Gerbil vs Hamster – The story of two Little Furry Pets

Last Updated : November 23, 2021
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Both gerbils and hamsters are lovable creatures that make great pets. While many people would consider these two animals the same, they have important differences. As a potential pet owner considering adopting a gerbil vs hamster, you should know these differences so you can choose the right furry friend for you!

In this guide to gerbil vs hamster, you’ll learn how to tell these two animals apart. In particular, I’ll cover differences in:

  • Appearance
  • Behavior
  • Care
  • Longevity
  • Whether they make good pets 
Gerbil and a hamster side by side

Differences in Appearance

While both gerbils and hamsters are small and furry, they do have a few distinguishing physical attributes that make the main differences between the two. You can typically tell the two apart by their size and color. 

Size

Gerbils are long and lighter than hamsters. Mature gerbils grow to between 5 and 6 inches, plus 3 to 4 inches for their tails. Hamsters average 5 to 7 inches, except dwarf hamsters which average 2 to 4 inches long.

Gerbils have longer tails, longer noses, and longer hind legs than hamsters. Gerbils will often stand on their back legs to have a good nose around.

While gerbils weigh between 2 and 4 ounces by adulthood, hamsters’ average weight is between 4 and 8 ounces. 

Gerbils are a similar size to a dwarf hamster, whereas a Syrian hamster would be bigger.

Compared to gerbils, hamsters are stocky. They have stubby tails, short noses, and wide feet that cause them to waddle a bit when walking. 

You can also tell a gerbil from a hamster by its cheeks. Hamsters have big internal pouches in their cheeks so they can store food; gerbils do not. 

Why does size matter when choosing between a hamster and a gerbil? If you have small children, you should consider getting a larger animal — in this case, hamsters. They’re easier to handle and hold onto safely. 

Color

Cute Fluffy Hamster
Cute Fluffy Hamster

Both gerbils and hamsters have several color combinations. Gerbils have dense coats whereas hamsters have fluffy hair. Gerbils may be gray, tan, brown, or reddish-brown with white or gray patches around their bottoms.

Some gerbils, such as Mongolian gerbils may have dark markings near their heads.

Hamsters can have short or long hair, in colors including white, cinnamon, brown, gray, and black. Some hamsters have a smooth sheen to their coats, others have wavy hair. Hamsters may also have dark stripes on their backs or white bands of fur on their bellies. 

Are Gerbils Friendlier than Hamsters?

When you’re deciding between a gerbil or hamster, your biggest question is likely about their behavior. Which animal has a better personality? Is one better around children than another? Their personalities are one of the biggest differences between these two animals.

Playtime

Gerbils are generally more energetic than hamsters. Gerbils are curious, inquisitive creatures who love to explore and jump around. They aren’t strictly nocturnal or diurnal, so their sleep patterns can mimic yours. Because they’re always ready to play, gerbils don’t mind being woken up at just about any time of day.

Exercise wheels are a must for both pets. You can use a hamster wheel for your gerbil but must ensure they are a solid variety so that their long tails don’t get caught.

Hamsters, on the other hand, are more lethargic. They have less natural curiosity than gerbils and can be grumpy if you wake them up. Hamsters are nocturnal, so they’re better to interact with in the mornings and evenings.

The verdict on playtime: if you want a playful, energetic small pet that you have to keep a closer eye on, then get a gerbil. If you want a more laid-back pet that only requires interaction at certain times of day, get a hamster.

Social behavior

Some pets do better when they have a friend in their cage with them, others prefer being alone. Gerbils are social animals and like being with other gerbils, so it’s usually recommended to adopt more than one at a time. Hamsters tend to prefer having a cage or tank all to themselves. 

Cute little light-colored gerbil
Cute little light-colored gerbil

Biting vs gnawing

Hamsters are more prone to biting than gerbils (and most other small rodents). They don’t bite because they’re angry or defensive, they may be startled or just looking for food. Hamsters like to nip at anything that looks like food. Small children who scare easily might not be suited to handle hamsters for this reason. 

Gerbils rarely bite like hamsters do. But they do like to gnaw on everything. Gerbils will chew on almost anything they can find, including plastic toys, their water bottles, and wires or cables if they’re out of their tanks. 

Caring for Gerbils vs Caring for Hamsters

Since they have different personalities, gerbils and hamsters have different care requirements. The biggest differences concern caging, diet, and health. 

Cages

A yellow box in a small yellow hamster cage

Since hamsters prefer being alone than with other hamsters, they can do with smaller habitats than gerbils. Setting up hamster cages, therefore, could be less expensive. Hamsters are also happy with several types of enclosures such as a tank or wire cage. These little critters will burrow a small nest before curling up to sleep, or may dig out space to put their food hoards in. 

Hamsters may like to burrow, but it’s amateur compared to how much gerbils burrow. Gerbils will be content to spend most of their day digging. For this reason, they need bedding they can dig in and a glass aquarium tank. Gerbils will try to chew on the sides of wire cages or through plastic bases.

A final consideration for caging is cleaning up. Gerbils produce less waste than hamsters, being desert animals. Hamsters do produce more waste and as a result, their habitats stink more often. You’ll also have to clean out a hamster’s cage more frequently than a gerbil’s. 

Diet

Both gerbils and hamsters need greens, some fruit, and seeds. But when it comes to protein, these two pets have different requirements. 

Gerbils only need a diet of 14 to 15 percent protein, whereas hamsters need 18 to 23 percent. When you look for commercial foods for either gerbils or hamsters, try to find mixes that are near these percentages. To boost their protein, hamsters can also have cooked chicken or hard-boiled eggs as a small treat. If your gerbil needs extra protein, crickets and mealworms are best. 

When buying commercial food from a pet store, it’s recommended that you buy those formulated for gerbils, rather than giving them hamster food.

And of course, both need constant access to fresh water. Either are happy to drink from a water bottle.

Health

Although hamsters tend to be lazier than gerbils, both need plenty of exercise and enrichment. Try to let either your gerbil or hamster out of its habitat at least once per day, in a secure area, to play and run around.

Gerbils are more sensitive to temperature change than hamsters, and they can easily overheat. You’ll have to pay more attention to a gerbil’s tank temperature, keeping it between 68 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit (22 to 25 degrees Celsius) at all times. 

Do Gerbils or Hamsters Live Longer?

As small rodents, neither gerbils nor hamsters live for very long. Typically, the Syrian hamster species won’t live longer than two years. A gerbil’s lifespan is slightly longer than a hamster’s, lasting between 2.5 and 3 years. 

Are Gerbils Good Pets?

Gerbils are ideal for anyone who wants a playful, active pet that isn’t too big and doesn’t require as much maintenance as a dog or cat. When cared for properly, gerbils can have a happy, healthy life with you and your family. They aren’t overly shy or aggressive with humans, so gerbil owners will love playing and interacting with them. With their friendly disposition and low tendency to bite, gerbils are usually safe for children too. Keep in mind that you should only adopt a pet gerbil if you’re willing to adopt at least two or three. They’re social creatures and do better in pairs or groups. 

Are Hamsters Good Pets?

Pet hamsters may be less playful than gerbils, but they still like to play too! Hamsters love keeping their big cages nice and tidy, but they still need playtime and enrichment outside their habitat. Hamsters are better for people who may not have as much time to spend with their pet. They require a bit less attention from you than gerbils do. If you only want to adopt one new furry friend, then hamsters are a better choice as well. Two Syrian hamsters in the same cage will get territorial and fight each other.

Can Gerbils and Hamsters Live Together?

No, despite being social animals, your should never house a gerbil with a hamster. Gerbils should only be kept with other gerbils.

Hamsters are generally unsociable and quite territorial, particularly larger breeds such as Syrians, and should be kept on their own. Smaller dwarf hamster breeds can be kept in groups, however.

Gerbils and Hamsters would fight if kept together, and that’s one Gerbil vs Hamster question we don’t want to know the answer to!.

The Differences Between Gerbils vs Hamsters

By now, you’ve probably realized that hamsters and gerbils aren’t the same pet at all! They are about the same size, eat some of the same food, and both live in special cages or habitats…but that’s where the similarities end. They are different species with distinct personalities come different habits, mannerisms, behavior, and social interactions.

Does one make better pets than the other?

Not at all!

Like all most other pets, each animal has certain requirements and traits that will make it more or less suited to your home. It’s important to do your research before adopting either a gerbil or a hamster. Bringing home a new pet is a big responsibility. By knowing the care requirements and commitment involved for each one beforehand, you’ll be able to choose the perfect new pet for you!

What to learn more? Check out our posts on the differences between pets, like Guinea Pigs and Hamsters, or Rabbits and Hares.

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