Gerbil vs Hamster – why is the choice so difficult!
Choosing between a gerbil or hamster is hard, because both are small rodents with similar care needs.
It will depend on the type of hamster you choose. Syrian hamsters are a little bigger than gerbils and can live alone.
But dwarf hamsters are much more similar to the gerbil, and both rodents do best with company.
Gerbil Vs Hamster
Many people aren’t sure what makes a gerbil a gerbil and a hamster a hamster. And most kids only know they are cute and small and fast and so, SO interesting!
Learning more about a gerbil vs hamster is a great idea before making a commitment to care for one of these little mammals.
To help you decide between a gerbil or hamster, in this article we are going to look at:
- The difference between a gerbil and a hamster
- The history of gerbils and hamsters
- Size and appearance of gerbils and hamsters
- Gerbil vs hamster temperament
- Taming and socializing a gerbil or hamster
- Gerbil vs hamster housing
- Caring for a gerbil
- Caring for a hamster
- Feeding a gerbil or hamster
- Gerbil and hamster health
- Can gerbils and hamsters live together?
- Can gerbils eat hamster food?
- Can hamsters eat gerbil food?
- Gerbil vs hamster for children
- Pros and cons of a gerbil vs hamster
What is the Difference Between a Gerbil and a Hamster?
One of the first questions to tackle is: is a gerbil a hamster? These two terms can be used so interchangeably it really is a fair question!
Even though they do have lots of similarities, a gerbil or hamster are not one and the same – they are two different rodent species.
The species of gerbil most commonly kept as a pet is the Mongolian gerbil (Meriones unguiculatus). These gerbils tend to be hardy and resilient.
There are a few more varieties of hamster that are commonly kept as pets. Pet hamsters can be Syrian or dwarf. There are several dwarf hamster species including the Campbell’s dwarf, the Roborovski, the Djungian, the Russian Winter White and the Chinese hamster.
The History of Gerbils and Hamsters
An animal’s history might not impact whether you choose to buy one. But, it can be really interesting to learn, especially if kids will be helping you care for your new pet.
So, let’s find out more about where the hamster and gerbil come from.
There are around 110 species of gerbil in the world that we know of. But, we will focus on the Mongolian gerbil, as this is the one most commonly kept as a pet.
Unsurprisingly, these gerbils come from Mongolia in East Asia! They are found in the grassy plains and steppes.
Mongolian gerbils were first found and sent to the French Museum of Natural History by a Catholic missionary called Father Armand David.
The scientist Henri Milne-Edwards gave these little rodents their official scientific name.
Although they were initially bred for scientific purposes, they were soon common pets in China. It wasn’t long till they made their way to America and Western Europe as pets.
You can read more about gerbil history here.
Teddy bear hamsters don’t come from the same place as gerbils. These small rodents are found in the desert, originally in Syria.
They were first found and studied by a biologist called Israel Aharoni.
However, Russian Dwarf hamsters were first collected in Mongolia by a man called Charles Campbell.
Hamsters were imported to America in 1936. It was after this that these little rodents really became popular as household pets.
You can read more about where hamsters come from in this guide.
Gerbil vs Hamster Appearance
Mongolian gerbils have big ears to hear any hungry predator who tries to creep up on them. And sizable back feet to stand up, look around, or run away with! They also have large eyes and a long furry tail.
A newer pet gerbil is called the fat-tailed gerbil. These gerbils have – you guessed it – wider tails without any hair on them. In the wild, the gerbil would store extra fat reserves in the tail.
Hamsters don’t have tails, although they do have little tail nubs. Hamsters also have very distinctive cheeks – they can stuff them so full their heads look like they are literally twice as large as they really are!
Hamsters are stockier in their body and legs than gerbils are. They don’t tend to stand up on their back legs and are more fond of just running around.
Whether you choose a gerbil or hamster as a pet, you can look forward to having a very cute pet to look at!
Even better, gerbils and hamsters can also exhibit as much visual variety in their coat color, coat type and eye color as cats and dogs can!
If you’ve ever looked at a cute gerbil in a pet store and thought, “Oh how lovely, a brown gerbil!,” you might be surprised to learn how complex gerbil coloration genetics can be!
Generally speaking, gerbils may be two-toned (one color on top and another color on the belly) or they may have a pattern (spots, agouti). Gerbil coat colors can include brown, grey, orange, yellow, cream, nutmeg, red, silver, slate, white or even orange!
Gerbil eye colors can be ruby red, pink or dark brown or black.
Hamsters can come in a dazzling array of coat colors, from pure winter white to black, grey, orange, chocolate brown, champagne, cream, sable, rust, cinnamon, golden, and many more pretty permutations.
Coat patterns can range from solid to two-toned (one color on top and one color on the belly), agouti, spotted, banded, dappled, roan and tortoiseshell.
Hamsters also have one other interesting variation: their coats can be short and smooth, long and smooth or long and curly!
Hamster eye colors can range from dark brown or black to ruby to pink.
When you compare gerbil vs hamster size, the hamster generally comes out the size winner. This is at least the case when comparing Syrian hamsters against Mongolian gerbils!
However, when comparing the dwarf hamster vs gerbil, you will notice the gerbil looks like a heavyweight next to its tiny dwarf hamster counterpart!
Developing an awareness of these tiny pets’ size can be especially important if you are helping a young child choose their first pet. Syrian hamsters and gerbils can be easier to handle, mostly because they are big enough to hold securely.
Smaller dwarf hamsters are so tiny and wriggly and fast, they can easily escape if removed from their habitat! Once gone, these miniature escape artists can be very, very hard to recapture.
So How Big Are They?
At maturity, a gerbil might weigh anywhere from 50 to 60 grams (1.76 to 2.11 ounces).
A Syrian hamster, the largest hamster breed, can weigh anywhere from 87 to 130 grams (3.06 to 4.58 ounces) at maturity.
Gerbil vs Hamster Temperament
Gerbils are often quite shy, but they also make affectionate pets. They bond quickly with owners that dedicate lots of time to them.
Hamster temperament, on the other hand, varies a little depending on the type of hamster you’re bringing home.
Syrian hamsters are usually seen as the friendliest type. They have very sweet personalities, and rarely bite, especially when owners form a strong bond with them.
Dwarf hamsters can be a little more highly strung. They are more likely to bite than Syrian hamsters, especially if scared.
Taming and Socializing a Gerbil or Hamster
Both gerbils and every type of hamster have the potential to bite, especially if they feel scared or unsafe.
But, by handling them gently every day, from the time you bring them home, you can reduce this risk. This will build a strong bond between you and your little pet.
Depending on whether you choose a gerbil vs hamster, you may need to plan for one or at least two new pets!
Let’s take a look at the social needs of the gerbil or hamster in captivity.
Gerbil Social Needs
Gerbils are quite social in the wild and in captivity as well. Unless you are adopting a senior gerbil that is used to living alone, it is much preferable to keep pet gerbils in pairs.
It is also advisable to keep same-gender gerbils together. Two females is always a good pairing and two male littermates can be a great choice as well.
If you do keep a male and a female together, you will need to be prepared for lots of tiny babies starting almost immediately!
Luckily, as long as the gerbils in question are at least 8 weeks old, it is pretty easy to tell a female and a male apart. Just look under the gerbil’s tail. Under a male gerbil’s tail, you will see a pair of testicles that will be noticeably absent under a female gerbil’s tail.
Hamster Social Needs
There can be significant socialization differences between a hamster and a gerbil depending on the species of hamster you are keeping.
For example, the most popular pet hamster species, the Syrian hamster (sometimes also called the golden hamster or the teddy bear hamster), is notorious for getting into fights when housed with other hamsters. You should always house a Syrian hamster by itself.
On the other hand, dwarf hamsters can usually be housed in pairs or even groups if they are littermates. This is best done when your dwarf hamsters are young, as an older dwarf hamster who is used to being alone might not be so keen on having a stranger dumped into his habitat one day!
TIP: For more detailed information on the socialization needs of different hamster species, we recommend you browse over to this informative article!
Gerbil vs Hamster Housing
Both the gerbil and the hamster have specific housing requirements. When these are met, you will have a much better chance of having a healthy gerbil or hamster pet!
Gerbils are natural diggers, chewers and adventurers. They have really strong hind legs and stabilizing long tails for jumping, and they are very active and curious!
What this means for you, the gerbil owner, is that you really, really need a gerbil-proof habitat. A glass aquarium or metal habitat with a smooth bottom are really the only safe choices.
Gerbils have an evolutionary need to dig and chew, and if these aren’t met, your gerbils can quickly become quite unhappy. So gerbils need plenty of bedding to dig and nest in.
Size-wise, your gerbil cage should reflect the number of occupants. The Humane Society of the United States recommends a 10-gallon aquarium for two gerbils. Add 5 additional gallons for every additional gerbil.
The size of your hamster’s cage should correlate to the species of hamster you are caring for as well as the number of occupants.
Hamsters, like gerbils, love to chew and dig and climb. They don’t jump, however. So like gerbils, your hamster will need a solid, escape-proof habitat, and this is especially important when keeping the tiny dwarf hamsters!
Plastic, glass or metal cages with smooth bottoms are the best choices.
10 gallons is an appropriate size for a single dwarf hamster, although the larger you can go, the better. 15 gallons is the minimum size for a single Syrian hamster, although again, larger is always better.
Caring for a Gerbil
Gerbils are typically considered a hale and hardy family pet. They are resilient even in the face of inexpert handling by young pet carers, especially when housed with other gerbils for company.
You will need to regularly clean out your gerbil’s habitat.
Despite their size, these tiny rodents need plenty of exercise. They would do well with a safe enclosed exercise area outside of their cage too. Although, supervise them when you bring them out of their cage.
Make sure to handle them daily too. This will help to encourage a bond between you and your gerbil, and also help to meet their social needs.
Caring for a Hamster
Hamster care is very similar to gerbil care. They should be cleaned and handled regularly so they stay happy and healthy.
Speak to your vet if you’re worried their teeth or nails are getting too long.
Also, you should be wary of any other pets in the household, especially when bringing your hamster or gerbil out of their cage.
For instance, dogs and cats can see small rodents as pets, or even as a tasty snack. So, never leave your hamster or gerbil out without supervision.
And always be gentle when handling them.
Gerbils are nocturnal, sleeping the day away and waking up to become more active as the sun sets. This is likely an evolutionary tactic to keep out of sight of predators, who see a wild gerbil not as an entrancing playmate so much as a tasty appetizer!
Hamsters are the same! Like gerbils, they are nocturnal, which means they are more active after the sun sets. You won’t be able to play and interact with them throughout the day.
It’s also important to remember this when choosing where to place their cage.
There’s a chance they’ll wake you up whilst they’re rummaging around at night if they’re too close to your bed!
Feeding a Gerbil or Hamster
The most common way of feeding gerbils and hamsters is to use a commercial, shop-bought food.
But, this can be topped up with fun fresh treats. Make sure you always check if a food is safe before offering it to your pet.
Commercial foods will have charts on the front that tell you which animals they are appropriate for.
Gerbil and Hamster Health
Both gerbils and hamsters are generally considered to make for hardy, healthy pets.
However, like all animal species, gerbils and hamsters do have certain known health issues that can crop up from time to time.
Gerbils can suffer from dental disease. This is typically caused when the gerbil’s teeth grow too long to chew healthily. Providing lots of chewable treats is a good way to prevent dental issues.
These little pets are also prone to skin issues, including mites, fur mats and tail de-gloving (loss of skin and/or fur on the tail).
Gerbils can develop inner ear masses (obstructive ear disease or aural cholestratoma). This is sometimes called “head tilt disease,” because as the mass grows, it causes the head to tilt to one side.
Finally, some gerbils can inherit epilepsy (“fits”). Vets estimate epilepsy may affect up to 40 percent of gerbils.
While this isn’t often fatal, it can be upsetting to witness! The best way to avoid bringing home a pet with inherited epilepsy is to choose your breeder carefully.
Perhaps the most common issue that affects hamsters is dental disease. This is because, like the gerbil, the hamster’s teeth grow continuously from birth to death.
Providing lots of chewable toys can help keep the teeth safely filed.
Wet tail disease, a.k.a. hamster diarrhea or proliferative ileitis, is a serious health issue. It is caused by bacteria and can be fatal very quickly when left untreated.
Hamsters can also be prone to developing tumors, both benign and cancerous. Tumors are more apt to form on glands than anywhere else and always require prompt veterinary care.
Gerbils in captivity can live from two to five years.
Hamsters in captivity can live between two and four years, depending on species.
Can Gerbils and Hamsters Live Together?
Gerbils and hamsters should never be housed together.
Yes, gerbils are social animals. But, they should only ever be housed with other gerbils.
Hamsters are very territorial rodents. They are likely to attack gerbils if placed in the same cage.
Syrian hamsters should never be housed with another pet, they must live alone.
Some dwarf hamsters will be fine living with littermates. But, even they can be territorial and fight one another. If this happens, they will need to be housed separately.
Can Gerbils Eat Hamster Food?
If you are buying commercial food, you should check what pet it is designed for.
Both hamsters and gerbils need fibrous foods that can grind down their teeth. But, they also need a particular balance of nutrients.
Some commercial foods may state that it is safe for both gerbils and hamsters. But you should not offer your gerbil hamster food if it does not specifically say it is safe for gerbils too.
Can Hamsters Eat Gerbil Food?
The answer to this question is the same as before.
If you buy gerbil food that also says it is safe for hamsters on the packaging, it should be okay for your hamster to eat.
Gerbil vs Hamster for Children
Both gerbils and hamsters are popular choices for older children. But, it’s important to make sure that your child knows exactly how to care for and handle these pets.
Dwarf hamsters are very small and quick. They love to escape and can bite more often, so they aren’t great for kids.
Gerbils and Syrian hamsters are still small and delicate pets. So, supervise kids when they’re playing with and handling these pets.
Pros and Cons of a Gerbil vs Hamster
Let’s recap the pros and cons of each type of pet before you make a decision.
- Social animals
- General care is easy
- Come in lots of colors
- You will need to buy multiple gerbils
- Will bite if not socialized well
- Won’t be able to play with them through the day
- Friendly and sweet-tempered
- Housed alone so fewer pets to care for
- Syrians are bigger, so easier to handle
- Won’t be able to play with them through the day
- Dwarfs will need to be housed separately if they fight
- Will bite if not socialized well
Gerbil vs Hamster Summary
Now that you know what’s the difference between a gerbil and a hamster, the only question left to answer is, “Should I get a hamster or a gerbil?” Answering this question, of course, is personal and highly individual!
So what do you think? Gerbil vs hamster – the choice is up to you!
Please drop us a comment and let us know which pet you chose and why! We’d love to hear your story!
- Costigan, E. ‘Rodents: Hamsters, Rats & Mice, Gerbils, Chinchilla, Degu’, Greystones Vet (2018)
- Musser, G. ‘Gerbil: Rodent’, Encyclopedia Britannica (2018)
- Quesenberry, K.E. ‘Breeding and Reproduction of Gerbils’, Merck Vet Manual (2018)
- Morrow, J. (et al) ‘Gerbil Color Stripes’, American Gerbil Society (2018)
- Locker, M. ‘This X-Ray Shows How Hamsters Can Fit So Much Food in Their Tiny Cheeks’, Time (2015)
- Bradford, A. ‘Hamster Facts: Diet, Habits & Types of Hamsters’, Live Science (2014)
- Bryan, A. ‘Genetics and Inheritance’, Midland Hamster Club UK (2018)
- Devine, L. ‘Gerbils: Epilepsy’, Arizona Exotics Veterinary Clinic (2011)
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