The Muroidea is a superfamily of rodents that includes both hamsters and gerbils along with other relatives like voles, mice, and rats.
There are at least 1,750 different species classified as muroids under this superfamily. They live on all continents around the globe, excluding cold Antarctica.
Among the entire superfamily, only gerbils and hamsters have become popular house animals. This happened for a couple of reasons; mainly due to their lack of aggression, small and cute appearance, and easy maintainability.
Most people, however, tend to mention gerbils and hamsters in the same sentence without actually knowing the difference between the two animals. If you’d like to buy a hamster or gerbil but can’t decide which, make sure you keep reading all the way until the end.
One thing they have in common is their descendants from the Rodentia order, which gives them the large front incisors, flexible body, and digging claws that are typical in rodents. They both mostly originated from the deserts of Syria and Mongolia, although there are plenty of species that hail from other countries such as South Africa, India, China, and Russia.
Both gerbils and hamsters are omnivores, which means that they’ll consume meat in addition to their regular diet of grains, seeds, and vegetables. They have roughly the same lifespan, with hamsters looking at an average of about 2 – 2.5 years and gerbils at around 3 years.
Based on physical appearance they do look similar, but there are a few slight differences that can help you identify which is which.
Get ready to learn about 4 of the biggest differences between gerbils and hamsters.
1. Physical Appearance
At first glance, they look the same. But if you know what to look out for, there are a few key features that set gerbils and hamsters apart.
In general, the size of most hamsters’ body parts is shorter than a gerbil’s. The first thing to catch your attention might be the tail. Hamsters have short and stubby tails while gerbil tails are about as long as their entire body – up to 4 inches long.
A gerbil’s tail is about as long as a rat’s tail, but it does have hair on it and doesn’t look beady and freaky like a rat does. When in doubt, take a gander at the tail.
Next is the size of the animal’s body itself. Hamsters are a bit different in that they have size variations depending on the specific species. Syrian hamsters are the largest and dwarf hamsters are the smallest – ranging from 2 to 4 inches!
Gerbils all have the same body size, regardless of the species. Same as its tail, the body is about 4 inches long on average.
Facial features have some distinctive differences. A gerbil’s nose and face are longer, like a rat or mouse’s. A hamster’s face is round and wide, with the entire head being more ball-like. Gerbils don’t have the chubby cheeks that hamsters do.
Both hamster and gerbil species come in a wide array of colors and patterns, so there isn’t a definitive way for you to tell the difference between the two based solely on markings. One dead giveaway though is the long-haired version of the Syrian hamster known as the teddy bear hamster.
The males have a long mane of hair while the females sport a fluffy coat. There aren’t any long-haired gerbils so if you see a rodent that looks like a small hairy dog, chances are, it’s a hamster.
Interestingly enough, just like the Sphynx cat breed, certain hamsters possess a unique gene that restricts the growth of hair. This, naturally, results in a pretty strange-looking creature. Breeders take advantage of this mutation to breed hairless hamsters as pets for people with allergies to hair and fur.
Gerbils in captivity also have their fair share of mutations and hybrids. The fat-tailed gerbil, also known as Dupras, is smaller than a regular Mongolian gerbil and has a short coat and fat tail. This makes it look very similar to a hamster and you might need to rely on other signs to help you determine the species.
Both gerbils and hamsters utilize the same accessories – exercise wheels, water bottles, and chew toys. They both chew on things to file down their teeth and build their own beds in a similar fashion.
But gerbils have a special ability that hamsters don’t. Due to its long and strong hind legs, the gerbil is an excellent jumper as well as a runner. It regularly hops around inside its tank and can even jump right out if the lid isn’t securely fastened. Hamster can stand up on its hind legs, but being shorter and fatter, lack the jumping power.
However, hamsters also have a special skill that gerbils lack which is the ability to store and transport food in their cheeks. Hamsters in the wild use these built-in sacs in their mouths called “cheek pouches” as an on-the-go backpack to carry food back to their burrows; safe and stashed away for rainy days.
These pouches have many uses. Hamsters also like to put grains and nuts in the pouches and slowly feed themselves throughout the day by massaging their cheeks with their paws. Mother hamsters have been known to scoop up babies in their cheek pouches when sensing an approaching threat.
Hamsters love to hoard food in their underground dens, so these cheek pouches are definitely a great asset when out on long trips traversing the hot desert sands.
While hamsters leave a strong and pungent odor behind in their cages, gerbils have adapted their kidneys to produce a minimum amount of waste in an effort to conserve body fluids. This makes them much cleaner than hamsters and less smelly. A hamster will need to take a sand bath every couple of days in order to mask its smell and clean its fur.
One of the most common misunderstandings among new gerbil owners is believing that gerbils can live in hamster houses and vice versa. This is incorrect as gerbils need to be able to dig their own tunnel systems, and if placed in a plastic environment, can end up chewing and gnawing through the toxic plastic material.
3. Sleeping Patterns
One of the biggest differences between these two rodents is in their sleeping patterns.
Wild gerbils are diurnal, which means that they are most active during the daytime and sleep at night, like humans. However, gerbils in captivity have been observed to shift their sleeping pattern to correspond to human activity around them.
They like to watch what you’re doing, who’s walking or talking, and what’s going on in the world around them. People that frequently stay up late or work at home on night shifts have reported their gerbils staying awake through the night and sleeping at dawn.
Hamsters, on the other hand, are naturally crepuscular. This means that they sleep during the day and are most active during dusk and dawn. In the wild, a hamster would come out of its burrow at sundown when there are fewer active threats and the temperature is cooler.
After foraging for food and bringing it back to its burrow, it might sleep again until daybreak wherein the same routine would be repeated. Hamsters in captivity can sometimes be more nocturnal than crepuscular.
What does this mean for pet owners? There are pros and cons for both sleeping patterns, but a gerbil might be more desirable if you can’t stand the sound of your pet scampering in its cage in the middle of the night. The sound of its wheel can also keep people up, and hamsters have been known to run all night long!
4. Social Behavior
Knowing about animals’ behavior and understanding how their social life works are perhaps some of the most important deciding factors when choosing a pet. Gerbils and hamsters are no exception.
Hamsters can be solitary and territorial creatures. In the wild, a Syrian hamster lives alone in its burrow, neither seeking nor needing a companion in its day-to-day ordeals. When placed together with any other species of hamster, Syrians have been known to attack and even fight to the death. Thus, two adult hamsters are never recommended to be kept together in one tank.
Even dwarf hamsters which are the smallest species of hamsters exhibit the same behavior. However, it is possible for two dwarf hamsters to live together as long as they are born and raised together. This usually creates a strong bond between the two animals which prevents regular scrapping.
Gerbils on the other hand, lie on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. They are outgoing, friendly, and love having company. Gerbils can live in pairs, groups, with the more truly being the merrier.
According to the president of the American Gerbil Society in Florida, Libby Hanna, gerbils work best together when in pairs. “If you’d like to have multiple gerbils together in one shelter, go for even numbers so there won’t be an odd one out,” she adds.
The number of pets that you keep will affect a lot of things, such as the amount of food provided and the frequency of the feeding schedule.