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What Are the Differences Between a Hamster and a Gerbil?

Gerbils, unlike hamsters, have tails and often like to stand up on their hind legs.
Hamsters do not have tails and are less active than gerbils.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 02 July 2014
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Many decide that a hamster or gerbil is the best choice as a small pet in the home. There are a few noted differences between the two, which can help one make the decision about the best individual choice.

One of the primary differences between the hamster and the gerbil is socialization needs. Gerbils in the wild live in groups for the most part. A solitary pet in the cage may be quite unhappy. Thus if one is choosing a gerbil, it is best to purchase more than one to prevent loneliness. However, when buying more than one, it is wiser to get younger gerbils, as they will naturally bond.

If one wishes to avoid a gerbil family, choose two males. Females tend to be more aggressive with each other, but males tend to get along fairly well. This is particularly the case if they are littermates or are housed together at a young age.

The hamster, conversely, tends not to need a friend in captivity. So if one is looking for a single small pet, this may be the better choice. Females tend to be aggressive with each other, as well. So one should avoid housing two female hamsters together. Two males are ideal.

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Another big difference between the animals is sleeping patterns. Hamsters are nocturnal, and will spend most of the day sleeping. The captive gerbil is diurnal, and thus will not disturb one’s sleep by shuffling or digging around in a cage. They are also more up for play during the day, while the hamster may not be quite as happy to wake up and play.

The two animals eat basically the same diet. However, the gerbil is more likely to be gassy or have diarrhea if given an excess amount of green vegetables or fruit. Most enjoy a small amount of fruit and veggies, but it should remain a small amount.

The gerbil also has a slightly different personality than the hamster. It tends to be a little more active, and a little more hyper. Both animals need lots of exercise, but a wheel in a cage should never have wires or slots. Both animals can catch a foot in a wheel, and the gerbil can catch its tail. This can result in broken bones, so choose a wheel with a smooth surface for either animal.

The two also differ in appearance. The gerbil has a soft tail, and enjoys standing on its hind legs. The hamster has no tail. Many consider the gerbil to be more rat or mouselike in appearance because of its longer snout. It is more closely related to these rodents than the hamster. Those who enjoy rats and mice may find the gerbil more visually appealing. Those who are not fond of rats and mice may find the hamster has the most appeal.

The gerbil has a higher risk of overheating. If one does not have air conditioning, then the pet should have a temperature-controlled cage that protects the animal from overheating. Care guides for them do suggest a cage or aquarium type enclosure be temperature controlled between 68° to 77° F (20° to 25° C) because gerbils can get dehydrated in hotter temperatures.

Both can be gently raised to not bite. However, the hamster is a little more prone to biting. This can occur if the pet is suddenly startled or if it is suddenly woken from a deep sleep.

The hamster and gerbil have the same average life span, about three years. Different varieties may have a slightly longer life span. Some can live for up to seven years, though this is unusual.

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Discuss this Article

anon335276
Post 42

I owned both when I was a kid, and like others have mentioned, gerbils are heartier, more active, and less likely to bite. On the surface hamsters are cuter but when you get to know them, gerbils seem to have real personality.

One thing I don't see mentioned is that gerbils are not legal in California because of concerns about them getting wild and damaging crops or environments, but that's really a shame.

anon322844
Post 41

I really want a hamster, but my mom isn't convinced. We go on a lot of vacations. I also have fish and clean their tanks quite often. I am 12. My cousin had a hamster and the first time I met it it bit me a lot.(That might be because I grabbed it right away) and the next time I saw it it was cuddly. Unfortunately, her little brother let it out.

If I were to get one, what are the things I should know before making my final decision? My mom doesn't want a gerbil and guinea pigs take up too much room and I am really afraid of rats and mice. So should I get a hamster?

anon317515
Post 39

Hamsters have tails; they're just very short.

anon314214
Post 38

I started out with two female gerbils in the same cage, and within three months, one died. I kept the other one until today it died. I got them both from a pet store, and the first one I liked more because it actually slept at night, and would easily let you pick it up. The second one though was a little more hyper and nocturnal, chewed everything, and would even bite me! I was thinking about getting a hamster this weekend because it apparently doesn't chew things, and will stay still if I set it on my lap. What do you all think?

anon294926
Post 36

I never had a gerbil before but I kind of want one, but I have a hamster named Pineapple!

anon279908
Post 35

I had two hamsters and my first one was the sweetest thing! I miss him so much! My other one was Campbell's and I had a hard time taming her, and she bit me a lot so I gave her away.

But this article was very helpful! I am thinking about getting a pair of gerbils, although my mom will only let me get female because my male hamster peed all over the room! Anyway, it was extremely helpful, but I'm also looking for some info on hairless gerbils. I would love to get one black gerbil and one hairless, so if anybody knows of any let me know!

anon272830
Post 34

My doggie and hamster are best buds. My doggie watches Ninja (my hammy) all day. Ninja does not get scared. He also chases Illa (the dog) and then Illa will chase him. My hamster is a black bear and my dog is a jack russell. They get along great.

anon243700
Post 33

I want to get a hamster but my parents say no because they are smelly and wake up at night so I shouldn't get one. Do you agree with them?

anon228009
Post 32

Gerbils are definitely not strictly diurnal. In fact, my two are most active during the night! I find that many captive gerbils will imitate the situation around the cage, giving the appearance of being diurnal as most people are more active during the day. I am, however, more active at night and my gerbils are, too.

One of mine gets out of his nest once during the day (at about 3 or 4 p.m.) to eat and dig burrows and then gets out again at about 12 a.m. (midnight) and stays up until about four a.m. He's spinning his wheel, making burrows, playing, digging, the works. The other is most active between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m.

I've had gerbils and hamsters and gerbils are the better choice for me. They've been easier to tame than the hamsters were and haven't bitten me yet (not even the skittish one). My hamsters bit me a lot during the taming process and then a lot in their old age.

I will never have hamsters again but plan on having gerbils for many years to come. They're very curious, very active, sweet, and very cute. They're similar to rats only their tail isn't bald like a rat. I'd love pet rats but something about their tail gives me the willies, so, I decided to go with gerbils and it was a match made in pet heaven.

anon209150
Post 30

i have had i hamster before, and sadly, it died. i didn't pay much attention to it as it always bit me. my friend has a gerbil and they are lovely. but i am stuck between getting a hamster and a gerbil. i think i might go with a gerbil to see what they are like. thank you for your help in deciding which one. a lot of help!

anon165655
Post 29

My sister and I are either getting the syrian hamsters or the the gerbils, but I'm thinking the gerbils cause they seem a better fit for me and her because we have the same personality. Anyway, with past experiences we have hamsters fight and eat each other, which is gross.

Anyway, i want one that is all energetic but won't bite or wake me up in the middle of the night and for a boy i was thinking of naming it razzle-dazzle. is that cute? But i think me and my sister are getting separate cages. If i were to get a hamster instead of a gerbil, what type should we get? thanks.

anon158327
Post 28

i want to get a hamster but there so much work the guy at petland said gerbils are better because you change something for once a month and every week for a hamster. gerbils are less work and hamsters when they're about two years old will bite if awakened from deep sleep.

anon134488
Post 27

I have had gerbils and taken care of my friends' hamsters. i personally find gerbils more appealing because of their tail, however. Gerbils are very nice if taken care of properly but are a lot more mischievous than hamsters.

however i have taken out my gerbils, set them on my lap, and laid there for an hour without them running off. Also, i think they have a longer average life span. All the people i know with hamsters had them for two or three years. My gerbils died in May at the age of four and a half.

arielpaige1
Post 26

i had a hammy. at first i didn't like him because he would bite me and i could take him out and play with him, so i told my dad i didn't want him. then about a month later everything changed. he was my everything! i would give him sunflower seeds and he would eat them out of my hand. sadly, my dad gave him away because someone came over to my house while i was gone, and said my hamster was cute and gave my hamster to the person.

when i came home i ran in his room, and he was gone, and when my dad told me i cried for hours! i don't know if he is still alive; i hope he is. i wish he could have eternal life and eternal happiness, forever he will live in my heart! I miss and love him.

anon130673
Post 25

I've had a few hamsters in my life (I'm only 13 and I've had like, five). And i find that their personality truly depends on the way they were raised. Four of them i bought from a pet store and they weren't always so friendly, but on the other hand, I had one of them since he was just able to leave his mom (4-5 weeks old).

He was about three inches long!(black bear hamster). He had been held since i got him and he was my everything.

I know, he's just a hamster but he was not the kind of hamster you get bored with and start trudging through your days giving it food and water and cleaning it every now and then and just leaving it be. Nope! He was fantastic. He cuddled even if i woke him up because i was so anxious to hold the cute little fur ball. Unlike other hamsters, he didn't care. He was happy.

I took seasonal pictures of him (ex. bunny ear hat made from pipe cleaner on his head with him sitting in an easter basket) and he he didn't care. Unfortunately he passed away over the summer and I've been so sad about it! But i want to try again. Maybe he was a one-of-a-kind hamster but i think it's how he was raised, so I'm getting a baby hamster soon hopefully!

Sorry for my long boring story, but I recommend this 100 percent!

Anon42730: Don't put a gerbil and a hamster in the same cage! First because they're different species and second, because hamsters like to be independent while gerbils like groups. They're opposites. It's not going to work out. One might end up killing the other!

anon127007
Post 23

i was going to get a hamster but a gebril is better for me.

anon110595
Post 22

I've never had a gerbil but i do have two hamsters. one golden and one teddy bear hamster. i have four cages total and they each have their own two.

my hamsters are the sweetest little pets i could ever ask for! when i first got them they bit once and just a light little tap to their head (not even as hard as a flick!) was all i ever did and they never bit me again. my teddy bear I've had for two years and he knows my voice. when i call his name he'll look at me, he wakes up if he's sleeping when he hears me and sometimes he'll come to me!

i have only recently considered gerbils but i love my syrian hamsters even if they can only live by themselves!

anon106600
Post 21

I've had both hamsters and gerbils and think they are equally as nice. However I've found that hamsters seem to be more prone to infections and diseases in later life than gerbils (the ones I've had anyway). My lovely long haired hammy just passed away at age three so I've bought three female baby gerbils this time.

anon104611
Post 20

I work at a pet store and I am studying to be a vet. It is better to house two females together because males are more aggressive towards each other. That's the same rule with just about any animal.

anon90027
Post 19

Gerbils are a lot less prone to biting. I've never had a gerbil bite me; hamsters do it as standard.

anon82756
Post 17

Hamsters are totally better! They are not so hyper bouncing off the walls. Hamsters are a lot cleaner. gerbils make too much of a mess shredding up everything you put in the cage. My hamster is lovable and good with little kids playing with her.

anon82386
Post 16

I have had a pleasant experience with both a hamster and gerbils. I feel like hamsters fit my personality better because they are definitely less hyper and Skittish.

Both hammies and gerbs are escape artists! My hammie who I loved to death escaped and we never found her! She was great, never bit me. But I learned my lesson in always keeping rodents in aquariums!

Gerbils are more on the hyper side and are always all over the place. It's cute, but you can't just plop a gerbil in your lap and watch TV like I could with my hammie.

anon80993
Post 15

gerbils are just better.

anon78368
Post 14

I'm getting a gerbil on sunday (actually two).

anon71874
Post 13

Well over all I think that gerbils make much better pets then a hamster will. I have done a lot of homework and I have found that gerbils are the way to go. I will be getting two young female gerbils. I can't wait.

anon65816
Post 12

anon33269, in nature gerbils can dig a lot deeper than in ordinary cages to be able to keep warm. i think that's what the writer meant.

anon60740
Post 11

between guy and girl gerbils i had 13 total. separate cages obviously. now I'm down to four guys and five girls and i just had to separate one of the girls for fighting with the rest of the pack. I've already have lost one guy for the same reason, so I'm not sure how true it is that guys and girl gerbils are different when it comes to liking to have cage-mates.

maybe when they're younger but as my gerbils have gotten older they seem to start developing issues and quick. it's not over a small amount of time; it's an all of a sudden type thing for me at least.

anon54048
Post 10

I was going to get either as well, but which is better? I want one that is harmless and gets on well on its own or in groups.

anon46147
Post 9

Personally i feel that the difference between hamsters and gerbils is quite detremental to society and we must define the realationship in order to make progress in rodent lifestyle and civil rights. we must take the responsibility that has been bestowed upon us for the betterment of not only rodents, but all of mankind. God save the rodents!

anon42730
Post 8

i was thinking of buying a pet, but heard gerbils don't like to be alone. and so i was thinking of getting one gerbil and one hamster. but if they both sleep differently that might be a bad idea.

anon40242
Post 7

i was going to get a gerbil from a pet store cause there are no gerbil breeders in my state and i went to petco and they didn't have any gerbils they said that they don't have them anymore cause no one usually buys them so tomorrow i will try pet smart and if they don't have any there i guess i'll be stuck with a hamster :( well its better than no gerbil or hamster.

anon33269
Post 6

Points of contestation:

Male gerbils, unless cagemates from birth, will fight and often kill each other, as do coeds. It is not male, but female gerbils that make good cagemates.

Gerbils are not strictly diurnal; in fact, it varies from gerbil to gerbil, and yes, from personal experience, they will be up at night scratching a digging (mine were fairly crepuscular).

I do not understand your bit about gerbils overheating. If this were true, why are they naturally desert animals? Seems to me someone upstairs forgot to install air conditioning in their natural habitats. As long as the cage allows them to burrow or has hideouts that allow them to escape the heat as they see fit, where is the danger?

anon30604
Post 5

I was going to get a hamster but after reading all of that now I have decided that I would prefer a gerbil because of their personality. I prefer a lively hyper animal and I figure that a gerbil would be the right thing to chose, thanks for the advise you have been great help(cant wait to get my gerbils).

midnighthope
Post 4

Actually gerbils have a huge sweat gland on their belly.

anon8017
Post 2

i was going to get either a hamster or a gerbil and do you know which one would be better for me? i want one that doesn't really bite and you can hold it and it wont get aggravated?

anon5257
Post 1

i was going to get either a hamster or a gerbil and do you know which one would be better for me? i want one that doesn't bite really and you can hold it and it wont get aggravated?

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