Every pet store from California to Maine is likely to have guinea pigs, hamsters, and gerbils available for you to adopt. They’re some of the most common pets in America and are great for all types of pet owners. However, while these three animals are all rodents, they aren’t interchangeable.
Hamsters are great for first-time pet owners. They don’t live as long and aren’t very social. Gerbils are small in size. They should be adopted in pairs because they’re social animals. Guinea pigs are a bit larger. They’re also social and live longer, making them a longer-term commitment.
If you’re debating over which one of these furry friends you should get, or you just want to learn about their differences, this is the right article for you. I’ll explain their similarities, and differences, and in which cases you should adopt each of these pets.
How Guinea Pigs, Hamsters, and Gerbils Are Similar
You wouldn’t be wrong in thinking there are some similarities between hamsters, guinea pigs, and gerbils.
They’re all small rodents who, out in the wild, are considered small prey animals. They’re all herbivores, which means they exclusively eat plants and other types of vegetation.
All three of these animals also look similar, not just because they’re all small in size.
Since these are small pets, all three have to be kept in cages so they don’t get lost, injured, or scared in your home.
While you can let them roam around your house freely for exercise and for a little exploration, they should be kept in a closed habitat the majority of the time for their own safety.
They all have large front teeth that are useful for chewing. All three of these pets also have to continuously chew or gnaw on hard substances to keep these front teeth filed down. Otherwise, they might become overgrown.
Perhaps the biggest similarity between these three types of rodents is the level of care they require. None of these three animals are considered particularly labor-intensive pets, and none require large amounts of commitment.
Although you still have to be careful about their diest and their environment, hamsters, gerbils, and guinea pigs aren’t as high maintenance as other popular pets in the U.S.A., like dogs or cats.
For example, all three of these pets are relatively self-sufficient when it comes to grooming. They don’t’ require baths or brushing unless they’re sick and unable to groom themselves.
They’re also all very clean animals by nature. While you’ll still have to clean their cages and change their bedding, there won’t be as much of a mess as you might have with other pets.
These three pets are also highly recommended as “first pets” or as pets for children. This is in part because they’re easy to maintain. They are good pets for people with busy schedules or for people just starting to learn how to take care of an animal.
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Differences Between Guinea Pigs, Hamsters, and Gerbils
While guinea pigs, gerbils, and hamsters have some similarities, they’re also very different pets. So, if you’ve had experience taking care of one, it doesn’t necessarily mean you know everything you have to know about taking care of the other two.
Let’s look at a few of the key areas where these pets differ.
If you compare guinea pigs, gerbils, and hamsters, the biggest difference you’ll notice is their size. While they’re all small animals, their sizes vary quite drastically when compared to each other.
Hamsters are small, with an average length of around 4-7 inches (10-18 cm). There are different kinds of hamsters with slightly different sizes, but you likely won’t find one that strays too far from that range. Hamsters weigh around 12.5-25 ounces (350-600 grams).
Gerbils are close in size to hamsters, but they still have some slight differences.
For one, gerbils tend to be shorter in length, with an average length that falls between 2-7 inches (5-18 cm), normally.
Their weight is perhaps their biggest difference. Gerbils, in fact, are the smallest of these three rodents, with their average weight hovering at only around 2 ounces (50 grams).
On the other hand, guinea pigs are the largest of the three. On average, they’re about twice as large as hamsters, both in length and in weight.
If you plan on getting a guinea pig, you can expect it to be between 8-14 inches (20-35.5 cm) long. Guinea pigs weigh 25-50 ounces (700 grams-1.4 kg).
Read How Long Can You Leave a Hamster Alone?
The amount of socialization these pets need makes for a big difference between them. The gerbil and the guinea pig have similar socialization needs, much different from the more solitary lives of hamsters.
Hamsters don’t need to socialize with other animals because they’re naturally solitary animals.
They don’t live in colonies in the wild, so they’re used to being on their own.
It’s important that you socialize with your hamster as its owner. This way it will learn to recognize you and not be afraid of you, allowing both of you to bond. However, your hamster won’t get lonely if it doesn’t have other pets to interact with.
In fact, your hamster might actually prefer it that way.
Gerbils and guinea pigs, on the other hand, are both social animals.
It’s recommended that gerbils be adopted in pairs—they won’t thrive or live happy lives when they’re alone. However, that doesn’t mean they’ll get along with any other gerbils they encounter.
Gerbils born in the same litter will be the most likely to get along, particularly a male and a female. This will reduce the chances of aggressive behavior.
Gerbils will also require a lot more attention from their human owners. While they likely won’t be as attention-seeking as dogs or cats, they’ll want to play or interact with you.
Guinea pigs are also social animals and should be adopted with another guinea pig from the same litter if possible.
However, because guinea pigs are larger, it’s understandable you might not have room for multiple pets. If this is the case, you may adopt just one guinea pig, but you’ll have to make sure you give it plenty of chances to explore outside of its cage and interact with you.
Read Why Is My Hamster Squeaking?
Daily and Nightly Routines
These three pets also show a big difference in daily and nightly routines.
Once again, hamsters are the most different, with gerbils and guinea pigs showing some similar qualities.
Hamsters are nocturnal animals. They tend to sleep when the sun is out and will start to become more active around dusk.
Being active at night is advantageous in the wild because hamsters live alone. At night, they have fewer dangers to be worried about and are more likely to go unnoticed by predators.
You likely won’t spend much quality time with your hamster during the day, which means you’ll have less time to bond. However, at night is when they’ll clean, exercise, groom, eat, and drink.
Gerbils, instead, are active during the daytime hours and will go into a deep sleep when it’s dark.
Though they are diurnal, gerbils take naps during the day, so they aren’t constantly on the move. When they’re not exploring, socializing, grooming, eating, or drinking, they might be sleeping lightly.
While you’ll be able to play with your gerbils during the daytime, don’t wake them if they’re asleep—this could startle them. Just wait a little while, and they should wake up soon.
It’s also important to note that, while gerbils are awake during the day and sleep at night, their body isn’t naturally attuned to this cycle. They base their schedule on the amount of light in their environment.
That means it’s important to make sure your gerbil gets light during the day and has darkness at night, or you’ll risk throwing off their sleeping schedule.
Guinea pigs keep a similar schedule to gerbils. They also sleep at night and are active when the sun is out.
However, unlike gerbils, guinea pigs don’t take as many naps during the day. When the sun is up, these rodents like to keep themselves busy. They enjoy moving around, socializing, and playing.
That means you’ll be able to interact most with guinea pigs compared to gerbils and hamsters.
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All three of these small pets are herbivores. However, their typical diet does vary between them.
Gerbils and hamsters have similar diets and can eat each other’s pre-packaged foods.
Both of these rodents prefer to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, but they can also eat nuts and seeds.
There are a few differences in the diets of guinea pigs. Their bodies aren’t able to produce vitamin C, which they need to survive, so you’ll have to include it in their diet either through supplements or whole foods.
Guinea pigs tend to search for their food underground as well as on the surface, which makes them eat more root vegetables.
It’s important to remember that, while gerbils and hamsters can eat each other’s food, the same doesn’t happen with guinea pigs. They have different dietary requirements.
The habitat you need to set up for these three rodents will also vary depending on the pet you get.
While all three will require a well-ventilated cage with bedding and access to fresh water and food, these three pets need different things from their environments.
Though they’re not the smallest of the three pets, hamsters can have the smallest habitat. That’s because they’re solitary creatures, so you only need a cage big enough for one pet.
It’s might want to make sure your hamster’s cage is far enough away from where you sleep. If you’re a light sleeper, their nighttime activity may wake you up. Since they’re nocturnal creatures, they’ll make the most noise when the moon is out.
On the other hand, since Gerbils need to be adopted in small groups of at least 2, you will need a cage big enough for multiple pets.
That said, your gerbils don’t necessarily need a particularly enriching environment. Even during the day, they’ll spend much of their time sleeping.
What’s important to remember regarding gerbil cages is to make sure they’re in a place where they’ll get light during the day and darkness at night. If you don’t think you can guarantee natural darkness for your gerbil, consider finding a breathable sheet you can place over your gerbils’ cage to simulate nighttime darkness and help them sleep.
Guinea pigs need the largest cages. For one, they’re the largest of these three rodents, so they’ll naturally need more space.
But there’s also the fact that they’re active creatures that like to move around. They enjoy moving through toys and tubes, and they need a large cage to accommodate that.
Read Why Is My Hamster Trying To Escape?
While none of these three rodents boasts a particularly long lifespan compared to other types of pets, the amount of time you can expect to have your pet does vary between these three.
Most hamsters will live between 2-4 years if they’re healthy, with some variation depending on the type of hamster you have.
Gerbils, on the other hand, will generally live a little longer, with their average lifespan ranging between 3 and 4 years.
However, by far, guinea pigs live the longest of these three rodent pets. They can live up to 8 years if they’re well taken care of.
None of these pets will be a good long-term companion. However, their life expectancy can play a factor if you’re trying to decide between them.
Why You Should Get a Guinea Pig
Guinea pigs are great for people who want to be able to interact with their pets but don’t have the room or schedule for a larger or more high-maintenance one.
Guinea pigs are more of a commitment and take more responsibility. You have to ensure their cages are enriching and large enough to be active in, and that they’re getting enough vitamin C in their diet.
If you want a pet that will live a little longer than other rodents, guinea pigs are the right choice.
Why You Should Get a Hamster
Hamsters are a perfect first pet. They’re mostly self-sufficient and just require you to change their bedding and give them fresh food and water.
They don’t require much socialization and prefer to be left alone. If you have a busy schedule and want a pet you can love but can be more hands-off with, then hamsters are right for you.
Why You Should Get a Gerbil
Gerbils are a good pet if you’re torn between a hamster and a guinea pig.
These little rodents don’t require as much attention as guinea pigs, but they’re also more social than hamsters. They can fit the lives of people with busy schedules as well.
Since you should adopt gerbils in pairs, they’ll socialize with each other, so you don’t have to feel guilty about leaving them alone while you’re at work.
Related Hamster articles:
- What Hamster Lives the Longest?
- How Much Should I Feed My Hamster
- Why Is My Hamster Bleeding From Its Bottom?
- How To Train Your Hamster To Cuddle
- How Long Should a Hamster Be in a Ball?
There’s no competition between guinea pigs, hamsters, and gerbils. All three of these pets can make great companions if you know what they need.
Since they’re all considered low-maintenance pets, they’re also great options for families who want to get their children a pet.
My name is Everly. I am a Milwaukee-based mom of 2 and have been a proud owner of many hamsters throughout my life. Like many of us, my introduction to hamsters happened when I was very young. My family saw several hamsters come and go through the years, and I enjoyed playing with them, but I never fully appreciated them until I grew up and my own children decided to jump on the hamster bandwagon. At that point, I was determined to learn all I could about caring for these adorable pets. Read more