Gerbils vs Hamsters – What Is The Difference?

Pocket pets are the third most common household pets after dogs and cats. This is primarily because of their low maintenance and housing needs. Moreover, the pets are suitable for children as well as adults.

The most common pocket pets nowadays are mice, gerbils, hamsters and guinea pigs. Among these, most people confuse hamsters for gerbils and assume they can settle for one if the other is unavailable from a specific pet shop.

Gerbils are also called desert rats and hamsters are rodents. Though they have very similar needs, in housing and feeding gerbils and hamsters are quite different in terms of size, appearance, colors, behavior, and social life.

In this article I will guide you through the differences between gerbils and hamsters, so you can decide which pet to choose.

Physical Differences

If you are looking for a furry creature for a pet, then both a gerbil and a hamster will suffice. Though both animals are small enough to be handled by kids, the hamster has a stout body. Its snout or nose is short, while the tail is short and stubby.

The hamster has wide, short and stocky legs that make it spot an adorable plodding sway when walking. Its tail is so small that it is almost indistinguishable from the rest of its body. Though hamsters can stand on their hind legs, they do not do this often.

Gerbils are generally “longer” than hamsters. Their noses are long and pointed, much like those of rats. They also feature long hind legs that they love standing on and longer tails compared to hamsters. The tail of a gerbil can be up to four inches long and is quite soft.

One of the primary physical difference between a gerbil and hamsters lies in their heads. Hamsters have cheek pouches into which they can store some food to carry to an underground storage in the wild or corners of its cage in captivity.

The roomy pouches make hamsters have wider faces than gerbils. In fact, when the cheek pouches are full, the face can be double the size of a hamster’s head.

Size Differences

The size of your pet is essential since you should get one whose habitat will fit your environment. Moreover, if you have kids, the animal should ideally be small enough for your child to handle.

An average pet gerbil has an adult length of 5-6 inches, excluding its 3-4-inch long tail. The animal has an average adult weight of 2-4 ounces. On the other hand, a hamster’s length depends on its species.

For instance, adult dwarf hamsters are 2-4 inches and weigh about 1.5 ounces. Syrian hamsters are 5-7 inches long and weigh 4-8 ounces on average.

Color Differences

Both gerbils and hamsters are available in different color combinations.

Hamsters will have long or short hair with several colors, textures and patterns. The typical hamster colors include cinnamon, white, brown, black and gray. The texture of a hamster’s fur can be described as satin, sheen or wavy.

While some feature a dark stripe running down their backs, other hamsters have white fur bands around their bellies. Male hamsters have longer and fluffier fur compared to females.

Gerbils have soft, dense coats with 40-50 color combinations.  Their fur colors include gray, brown, reddish-brown and tan with the ‘’underpants’’ being white to gray.

A few gerbils have dark spots on their heads while others have white fur patches behind their ears. Their long tails are covered with fur usually in the same color as their bodies.

Behavior Differences

Personality is an essential consideration when adding a pet into your household.

Gerbils are intelligent, active and inquisitive pets that are very interested in people. Since they are neither strictly diurnal nor nocturnal, they will watch your household’s routine then adapt their behaviors to it.

Gerbils need daily interaction and will love being held. They also entertain themselves by gnawing, shredding and digging through their nesting materials.

Since gerbils love jumping and climbing, be careful so that they do not escape from their cages. They rarely attack people and are thus perfect for kids who might unintentionally startle them.

On the other hand, hamsters are primarily nocturnal. Most of them will play and explore their cages at night. As such, the best times to play with your hamster are evenings and mornings.

Be careful not to wake up the hamster prematurely or startle it since it can attack you or become cranky. When active, hamsters burrow their chambers and store food in them.

At times, they can recognize their owners’ voices and respond. Syrian hamsters are more interactive compared to dwarf hamsters and thus ideal for those who want to cuddle their pets for extended periods.

Diet Differences

Rodents are omnivorous, but they tend to be more of herbivores. Pellets should make the bulk of their diets. Most pet owners will opt for seed mixes in place of pellets. Unfortunately, the animals will often pick their favorite seeds and leave the rest. This leads to a nutritional deficiency.

There are specific pellet types for gerbils and hamsters. Furthermore, the recommended pellet quantity for these animals differs. Gerbils need about a teaspoon of pellets per day while hamsters will need 1,5 teaspoons per day.

The hamsters need higher pellet quantities because they are highly active and thus have higher metabolism rates than gerbils.

The recommended foods for hamsters are those with 18-24% protein, while a protein content of 14-15% is enough for a gerbil’s diet. Fresh veggies, water, hay and fruits are also essential elements in both hamster and gerbil diets.

Care Differences

Both hamsters and gerbils will need well-ventilated and clean cages. The cages should also have bedding for the animals to burrow, solid bases chew toys, water bottles and exercise wheels. An 8-inch wheel is adequate for both hamsters and gerbils.

A minimum aquarium capacity of five gallons with a mesh lid will suffice for one gerbil. An aquarium instead of a wire cage is the recommended housing option for gerbils because they might chew and ingest the plastic or wire used for cages.

The aquarium can be cleaned once every two weeks because gerbils have little urine and their poop comprises hard tiny pellets.

Hamsters need not less than three feet of uninterrupted floor space. You can spot clean the hamster’s cage daily and do a full clean after 3-4 weeks.

Breeding Differences

Female gerbils can be impregnated when they are 2-3 months old.  Unlike other animals that breed in specific seasons, gerbils can breed throughout.

The gestation period is about 25 days though it can be as long as 42 days for gerbils that are bred while lactating another litter. Females take care of their pups until they are about three weeks old after which you can wean them.

Hamsters reach sexual maturity at the age of 4-5 weeks though they should be bred when they turn 3-4 months old.

Their gestation period is 16-18 days, but this varies according to your pet’s species. The pups are weaned and separated from their mothers at about three weeks old.

Lifespan Difference

Both hamsters and gerbils are rodents. Unfortunately, rodents have short lifespans.

However, caring for these small creatures is rewarding, and the time spend with them will be a fulfilling one that you will cherish for years. Hamsters will live for 2-2.5 years while gerbils will live for three years on average.

Wrapping Up

From the above information, you now know the strengths and weaknesses of gerbils and hamsters. You can now make an informed choice on which of the two rodents best suits what you are looking for in a pet.

Therefore, you need not fall for the marketing gimmicks that most pet shop owners employ and end up with a pet that will only leave you miserable.

avatar Jane
Jane is an experienced animal care specialist with a focus on rodents and small mammals, with over 10 years of experience in the pet industry. Her articles provide practical guidance on choosing the right pet and managing common health issues. Jane is an advocate for animal welfare and supports organizations dedicated to protecting wildlife. read more...

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