Gerbils and Hamsters both make ideal pets, especially as a first pet for a child. As members of the Rodentia order, they both look similar in size and appearance. But did you know while there are many different species of each, only a handful are kept as domestic pets.
If that’s so, then what are wild gerbils and hamsters like? are wild varieties different from domestic, and how to these two animals stack up against each other in a side by side, Gerbil vs Hamster comparison? Let’s take a look.
Gerbil Vs Hamster – Taxonomies
- Order: Rodentia
- Family: Muridae
- Subfamily: Gerbillinae
- Genus: Ammodillus, Brachiones, Desmodilliscus, Desmodillus, Dipodillus, Gerbilliscus, Gerbillurus, Gerbillus, Meriones, Microdillus, Pachyuromys, Psammomys, Rhombomys, Sekeetamys, Tatera, Taterillus
- Species: There are around 90 species of gerbil across the 16 genera, but of these, only two are generally kept as pets. These are the Mongolian Gerbil and the Fat Tailed Gerbil.
- Order: Rodentia
- Family: Cricetidae
- Subfamily: Cricetinae
- Genus: Mesocricetus, Phodopus, Cricetus, Cricetulus, Allocricetulus, Cansumys, Tscherskia
- Species: There are 19 species of Hamster in total, across the 7 genera.
Of the many species of hamster, the Syrian hamster is the one most commonly kept as a pet.
Gerbil Vs Hamster – Appearance
The physical differences between gerbils and hamsters are few but noticeable. Gerbils have longer tails than hamsters, and their fur is also generally soft and dense. Hamsters, on the other hand, tend to have shorter, stubby tails and can have long or short fur. Some breeds of gerbil have distinctive stripes, bands or patches that tell them apart.
Both animals come in a variety of colors from light whites and creams, to darker browns and greys. Hamsters may also come in black. Most hamsters in pet stores are Syrian Hamsters or dwarf hamsters. Originally, Syrian Hamsters came in just one color, the mixture of brown, black and gold which gave them their ‘Golden’ name, however, they have since developed a myriad of color mutations such as cream, white, banded, tortoiseshell, calico and sable.
Hamsters are also stockier in build than gerbils, with a rounder face too. They store food in their cheeks which can make them look wide and puffy. Gerbils on the other hand, have a pointier nose, much more like mice and rats than a hamster, and they also have longer hind legs.
Gerbil Vs Hamster – Size
The size difference between gerbils and hamsters is often negligible. Gerbils kept as pets typically have smaller bodies than hamsters but are longer overall. With a body length of 4-5 inches, and a 3-4 inch tail. Compared to the 5-7 inch length of a hamster, though hamsters generally have shorter tails.
This size difference varies across different breeds, particularly in the wild. An adult Mongolian gerbil can reach about 10 inches in total across body and tail. Whereas the Chinese hamster grows to between 2.9 and 3.5 inches in length and as adults can weight 50 – 75 grams. Russian Hamsters and the Dwarf Hamsters also only grow to about 8 cm (3.1 inches).
One of the largest wild species of gerbil, is the great gerbil (Rhombomys opimus), which lives in the deserts of Central Asia. This species is around 15 to 20 cm (5.9 to 7.9 in) long not including the tail, which is similar to one of the largest hamsters, the Syrian hamster.
As they have less access and availability to food and water compared to domestic hamsters, wild ones are usually smaller than those that live in captivity.
Gerbils And Hamsters – Wild Locations & Habitats
Gerbils and hamsters are found in different parts of the world, and in different habitats. Gerbils are usually found in arid, dry areas. They will make a home in deserts to mountains, or sparse grassland and scrub.
The Mongolian gerbil for example, lives in Steppe area and the Gobi Desert, in and around Central Asia. They live in small social groups in burrows that they dig into the ground. This environment is harsh and sparse of vegetation, so gerbils need to be quite resourceful. Other wild gerbils such as the fat-tailed, the Indian gerbil and the great gerbil can be found living around dry areas in the Middle East, like Syria or Jordan, and in North Africa around Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Algeria.
Hamsters share some of the same territory as gerbils such as in Syria and China, but can also be found in the wild throughout Europe, particularly Belgium and Greece. They tend to spend most of their time underground in their burrows, in some cases exiting for only up to an hour in a day.
Neither hamsters or gerbils live wild in the Americas, and were introduced as a domesticated species only in captivity.
Gerbil Vs Hamster – Behaviour
Gerbils are much more active than hamsters. Gerbils will often run on their wheel for hours at a time, while hamsters tend to be more sedentary. This difference in activity level is likely due to the fact that gerbils are more social animals than hamsters; they like to be around other gerbils and need to burn off extra energy. Hamsters, on the other hand, are solitary creatures and don’t require as much activity.
Because of their nocturnal habits, Hamsters are less likely to be handled during the daytime and if they are, they are more prone to give you a nip as they may be grumpy. They have similar habits in the wild that they do in captivity, particularly around sleep. They awaken at night to eat and store food, and are mostly docile through the day.
What Do Gerbils And Hamsters Eat?
Gerbils and hamsters have different dietary needs. Hamsters are omnivores and can eat a variety of foods, including grasses and weeds, grains, fruits, and vegetables. In the wild, they will eat insects, bugs, lizards, and even frogs when the opportunity arises.
Gerbils, on the other hand, are herbivores and mainly eat seeds, fruits, herbs and vegetables. This difference in diet is due to the fact that hamsters have a larger stomach than gerbils; they need more food to survive. Hamsters also like to hoard food, which can lead to weight problems.
Lifespan Of A Gerbil Vs Hamster
Gerbils typically have a lifespan of 2-3 years, while hamsters typically have a lifespan of 2 years. Hamsters are also more prone to diseases and tend to die earlier than gerbils. If they live alone, gerbils don’t live as long as they do when they have a friend or two. They are social animals and thrive with company. Just make sure you keep males and females separate or they may end up with too much company!
Gerbil Vs Hamster – Predators & Threats
Gerbils and hamsters have different predators. Gerbils are preyed upon by a variety of snakes, hawks, and wildcats. Hamsters, on the other hand, are preyed upon by a variety of predators including cats, dogs, kites, buzzards, red foxes, ferrets and badgers.
While predators are a threat mostly in the wild, both gerbils and hamsters that are kept in captivity also need to look out for domestic cats and dogs if they share a home.
Diseases and competitive combat are two other threats to domestic gerbils and hamsters. Less so with gerbils, but hamsters should be kept alone with the exception of mating. Even then, one mating is concluded they should be separated again.
Gerbils can also be vulnerable to the cold, so make sure you keep their enclosure located in an area where temperature can be maintained.
Which Makes A Better Pet?
Some people prefer gerbils because they are more active and have a longer lifespan. Others prefer hamsters because they are easier to care for and can be more independent. In the end, it really depends on the individual preferences of the person.
Some people may find that gerbils are too active, while others may find that hamsters are not active enough. Some people may find that gerbils are more playful, while others may find that hamsters are more interactive.
One deciding factor for some, is that gerbils and their enclosures don’t smell as bad as hamsters generally, as they urinate less frequently. They can also learn commands. On the other hand, hamsters are little Houdini’s – clever little escape artists. They can both be fun to observe in their own way, and their care needs are about the same. However, gerbils need to be kept in pairs or more which adds cost, while hamsters need to be alone.
Ultimately, the decision of which is better depends on the needs and wants of the person.
Tips for Keeping a Gerbil Or A Hamster
If you are thinking about getting a gerbil or a hamster, here are some tips for keeping him happy and healthy:
- Provide a lot of toys for your gerbil or hamster to play with. They need to be active and needs something to chew on to keep his teeth healthy.
- Make sure your gerbil or hamster has a place to run and play. A large cage with a wheel is ideal.
- Feed your gerbil or hamster a diet of mainly seeds, fruits, and vegetables. Hamsters can eat grains and other food, but gerbils should not eat these things. Despite being omnivores, hamsters can survive on a herbivorous diet so don’t worry about feeding them insects.
- Keep your pet’s cage clean by changing the bedding regularly and scrubbing the cage with water once a week.
- Check your pet over regularly for abnormalities to make sure they are healthy.
- Hamsters and gerbils are rodents and therefore must gnaw regularly to keep the incisors from growing into the skin of the mouth and causing health problems.