Surprisingly few people understand the main differences between gerbils and hamsters. They look like similar pets because they’re both rodents and are small animals.
Gerbils are bigger, slightly more expensive, and dislike living alone. But gerbils are also friendlier and enjoy handling, so they don’t bite as much as hamsters. Gerbils smell far less than hamsters, and are far more intelligent pets. The care needs of both pets are about the same.
The best thing about gerbils is that they’re much friendlier to humans than hamsters. This means that you’ll have lots of fun times playing with your pet.
Hamsters vs. Gerbils as Pets
Gerbils and hamsters are entirely different species. Both are rodents with tiny ears and big, black eyes. But if you bought one for your child when they asked for the other, they may not notice.
The most common hamster species is the golden, or Syrian hamster (Mesocricetus auratus). The most common gerbil species by far is the Mongolian gerbil or jird, Meriones unguiculatus.
Hamsters and gerbils are from different parts of the world. Almost all pet gerbils are Mongolian gerbils, which are from central Asia, as their name suggests.
But those outside of America can choose between the Mongolian and fat-tailed gerbil (which are from Africa). Most pet hamsters are from the near east, i.e. Syria and nearby countries.
Gerbils and hamsters are active at different times of day, too. Gerbils are diurnal, which means that they’re active during the day. Hamsters are often active during the day, but are better termed crepuscular. This means that they’re most active at dawn or dusk.
Hamsters aren’t quite as curious as gerbils, but both species are energetic. If they aren’t moving around their enclosure, gerbils and hamsters will be running in their wheels instead. This can be quite loud, especially if they do so during the night.
|Size:||5-6 inches, with a 4-inch tail; 60-130g.||4-5 inches with a tiny 1-inch tail; 30g or so.|
|Friendliness:||Gerbils are social and friendly. They enjoy affection and spending time with people.||Hamsters are usually friendly, but some are grumpy.|
|Bite Frequency:||Because they’re friendly, gerbils rarely bite.||Hamsters bite when scared, or when grumpy.|
|Cost:||You need to buy more than one gerbil, more substrate, and more food. Still cheap, but more expensive than hamsters.||Need an enclosure, toys and climbing frames, food, and substrate. Cheap for a pet.|
|Smell:||Gerbils rarely go to the toilet, so smell far less.||Hamsters go to the toilet constantly, and their smell is instantly recognizable.|
|Intelligence:||Gerbils can learn simple commands, as proven by scientific study.||Hamsters aren’t known for being clever.|
|Life Expectancy:||Average of 3 years, but up to 5.||Average of 2-3 years, maximum of 4 to 4 1/2.|
|Amount of Care:||The substrate needs to be changed regularly, and food needs to be added daily.||The substrate needs to be changed regularly, and food needs to be added daily.|
Differences between Gerbils and Hamsters
Once you know the difference, it’s easy to tell gerbils and hamsters apart. The main physical differences are as follows:
- Gerbils have longer snouts than hamsters. A gerbil’s snout looks almost like that of a rat, while a hamster’s snout is flattened.
- Gerbils have longer hind legs than hamsters. They look almost like a shrunken rabbit with their big hind legs and feet. They often stand on their hind feet.
- Hamsters have shorter legs but wider feet than gerbils.
- Gerbils are bigger than hamsters, and have longer tails. Some hamsters hardly have a tail at all.
- Hamsters are smaller but look stout and fluffy for their size compared to gerbils.
It’s impossible to tell the difference between hamsters and gerbils from color, however. Both have lots of different colors. That’s because they have each been selectively bred into interesting colors, as this makes them more popular with children and adult owners.
The most obvious difference is the tail, so this is the quickest way to tell gerbils and hamsters apart. Some hamsters don’t have a tail at all, and at most it’s around an inch long. Most gerbils’ tails are as long as the gerbil’s body.
Can Gerbils and Hamsters Play Together?
Gerbils are a social species. They like to interact with other gerbils, and get lonely if they live on their own. They also like spending time with people, which makes them a great pet.
Some breeds of hamster are social in the same way. However, many aren’t, and prefer being alone. These hamsters, of course, can’t be left with other hamsters let alone gerbils.
But even social hamsters and gerbils can’t get along. If you were to leave a gerbil with a hamster, the pair would fight. That applies to males and females.
This is because each species sees other species as a threat to them. In the wild, every animal competes for food. Whether that’s predator vs. prey, or two prey species fighting over territory with lots of food in it, this means that different species fight each other.
This applies in captivity as well as in the wild. A captive gerbil and hamster pair would fight rather than play.
Are Gerbils or Hamsters Bigger?
Juvenile hamsters and gerbils don’t differ much in size. Both start out much smaller than their respective adult sizes.
Hamsters are one of the smallest pets you can get. Dwarf hamsters are only two inches long, while regular hamsters are four to five inches long. They are light, too. Dwarf hamsters only weigh around 20g, and the biggest hamsters only weigh 45g.
Gerbils are bigger than hamsters, but not by much. It’s primarily their tail which makes them longer. Adult Mongolian gerbils grow to around five or six inches long. Their tails add another four or five inches to their overall size, making them about ten inches long.
Great gerbils, which are bigger, grow up to seven or eight inches (and then their tail makes them even longer). Gerbils are heavier bodied than hamsters, too. The average weight of a Mongolian gerbil ranges between 60g and 130g: so, up to three times the weight.
Each part of their bodies can vary in size, too. Gerbils have longer hind legs and feet. They also have longer tails. Both pets have big, round, black eyes that people think are cute. Gerbils are bigger in size, but not proportionally.
Are Gerbils or Hamsters Friendlier?
Both gerbils and hamsters can be social animals. According to the Journal of Mammalogy, in the wild and captivity, gerbils must live with other gerbils. If they don’t, they will get lonely and it will shorten their life expectancy.
Gerbils seem to enjoy handling. Gerbils aren’t as skittish and panicky as hamsters. This makes handling a much more pleasant experience both for you and your pet. They seem to enjoy physical affection more than hamsters, too.
The only issue with gerbils is that they can have seizures when shocked or in new environments. These seizures are similar to epileptic fits in people. They don’t seem to do the gerbil much long-term damage, although this is stressful both for pet and owner.
They can be avoided somewhat by ensuring your gerbil gets enough magnesium in its diet. But this can mean that gerbils are less friendly and more skittish with new people, or in new areas.
While almost all gerbils are social when treated well, some hamsters are plain grumpy. They don’t necessarily understand that you want to be their friend.
Instead, your hamster wonders why a big animal like a person is pestering it. This means that handling is less of an enjoyable experience. A hamster can be skittish even once it gets to know you. There will be a chance that a hamster will bite you, even if you don’t mistreat it.
Do Gerbils Bite more than Hamsters?
The frequency with which gerbils and hamsters bite is related to how friendly they are. It is also related to how tame they are, and how much they have been handled.
This is a well-known problem with hamsters. When a hamster is young and getting used to people, it will bite frequently. It will bite almost every time you try to handle it. Only with time will your hamster get used to you handling it. But even then, it will likely still be skittish.
Hamster bites do hurt, especially if you are sensitive to pain, like when you’re young. Their teeth are small but sharp, and can puncture the skin like a cat’s bite (for example).
Gerbils bite much less frequently than hamsters. This is one area that they’re better, especially for children. Gerbils won’t even bite when they’re first getting used to people, provided that you treat them with care.
Gerbil bites do hurt as much as a hamster’s bite does. When either animal bites:
- Don’t shout or flinch. This makes your pet even more scared and more likely to bite.
- Don’t hit your pet back. This won’t teach it to stop biting.
- Wash the bite mark with antiseptic. This will prevent it from becoming infected.
Do Gerbils or Hamsters Cost More?
Hamsters and gerbils cost roughly the same amount. While they are different species, their care is quite similar. There are several costs you have to consider:
- The cost of the pet itself
- The cost of the pet’s enclosure
- The cost of any toys, climbing frames, or tunnels that go inside the enclosure
- The cost of the pet’s food
- The cost of the substrate which lines the enclosure
The initial cost of buying a hamster or gerbil is roughly equal. A gerbil’s enclosure may cost a little more because you need one that isn’t made of plastic. All the equipment and enclosure ‘furniture’ you need to buy is the same price.
However, gerbils may cost more overall because you can’t only buy one. You need to buy at least two when you first get gerbils. That’s because gerbils are highly social and will be lonely otherwise. But considering gerbils cost $10 or $20, that isn’t a significant cost.
The price of gerbil and hamster food is roughly the same. You can buy a big bag of either kind of food for $10. This will be enough for your pet for a month or more. The cost of both gerbil and hamster food is much cheaper than other pets.
The only big difference is the cost of the substrate. Gerbils need more substrate because they like to dig. A substrate is what lines the bottom of your pet’s cage. It simulates your pet’s natural environment, and soaks up wee or poo they leave behind.
Do Hamsters or Gerbils Smell More?
Both hamsters and gerbils are thought to be smelly pets. Rodents generally are, especially rats and mice, which have a distinctive odor. There are several reasons why rodents smell:
- Their general rodent smell, which is instantly recognizable
- Urine and feces that they leave behind in their cage
- The substrate, which absorbs waste, water, sweat, and gets smelly over time
- Standing water sources which can spill from their bottles
- Food which both species can stash away in a hoard for later
Gerbils are much less smelly than hamsters because they don’t go to the toilet as much. Mongolian gerbils, the most common kind, have evolved to conserve water instead of drinking all the time.
That’s because they’re from a dry part of the world. They live in deserts and steppes (like a desert, but grassy and rocky instead of sandy). Without constant access to water, they need to conserve fluids. This behavior carries over to captivity, even if they do have a water source.
All that being said, neither pet will be that smelly if you take good care of them. Cleaning their tank regularly will stop any rodent from smelling too bad. Replace their substrate regularly, and when you do, wipe the tank down with antibacterial spray. This will prevent the worst of any smells.
Are Gerbils or Hamsters More Intelligent?
Social animals tend to be intelligent. That’s because they need to communicate, either with noises or body language, with other animals they live with. This is why groups of animals, like monkeys or wolves, tend to be more intelligent than solitary animals.
You can see this in action with gerbils and hamsters. Hamsters are solitary animals, and are widely thought of as quite stupid. Gerbils are more intelligent, and can learn things like:
- Learning avoidance responses. According to Iowa State University, they learn to avoid negative stimuli ten times quicker than rats.
- Which other gerbils in its enclosure it likes, and which it doesn’t
- Where to go to the toilet in a specific place (although this takes training)
- Jumping into your hand when you put it into their cage
- Responding to their name when you call them
According to Nature, gerbils can even learn to understand basic sounds. In their experiment, two researchers taught gerbils to recognize vowel sounds like ‘oo’ and ‘ee.’ This is similar to how dogs learn to understand certain words (although gerbils are not as good at this as dogs are).
They taught the gerbils that the sound ‘oo’ means food is underneath a cup on the left-hand side, while ‘ee’ means food is underneath a cup on the right. The researchers found that almost all gerbils could learn this distinction. Some gerbils can pick the correct cup nine times out of ten.
Of course, there’s not much use in teaching your gerbil things like this. But it means that they’re smarter than hamsters.
Gerbil vs. Hamster Life Expectancy
According to Hearing Research, gerbils start showing signs of old age (like going a little deaf) between two and three years. On average, this is how long the average gerbil will live.
But with good care, they are likely to survive for between three and five years. The maximum age you’re likely to see is between five and six years old.
Hamsters don’t tend to live as long. They survive for between two or three years, but can’t grow older than four. The oldest known hamster got to four and a half years old.
Crucially, take good care of your pet. Feed them a good diet and keep them in an appropriate enclosure and they will survive to the upper end of this average. The problem of low life expectancy is compounded by neglect, including:
- Not changing your hamster or gerbil’s substrate frequently
- Not providing enough water or food for your pet
- Not offering any enrichment in your pet’s enclosure, i.e. a running wheel, toy or something to chew on
- Keeping a gerbil on its own (they are social creatures, and need the company of other gerbils, although hamsters don’t)
- Wanting to get rid of your pet before the end of its natural lifespan
Gerbil and Hamster Care Needs
Gerbils and hamsters are similar in the care they need. Both species are kept in a small enclosure lined with the substrate. Both species need a grain or seed mix to eat, and access to water. Both can be handled., although gerbils react better to handling.
While not that different from one another, both gerbils and hamsters need less care than other pets. This makes them both attractive for new owners who aren’t used to pets.
Gerbils need an entirely different enclosure to hamsters.
Both animals like burrows. However, while hamsters are happy with premade tunnels, gerbils aren’t. Gerbils like to dig their own tunnels and burrows. They need deep substrate in their enclosure, which hamsters don’t. This makes them slightly more expensive and difficult to care for.
This also means that your gerbils will need a bigger enclosure than a hamster would. Check that you have the space available before buying one. These enclosures aren’t difficult to find, and aren’t any more expensive than your average hamster cage.
Hamsters can live in plastic enclosures with no negative effects. However, gerbils can’t. That’s because they can easily gnaw through plastic and get out. Ideally, your gerbilarium (as it’s known) should be made of glass or thick wire. Some come with two sections, one of each material.
Gerbils and hamsters are both omnivores. Special food made for gerbils and hamsters is roughly the same. It usually contains lots of grains and seeds. Both can also eat fruit and vegetables as a snack.
Neither eats meat regularly, although both can eat insects. The only circumstance in which they eat meat is when they’re starving, in which case they resort to cannibalism. Both gerbils and hamsters are known to do this. They also may eat their young if there are too many for the mother to feed.
Both gerbils and hamsters require constant access to a water source. Some people think that gerbils don’t, but they do. They are from a dry part of the world so are excellent at conserving water. But that doesn’t mean they don’t need any water.
Gerbils make a good pet. But in truth, the experience of owning one isn’t significantly different from owning a hamster. The two pets are more different than people realize, but not enough to mean they make different kinds of pets.