Gerbils and hamsters have a number of physical and behavioral similarities: They are small fuzzy rodents; they are mostly nocturnal; and they are good at entertaining themselves and their owners. However, gerbils and hamsters have several differences, too, the most obvious being that gerbils have tails and hamsters don't; and hamsters have large cheek pouches while gerbils don't.
Hamsters tend to be slightly larger and stockier than gerbils. A hamster's average adult length is 7 to 8 inches long and weight is 3 to 4.5 ounces. They are available in many different coat colors, including golden, cream, cinnamon, black and tortoiseshell pattern. They also have different coat types, including short hair, long hair and satin.
A gerbil's average adult length is 6 to 12 inches long including the tail. Their average adult weight is 2.8 to 3.5 ounces. Like hamsters, gerbils are available in different coat colors including brown with a white belly, black, cream and Siamese pattern.
While both gerbils and hamsters are mostly nocturnal, a gerbil's daytime sleep pattern involves a series of naps -- so it is likely that you will see some activity from a gerbil during the day. Other than that, the best time to interact with a gerbil or a hamster is at dawn or dusk.
One of the biggest differences between gerbils and hamsters is their desire for socialization or lack thereof. Hamsters would much rather live alone than with others, both in the wild and in captivity. Hamsters often fight to the death in captivity when they share a space. When they are handled with care, they do learn to accept and appreciate some attention.
Gerbils, on the other hand, are extremely social. They live in families of up to 20 in the wild, and do much better in captivity when housed with at least one additional gerbil. Without a companion, a gerbil tends to get depressed. However, if you are planning to get gerbils as pets, make sure you get two males or two females unless you want to end up with numerous baby gerbils.
Housing and Dietary Requirements
Gerbils and hamsters have the same basic requirements for their living environment and diet. They both need well-ventilated cages with an easy-to-clean plastic bottom, shredded paper bedding, a hiding place, an exercise wheel, toys and a fresh water supply. Their diets should include food pellets, fruits, vegetables and grains. They should have access to chew blocks or toys to keep their teeth from growing too long.
Gerbils and hamsters are not recommended as pets for young children.
For more information about the care and feeding of gerbils, check the American Gerbil Society's Gerbil Care Handbook.
The average life span of a hamster is 2 to 4 years. The average life span of a gerbil is about 5 years. If you are looking for a more sociable pet that has a longer life span, a gerbil is your best bet.
For more information about the care and feeding of hamsters, check the American Fancy Rat and Mouse Association information pages.