Two of the most popular small pets available in pet shops are hamsters and gerbils.
Traditionally hamsters have been viewed as the best pet – especially for children – but is that really the case?
The purpose of this article is simple; to present a balanced view of the “gerbils vs hamsters” argument, in order to help you make an informed decision about which pet might be most suitable for you.
The personality of a pet is important. By personality we’re not just talking about their character, but also their habits and how friendly they are when handled. After all, most people purchasing a small pet like a gerbil or hamster expect to be able to handle it on a regular basis; but which is best?
Let’s start with hamsters. Firstly hamsters are quite slow – even lethargic. This can make them easy to handle – even for small children. They’re also a handy size when fully grown, meaning that they can be grasped safely and securely in the palm of your hand. However there is a major downside to hamsters – of all the small pets (including rats and mice) it is hamsters that seem the most prone to biting.
Very rarely is this biting intended maliciously. Instead hamsters either tend to bite when they have been startled (such as when a small child scares them by moving too quickly) or simply to “explore”. If something looks like it might be edible then many hamsters will naturally nip at it just to see. Unfortunately that juicy carrot might just turn out to be a human finger.
Gerbils, however, are quite the reverse. They rarely, if ever, bite no matter what the situation. As a result they can safer for scared children to handle. Equally, unlike the cute plodding waddle of a Syrian hamster gerbils are fast and acrobatic. They can jump, climb and run around quickly. This means that while they are far less prone to biting you need to keep your wits about you when handling them.
The decision as to which pet is best will depend on your unique situation; would you rather have to pay more attention when handling or would you rather risk a bite?
Ease of Care
Hamsters are pretty anti-social animals. Two individuals over a certain age will fight – sometimes to the death. Even breeding hamsters can be a worrying affair, with the pair split up again as soon as possible after mating. This means that hamsters should only be kept alone.
Gerbils, however, are far more gregarious. They do best in same-sex pairs or trios where they can interact with one another. A small group will often be found curled up together, a writhing mass of legs, tails and whiskers, and quite one of the most adorable things you will see.
If there’s one major downside to keeping gerbils it’s that they will gnaw on anything. Put in a new water bottle and they’ll be through it in a matter of days (or sooner). Give them a plastic toy and it’ll be turned to dust in next to no time. In contrast, while hamsters will try to give everything a quick nip, that plastic water bowl will likely survive for months or even years.
Arguably as a result hamsters are rather easier to keep due to their less destructive nature.
Hamsters, being kept singly, are obviously happy in smaller cages than a group of gerbils would be. Caging for hamsters can therefore be cheaper. Hamsters can also be successfully kept in quite a range of different enclosures. A quick walk around your local pet shop, for example, will unearth all manner of cages suitable for hamsters.
Gerbils, however, are not only commensurate nibblers but also burrow extensively. While your hamster will simply spend a little while building a nest before curling up and going to sleep, gerbils will spend much of their day digging. As a result it is really only glass tanks that make suitable housing for gerbils; in cages they’ll either drive you mad gnawing on the bars all day, will eat their way out of the plastic base or will kick so many wood flakes out you’ll have to vacuum the house daily.
That said, all is not lost. The fact that gerbils are so much more active than hamsters means that they can be far more interesting to watch. While a hamster will just sleep all day barely visible, gerbils will be up and about much of the time digging, playing and exploring. A cage of gerbils can therefore be fantastic entertainment for all the family to enjoy.
A further consideration as to whether gerbils or hamsters make better pets are their lifestyles.
Possibly the most important point here is what time each animal is likely to be active. Hamsters, you see, are primarily nocturnal. They will sleep throughout the day and remain awake all night. This has caused some pet owners problems in the past as keeping a hamster in a child’s bedroom probably isn’t appropriate; you’ll probably be kept awake all night by its exploration.
Gerbils, in contrast, are awake far more during the day and tend to sleep at night. As a result you stand a much better chance of getting a proper night’s sleep with gerbils in your home. Furthermore the odds are much better that your gerbils will be up and awake when you get home from work or school.
The other thing to consider is that gerbils are naturally curious and inquisitive animals. You’ll often find them about exploring their cage – or even watching you going about your daily life. They seem to love coming out and get very tame indeed.
Hamsters, on the other hand, are generally rather lazier. They will spend most of the time sleeping unless you interrupt them. And a recently awoken hamster can be pretty grumpy.
The worst thing about small rodents as pets is that they typically don’t live very long. At that point you’ll either need to have a difficult discussion with the family about what has happened to “Hammy” or try to replace it with a similar one.
For some people this may be a blessing in disguise; if the kids have lost interest in their pet then you won’t be stuck cleaning it and feeding it for years to come. For others, the longer the family pet lives the better.
Broadly speaking gerbils live slightly longer than hamsters. A Syrian hamster is doing well if it gets to two years old; however it is reasonably common for gerbils to survive to the ripe-old age of 2 ½ or 3 years old.
Gerbils Vs Hamsters: The Conclusion
As you can see, both hamsters and gerbils have their specific strengths and weaknesses. It would be wrong to say that either pet is necessarily “better” than the other. Overall gerbils seem to offer rather more than hamsters, and so make for a rather more enjoyable pet.
But now you know the basics the only real way to decide is to consider the points made above to see which is likely to fit best into your lifestyle, and then visit your local pet shop to try handling each. Only then will you know for certain whether it’s a hamster or a few gerbils that are right for you.