What is the difference between a gerbil and a hamster?

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difference between hamster and gerbil

Since the passing of our lovely Syrian hamster almost a year ago, our kids have been nagging us to get another pet. And whilst Oscar is obviously irreplaceable, we’ve been toying with the idea of getting gerbils. After all, both of these rodent pets are small in size, low in maintenance and are relatively cheap to look after. But what are the differences between hamsters and gerbils?

Both hamsters and gerbils make great pets but there are differences which may determine which pet is right for you. Gerbils have long tails and snouts, are active during the day and love living with other gerbil pals. Most hamsters, however, are solitary pets that prefer to run around at night.

Here we will look at the pros and cons of both gerbils and hamsters, so that you can make an informed decision about which of these household pets is right for your home. From their physical characteristics to their personalities, life expectancy and care requirements, we will determine whether owning a gerbil is significantly different from owning a hamster. 

Read on to find out…

Main differences between gerbils and hamster?

We should start by saying that both gerbils and hamsters are popular household pets in America and the UK. This is because both are small in stature, cute and fluffy in appearance and can be fun to play with – providing they are regularly handled.

That said, gerbils and hamsters are an entirely different species that derive from different areas of the world.

The most common hamster is a Syrian, and by nature of its name originates from Syria in Southwestern Asia. There are a number of dwarf hamsters too including the Campbell dwarf, the Roborovski dwarf hamster, the Russian Winter White and the Chinese hamster which come from all over the world.

Whereas the most popular gerbil is the Mongolian gerbil, that likewise originates from Mongolia in Central Asia. There are thought to be 110 different species of gerbil with fat-tailed gerbils another sought after breed in the USA. These cute and curious creatures are native to Africa.

Physical differences

But it is not just their wild habitats that differ. When it comes to looks, this is where the main differences of a gerbil vs hamster lie.

A hamster tends to be smaller in stature (anywhere between 2-7 inches), fluffier in fur, and have inconspicuous short tails and cute button noses. Gerbils on the other hand are longer in length, have a more pronounced nose, coarser coat and tails that are are often the same size as their bodies!

And, whilst hamsters have a wide stance and a waddle for a walk, gerbils have huge long hind legs that allow them to jump around.

The tail of a gerbil tends to be the main distinguishing feature between these two little rodents. Whilst hamsters have a distinct lack of one, gerbils have tails like paintbrushes that, depending on the species, are either furry or bald. If you are interested to know why hamsters have tails at all and what they use them for, check out our informative blog.

It is also true that both gerbils and hamsters are hoarders. Hamsters use their cheek pouches to store and stuff food, whilst gerbils have to use their mouths to carry fruit, nuts and seeds around their cage.

Colour combinations

Our Syrian hamster Oscar had silky soft fur that was the colour of toffee on top with a white underbelly. For a small rodent he was incredibly cute – although I am bias.

Although wild Syrian hamsters were originally golden in color thanks to advanced breeding techniques, Syrian hamsters are now available to buy in a host of colors, patterns and with different coat types. The spectrum of hamster colors can range from white to cinnamon, brown to gray and even black. For a full list of Syrian hamster colors, take a look at our guide.

Hamster fur in general however, can differ depending on the species. Whilst most Teddy Bear hamsters tend to have shorter hair, a long haired Syrian hamster is renowned for their fluffy coat. And, whilst some hamsters’ fur may have a satin sheen, others may appear wavy and slightly coarser. Some are even decorated with a dark stripe down the middle of their backs, while others (like Oscar) have a white band of fur around their bellies.

Gerbils on the other hand have fur that is soft and dense. Just like a hamster, most pet gerbils coats come in a wide variety of colors including gray, tan and even reddish brown, but their fur is generally two toned. Some gerbil species have dark markings on their heads and others grow patches of white or buff fur behind their ears.

Behavioral differences

Of these two pets, Mongolian gerbils tend to be the most social creatures as they are diurnal. This means that they are most active during the day.

Unlike gerbils, hamsters are nocturnal so enjoy spending time exploring at night. That said, they are not strictly nocturnal so it is possible to interact with them in the early morning or late evenings when they starting to stir or settle for the day.

Owners should observe caution against startling either of these small rodents however, as waking them prematurely, can lead to them being grumpy.

Both of these popular pets are inquisitive and intelligent – therefore they need plenty of stimulation and interaction with you.

Living essentials

Pet hamsters are solitary animals so it is really important that they live on their own as they are extremely territorial.

A pet gerbil however, will enjoy the company of other gerbils as they are incredibly social animals. Just make sure that you keep gerbils of the same sex in the same cage to prevent an influx of babies.

Cage requirements

When it comes to cages, your local pet store should be able to advise you further, but it is really important that these small rodents have plenty of space. It is also important to note that gerbils need an entirely different enclosure to hamsters.

Gerbils are natural diggers, chewers, climbers and explorers. They have really strong back legs and long tails that help them to stabilize as they speed around. Quick, nimble and shrewd, you need to keep a close eye on your pet gerbil both in and out of their cage.

This means that you need a gerbil cage the can stop these little houdini’s from escaping. We would recommend a glass aquarium or a metal habitat with a smooth bottom and plenty of substrate for them to dig and burrow.

Gerbils in general need larger accommodation than your average hamster, purely because they should be housed in pairs or groups. The Humane Society of the United States recommends a 10-gallon aquarium for two gerbils and you should add an additional 5 gallons for every extra gerbil.

Hamsters need habitats that are appropriate to their size as well and we have reviewed a number of cages based on hamster species. These include:

Other hamsters should have cages with plenty of space to live and play and should include tunnels, exercise wheels and toys that will keep them mentally engaged as well as physically active.

If you are struggling to find a cage for either your hamster or your gerbil then you might want to consider building one yourself. Take a look at our blog on how we built our own hamster bin cage.

FAQs

Conclusion

So now you know what makes a hamster a hamster and a gerbil a gerbil you can make an informed decision as to which one is right for your family. Although it is clear to see that both hamsters and gerbils have a lot of similarities, they are in fact completely different species with a number of different needs.

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