Furball Fever: Gerbil vs. Hamster in the Battle for Your Heart

Deciding on a hamster vs. a gerbil? Both can be great companions, but here's what you need to know to pick the right one for you.

Published October 12, 2023
Hamster and Building Blocks

Hamsters and gerbils are both fun pets, but also pretty different. If you’re looking to choose between the two, it’s important to learn about each one to make the best choice for your home. Hamsters and gerbils have different levels of resilience, housing needs and, of course, appearances. (Though they’re both stinkin’ cute!) 

Which is Which? Hamster vs. Gerbil Appearance

At first glance, gerbils and hamsters look somewhat similar, but there are some key differences that'll help you tell them apart. Hamsters have rounder and chubbier bodies. Gerbils have a more streamlined look, with slender bodies and more pronounced faces. Probably the thing that stands out most about hamsters is the seemingly endless cheek pouches that hamsters stuff food into. Gerbils don’t have these, but do have a long, tufted tail that stands out against the hamster’s stubby little tail.

Hamster vs. Gerbil infographic
Need to Know

If you have small children, gerbils are slightly less fragile, but rough-housing still poses a serious risk of injury to both.

Both Offer an Array of Color Combos

When you think of hamsters, you might picture the classic golden hue of the Syrian hamster, but they also come in shades like cream, sable, black, and more. Some even have unique patterns, like bands or patches. Dwarf hamsters might show off colors ranging from grey-brown to sandy, usually with white bellies.

Gerbils also come in a variety of colors and can have patches of white. The most common, the agouti gerbil, has a rich brown coat with individual hairs tipped in black and a white belly. Gerbils can also sport colors like black, gold, and even blue.

When Do You Want to Interact? Hamster vs. Gerbil Sleep Cycles

Gerbils move around on a diurnal schedule. This means they’re awake during the daytime hours. This is convenient if you’re looking for a small pet to interact with during daytime hours — like families who have children. 

On the flip side, hamsters are creatures of the night. They come alive mainly in the evenings, which is great if you’re a first shifter and you’re willing to add some social time to the evening. It could, however, pose a challenge for those who hit the sack early. The squeaking running wheel has kept many a hamster owner at night, so hamster-lovers probably want to put their hamster houses outside of the bedroom. If you’re willing to make this slight change, hamsters could be a good choice.

Is Two Better Than One? Gerbil vs. Hamster Socialization

If you choose a gerbil, you’ll need to get two to keep them content. Gerbils are incredibly social and can become depressed if they’re left alone for too long. Alternately, hamsters are solitary and often get into fights when they’re housed together.  

Need to Know

Hamsters may fight to the death if left together in the same habitat.

Bonding With Humans

Hamsters and gerbils have different ways of bonding with humans. Hamsters, being nocturnal, can sometimes be a bit nippy, especially if woken during the day. Some hamsters cherish their time alone and may not want any human interaction. Gerbils are diurnal, making them awake and content during the day. This can make daytime interaction and play easier.

Gerbils are naturally curious and are often less bite-prone than hamsters. They enjoy exploring their environment and can be quite social with humans, especially if someone has gently handled them from a young age. Both can make fun pets, but you need to decide if you’re looking for a small animal that enjoys and seeks being held or one that’s more for observation. v 

Where Should They Live? Hamster and Gerbil Housing Requirements

Gerbils enjoy digging which means they should be placed in a habitat with deep bedding. Usually the best choice is an aquarium to keep the bedding inside rather than out, but it's important to keep them clean to prevent respiratory issues. Bedding and unclean environments can cause health challenges for gerbils, so it's important to research how to set up and clean your gerbil's cage regularly.

As far as hamsters go, you have probably seen those neat cages with all the tunnels that travel place to place. Those cages are designed for hamsters to roam around in and stretch their legs. Hamsters can benefit from clean and careful setups as well, so learn more about supplies available for hamster housing before you dive into adding a hamster to your house. 

Dwarf hamster having fun
Need to Know

Both the hamster and gerbil should be provided plenty of opportunities for exercise to remain happy and healthy. 

How Long Do They Live? Hamster vs. Gerbil Lifespan

When you’re choosing between two pets, their life expectancy will play a factor. Hamsters have varying lifespans, depending on their specific breed. Syrian hamsters, the most common type, usually live 2 to 3 years. Dwarf hamsters have a similar lifespan, averaging 2 years, though some can live longer. Gerbils live between 3 to 4 years, and sometimes even up to 5 with appropriate care.  

But Which To Choose? A Personal Decision

Deciding between a hamster and a gerbil can be difficult, especially with both bringing so much to the table. While hamsters have their cute fluffy bodies and cheeky pouches, gerbils come with daytime activeness and a spark of curiosity. It really boils down to what you're looking for in a pet. If you want a pet to watch explore through the colored tunnels of fun, a hamster is a good choice. But if you're more interested in holding and bonding with your pet, a gerbil could be the ideal option. 

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Furball Fever: Gerbil vs. Hamster in the Battle for Your Heart