What Is the Difference Between Hamsters and Gerbils?

Choosing between hamsters and gerbils as pets requires careful consideration, as both species possess distinct characteristics. Despite their similarities as small rodents, it's crucial to understand their differences, primarily in terms of temperament.


One of the most crucial distinctions between hamsters and gerbils lies in their behavior. While both can thrive as pets, gerbils are generally known for being more docile, easygoing, and less prone to biting. Hamsters, on the other hand, may become tame with consistent handling but tend to be less tolerant of extended holding and may bite when frightened, unwell, or mishandled. This makes hamsters less suitable for children, whereas gerbils make excellent pets for beginners.

Physical Differences

Both hamsters and gerbils are petite mammals that can comfortably fit in the palm of your hand. Males of both species typically weigh around 130 grams (approximately 4.5 ounces), with body lengths ranging from 2 to 4 inches.

One noticeable difference is their tails: hamsters have short, stubby tails, while gerbils boast longer tails, reaching up to 4 inches. Additionally, facial features distinguish them, with gerbils sporting long, pointy faces similar to mice, whereas hamsters have short, broad faces. Hamsters are also known for their cheek pouches, which they use to store and hoard food, giving them a plumper appearance.

Their body types also differ, with gerbils being leaner and more athletic, capable of agile movements, jumping, and running. Hamsters, while active, have rounder bodies and shorter legs, making them slightly less agile.

As rodents, both species have continually growing teeth, and without proper chew toys, food, and housing materials, they can develop dental issues like overgrowth and abscesses.

Energy Levels

Both gerbils and hamsters are full of energy, but their activity patterns differ. Hamsters are nocturnal, most active at night, which can lead to noisy play when family members are trying to sleep. Gerbils, in contrast, are diurnal, active during the day, and can engage with their human companions while sleeping both day and night. Both species thrive on consistent daily routines.

Gerbils are highly social and prefer living in pairs or small groups, while hamsters are territorial and are typically better off living alone, as they can be aggressive and even harm other hamsters.


Both hamsters and gerbils are naturally clean animals and do not require traditional shampoo and water baths. However, they both benefit from regular sand baths, using chinchilla sand (not dust), to maintain healthy, less oily coats and prevent potential parasite infestations.

Housing & Diet

Providing escape-proof cages with secure lids is essential for both hamsters and gerbils. Maintaining temperatures around 65–75 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity around 50% is crucial. Both species appreciate hide boxes for safety and enjoy having their toys and enrichment rotated regularly.

Specific breeds may have slightly different temperature and humidity requirements, so it's wise to consult your veterinarian for guidance on your pet's care.

Hamsters may enter a state of hibernation (torpor) if temperatures drop too low. If you suspect this is happening, consult your veterinarian. Any signs of lethargy, increased sleep, or changes in eating habits should prompt a call to the vet for both hamsters and gerbils.

Both species should be fed a pelleted diet specific to their species, avoiding seed-based diets, which tend to be higher in calories. Fresh water should be provided daily, and occasional fresh vegetables can be offered. Hamsters, in particular, are known for stuffing large amounts of food into their cheek pouches, so check their cages for any hoarded or spoiled food.

While both species produce minimal odor and waste, gerbils tend to produce slightly less odor than hamsters. It's advisable to spot-clean cages daily and perform a deep cleaning every two to four weeks.


Gerbils and hamsters share a similar lifespan, with both species typically living up to five years. However, hamsters tend to have shorter lifespans, usually ranging from one to two years, while gerbils live for three to five years. Both species have gestation periods of less than a month and give live birth to their offspring, with hamsters having slightly larger litters of up to nine pups. Young ones from both species are typically weaned around three weeks of age.


Handling both hamsters and gerbils requires care to prevent injuries. Hamsters, in particular, are more likely to bite during handling, so using gloves or towels may be advisable. A two-handed scooping technique is best for both species. To restrain them briefly, such as for a veterinary visit, hamsters can be scruffed (picked up by the excess skin at their neck), while gerbils are typically held by gently securing their heads between two fingers.

Due to their poor eyesight, it's a good practice to make a gentle noise before touching hamsters to avoid startling them.

Both species benefit from at least 30 minutes of daily human interaction and should receive regular veterinary care, at least once a year.

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