awake. They are fun to watch even when they are not being handled by humans.
Hamsters are usually laid back mammals and it's not uncommon to find a hamster being lethargic when awake. This can be a positive as they are slower and it makes them easier to handle for kids.
Both love running a wheel though and with one in their cage, it can be a lot of fun.
Solitary vs Group
Gerbils are social animals. They live in groups and it is not ok to have a solitary gerbil. They will, in fact, get depressed if they do not have a gerbil companion.
Never get a solitary gerbil. Always get them in pairs.
It is also important to note that you can’t just get two gerbils from different groups and put them in the same cage. Gerbils only want companions whose scent they are already used to. So use the split-cage method if you are getting two gerbils from different litters. Ideally, your pet shop should take care of this for you and you should get a pair that already knows each other.
Hamsters, especially Syrian hamsters, are solitary animals.
Never ever keep more than one Syrian hamster in same cage
They are fiercely territorial and will defend their territory against any intruder. They will not tolerate another hamster (or another mammal) in their cage and will fight them vigorously. They routinely kill each other and cannibalize their young. In fact, the only time they come together is when it’s time to mate.
Even if you are breeding them, you should separate the breeding hamster pair after mating is completed else you will have a messy pet fight on your hands.
Overall, when it comes to hamsters, it is just simpler to get multiple cages and keep one hamster per cage in case you are getting more than one.
One exception to this typical solitary hamster behavior is seen with dwarf hamsters. If brought together from a young age, dwarf hamsters will tolerate living in groups.
Do note that while they are solitary mammals, hamsters can create incredibly strong bonds with their human handlers and are no less than any other pet from that aspect.
Hamsters are master escape artists.
They will escape and hide at every chance and have been named as Houdini of the pet world by some owners. Their escaping though has got nothing to do with how well you take care of them or how much food is available for them. This behavior is essentially because of their innate natural instinct to explore their surroundings and stay hidden as much as possible.
Gerbils don’t escape that often, and when they escape, they can, in most cases, be easily found.
Ease of care
How much they smell
Gerbils are desert mammals and produce very little waste.
They don’t urinate that often, their solid waste is small too and usually they do their business in one corner of their burrow. They urine typically doesn’t smell of ammonia. Gerbils overall are very clean mammals and don’t smell much.
Hamsters, on the other hand, produce waste that’s expected out of a pet animal.
They urine has a faint ammonia odor but nothing out of ordinary. Hamsters are not smelly animals in general but their cages may develop serious odors if you are not cleaning them frequently.
Time they demand
Although gerbils are fairly independent and can entertain themselves for extended periods of time, a happy, well-adjusted gerbil is one who receives daily handling and interaction.
A hamster will almost necessarily need daily interaction if it has to keep its human bond strong. Keep in mind that hamsters can ‘forget’ their humans and go untamed. So it is important to have some play time regularly.
Both hamsters and gerbils have somewhat similar feeding needs.
Gerbils love sunflower seeds as well as a range of leaves and herbs. They relish fruits like pear, melon, apple and oranges and vegetables like cucumber, carrot, pumpkin etc.
Hamsters can’t have citrus fruits or onions though outside these they are pretty ok with a wide variety of food.
Both pets love an occasional treat of a mealworm or a cricket and in general can be fed same food pellets.
Gerbils do show the hoarding behavior in wild though have nothing like cheek pouches of hamsters which can store almost a crazy amount of food.
Check this video to see Hamster Cheek Pouches in Action...
Hamsters will hoard and transport food and It’s important to clean the hamster home of uneaten food bits regularly.
Hamsters being solitary animals need relatively smaller houses compared to let's say a pair of gerbils. Initial housing for hamsters for this reason typically is cheaper. However, hamsters will try to escape and hide pretty regularly and hence it’s important to test their home for those little openings.
Hamsters also are not destructive and their housing will stay more or less in the same shape as it was originally. For this reason, a wide variety of homes are suitable for hamsters and this is also evident in any pet shop you visit.
Gerbils, on the other hand, live most happily in groups. This means a relatively larger home is needed for them when compared to solitary hamsters.
Additionally, to feel comfortable and secure, they need to burrow and dig continuously. Their enclosures should have enough depth to enable same and this further increases the size.
One more thing to note is that gerbils gnaw on anything and for that reason, a plastic or a wood house is not suitable for gerbils. They will chew through plastic or wood very very quickly. Even in a metal cage, they will run riot with wooden flakes flying all around the house.
The most suitable (actually the only suitable) home for gerbils is a glass aquarium of reasonable size with a mesh wire top. These homes are typically known as gerbilariums.
The minimum size that’s recommended by AGS is 10 gallons for 2 gerbils with additional 5 gallons for each extra gerbil. This is the absolute minimum size that a pet owner should ideally have and ideally you should have more.
Gerbils also will chew through their toys (or for that matter anything within their enclosure) very very quickly. Anything inside their cage that’s also chewable will be in shreds in a matter of days if not hours.
Hamsters, on the other hand, are not compulsive gnawers and certainly not as destructive. They might taste their toys once but generally, their toys will last much longer.
Homes for hamsters should be located away from direct sunlight and fireplaces. The ideal temperature range for a hamster is approximately 65-75 degree Fahrenheit. Care should also be taken to not place their homes in very cold places as that can prompt less activity leading to hibernation.
Gerbils too need a similar temperature range for them to be most comfortable. Additionally, they will need a proper ventilation especially if their home is made of glass.
Gerbils are fairly clean pets that produce very little waste. However, their homes will still need regular cleaning. Cleaning should undertaken once a week and at most you can stretch it to once every four weeks.
Hamsters will need cleanings at a higher frequency. Most hamster owners clean their pet homes once a week. Some even do it multiple times per week. Without regular cleaning, their homes will start stinking up very quickly.
Hamsters can go into hibernation if the temperature goes below 40 F (~4.5 Celsius). In this state, they are totally still and their breathing slows down. Hibernation may also kick in if there is a lack of enough food and water.
Gerbils do not hibernate. In extreme winters, they will snuggle together and munch on all the food they have hoarded (or their loving owner feeds them).
You should note that them not hibernating doesn't mean that they are comfortable in extreme winters (or summers), rather comfortable temperature for them ranges between 65-75 F.
The average lifespan for a well cared for gerbil is about 3.5 years though there have been reports of them living as long as 6 years.
An average hamster will typically live between 2-2.5 years. This also varies across species - Robo hamsters can live for as long as 3.5 years while Chinese hamsters have a lifespan between 1.5-2 years.
Costs of owning them
Gerbils will initially cost between five to ten dollars each. You should always get them in pairs, so double that cost. A typical cage for them will set you back by another 30-40 dollars. Their water bottle will cost around 5-10 dollars while food bowl will be another 10 dollars. Toys can cost as much as 20 dollars.
Cumulatively this is one-time cost of about 75 - 100 dollars for a pair of gerbils.
In addition to these one-time costs, gerbils will need a weekly bedding change that will cost another 2-3 dollars per change. They will also eat food worth $2 to $5 per month.
Essentially both bedding and food will come to about $10-$15 per month.
Gerbils rarely get ill but if they do, you can expect a vet visit to cost you between 30-50 dollars.
Syrian hamsters will cost you between five and twenty dollars each while dwarf hamsters can cost you as much as 10 dollars each. A cage for hamster will start at 30 dollars going up to as much as 50 dollars. Wheels that hamsters use to exercise start at 10 dollars and can go up to 20 dollars. All these costs combined together will mean a one-time cost between 50 - 90 dollars.
Bedding changes will cost 15 dollars per month while food will cost 5-6 dollars, totaling upto about 20 dollars per month as an ongoing cost.
Vet costs for hamsters are not cheap though and they will need at least once a year visit to the vet. You can expect each of these visits to set you back by 70 bucks if not more.
One time costs
Food and bedding
Rare, 50 USD/visit
Once a year, 70 USD/visit
Hamsters can carry salmonella and it can be problematic for pregnant women who can pass it to their unborn child. If one has weak immune system, this bacteria can sicken them.
Hamsters also can carry a virus that can cause flu-like symptoms and can be transmitted from a mother to child. This virus is called lymphocytic choriomeningitis.
It is important to note that gerbils too carry a small risk of salmonella. There are no reports of humans getting this bacteria from gerbils but some caution is recommended for pregnant women as well as for really young children.
If you are a resident of California, the only choice you have is a hamster as gerbil is not a legal pet in CA.
Additionally, both gerbils and hamsters are not legal in Hawaii. Both these pets are also not legal in Australia and New Zealand.
The reasoning for the ban in all these locations is essentially same i.e. to prevent local ecology from a potentially invasive species.
In simple words, there is a risk that some of these animals can get loose in wild and establish their own colonies. If that happens, they may end up damaging local flora and fauna as they breed really fast.
And that's it... Those are all key differences between these two lovely pets. Were you able to decide which one is the right fit for you? Let us know.