To most people, there isn’t much of a difference between a pet gerbil and a pet hamster. Both eat a similar diet, live in similar captive habitats, and require a similar amount of care. Despite their superficial similarities, these two rodents are actually quite different in many critical ways. There is no clear benefit to getting a hamster instead of a gerbil, or vice versa. The best choice ultimately depends on your own needs, finances, and time restrictions.
Here are some factors to consider when determining whether gerbil or a hamster would be a better pet for you.
1. Consider socialization needs. Gerbils are very social creatures, living in family groups in the wild. In captivity, it’s essential to keep more than one gerbil in order to prevent behavioral problems, sluggishness, and general un-ease. Dwarf hamsters are also social and benefit from having companions. On the other hand, Syrian hamsters (the most common captive variety) are extremely solitary and will fight to the death if kept in pairs or groups. Get a gerbil or dwarf hamster only if you are willing to keep more than one pet, and get a Syrian hamster only if you are content with keeping just one.
2. Hamsters are nocturnal, but gerbils are not. This point of consideration is especially important if you have young children, who may want to tend and play with their small pets. Hamsters are naturally nocturnal, so they tend to be sluggish and boring during daylight hours, when kids are most likely to be able to play with them. Gerbils, however, are very active during the day, and can provide hours of entertainment well before bed time. If the rodent is a pet for a child, a gerbil may be a better option.
3. Gerbils tend to bite less than hamsters. Gerbils and hamsters are both generally docile and non-aggressive with humans when raised as pets. Unfortunately, hamsters may retain their biting instincts slightly more than gerbils. Watch out for biting if you handle a hamster when it is sleepy or not feeling well. If you can’t tolerate the idea of an animal-bite, or if you have young kids, a gerbil may be a better option.
4. Hamsters and gerbils have different behavioral traits. As a general rule, gerbils are feisty and active compared to hamsters. They tend to run, climb, and play more than hamsters, but this also makes it slightly more likely that they will escape their cages. Both animals need significant amounts of exercise and benefit from large habitats with exercise wheels.
5. Appearance may play a role. While an animal’s appearance shouldn’t be the single deciding factor in choosing a hamster over a gerbil, or vice versa, some people feel a strong preference toward one or the other. The gerbil’s cute, kangaroo-like posture is appealing to many, but others find them too similar in appearance to “vermin” rodents such as rats and mice. The hamster’s teddybear-like appearance might make it a favorite among other prospective pet owners.
The decision to purchase a hamster instead of a gerbil– or a gerbil instead of a hamster– depends strongly upon your individual preferences and lifestyle choices. Neither is, strictly speaking, a “better” pet than the other. Speak with your local breeder or pet store expert for help choosing a pet rodent for your family.
The ASPCA offers care sheets for both gerbils and hamsters; both resources can help you balance the pros and cons associated with each species.