One day you may need to decide whether to get a new pet guinea pig or hamster – your kids maybe even debating which to get. Or you may be thinking of giving someone a little pet. How does one identify hamsters and guinea pigs from each other, anyway?
Finding the difference between hamster and guinea pig is like comparing night and day. These two rodents vary in many things including diet (one is an omnivore while the other is an herbivore), waking hours (hamsters are crepuscular-nocturnal while guinea pigs depend on their human), and temperament (hamsters can live alone while guinea pigs like to be in groups).
But did you know that if both are placed together in a rodent boxing ring, chances are the smaller hamster will win by default?
1 – Appearance
The first and the fastest way to identify hamsters from guinea pigs are through their size and shape.
Hamsters are round or bell-shaped and can grow up to 2-7 inches (5-18cm) long from snout to tail depending on their breed. Longer-bodied guinea pigs are definitely larger – about 8-12 inches (20-30 cm). European hammies can grow as large as guinea pigs, but they are not domesticated.
Hamsters and guinea pigs appear similar in colors except that some hamsters, particularly the Chinese striped and Campbell’s breeds have characteristic dorsal stripes. They are also born blind and furless.
Guinea pigs or cavies, on the other hand, do not have stripes along their spine, but some have horizontal “tiger stripe” patterns around their bodies. Some piggies also have longer fur depending on their breed. They are born fully developed.
Additionally, hamsters have mouse-like bare noses on their snouts, while guinea pig noses have more fur around but not close to their nostrils.
2 – Movement
Hamsters are master burrowers; they make tunnels with multiple entrances with the use of their feet with pointed “fingers”. They have specialized front paws that help them climb, communicate, hold things, fight other critters, and sense their surroundings.
Guinea pigs can also raise their front limbs, but these are more for sensing the atmosphere as well as for communication. They often move about and stay on their four legs. They are, however, good jumpers – they can leap over short obstacles and can do popcorning.
Piggies can run at 5.5 miles/hr (9kph). They are also good swimmers. Swimming, jumping, and running are the skills they got from their wild ancestors whose instincts are to flee first at whenever they suspect incoming predators – jumpiness that today’s cavies also retained.
Hamsters, on the other hand, cannot swim. Their wild version is dwellers of dessert fringes, steppes, and grasslands, making them averse to water that they get stressed and sick if bathed.
Because they live in such open areas, hammies can reach top speeds, whether forwards or backward, of 4miles/hr (6 kph). Robo hamsters can do better – they are able to run at 8.75 miles/hr (14kph) based on their evening mileage.
3 – Senses
Hamsters are near-sighted and color blind. As crepuscular-nocturnal runners and burrowers, they thrive in environments where there is not much light. They make up for this with a keen sense of smell and touch. They have scent glands on their backs and legs to help them mark territory as well as identify friends from foe and their whiskers and paws help them sense their surroundings.
Hammies also have a highly receptive hearing. They can communicate at ultrasonic levels. This means they also easily get startled and may even get stressed by loud sounds and noise.
Guinea pigs can be seen awake when their pet parents are also active because they are intermittent nappers – they usually sleep 20-30 minutes in between activities. They are also herbivorous herd type in nature just like cows, sheep, and bison, which means cavies need to flee at the slightest hint of an incoming predator. For these reasons, piggies need to have all keen senses – including eyesight.
Cavies thus, have color vision but lack depth perception. In exchange, they have whiskers that help them measure sizes of openings and herd gaps, which aid in their movement during twilight and in the dark. They also have keen olfactory and auditory senses.
4 – Diet and Eating Habits
Hamsters eat a variety of foods including animal foods and products, so you can feed them a limited amount of crickets and mealworms, and an occasional treat of cheese or yogurt. You can also give them food rich in vitamin E which they need to maintain a good immune response.
They must not, however, consume sharp and sticky food as this will damage their cheek pockets.
Feeding hammies can be tricky. Just because their food dish or their cheek pockets are empty does not mean they have eaten all the food they are given. Hammies tend to burrow excess food in particular spots of their substrate so their cages have to be checked every day for stored food which could rot and make their cage unhygienic for them to live in.
Hamsters can tolerate alcohol. They have large livers and a tolerance that rivals that of humans, which they have developed through the course of evolution for frequently storing excess food that sometimes rots before they get to eat.
This does not mean, however, that as a pet owner, you can feed them alcohol anytime. It only means that beer, wine or any human alcoholic drink accidentally spilled near their area due to some silly hooman will not necessarily poison these little ones.
Guinea pigs, on the other hand, neither have pouches nor do they have natural ways to produce vitamin C. So if you have a guinea pig, put crushed vitamin C supplements along with the rest of their meal.
They eat grass or hay, guinea pig pellets, fresh leafy vegetables, herbs, and fruits. They must not be fed with grains, seeds, corn, nuts, beans, peas, bulk plants, and any processed food as these will give them tummy problems.
If you choose to get a cavy for a pet, be prepared to do daily bedding clean-up. Piggies are messy eaters and will mix their poop and food scraps just about anywhere in the cage. Care must also be taken when feeding pigs. A hungry cavy tends to bite for being overeager to eat.
Both hamsters and guinea pigs – the latter more frequently – practice coprophagia or the eating of their own poops from their caecum (not the anus) since these are rich in nutrients and vitamins.
Hamsters, however, are more prone to cannibalize. This occurs either when they lack nutrients, after a violent territorial dispute, when stressed, when escaping predators, and when females fight the opposite sex when they are not in heat.
Guinea pigs rarely cannibalize. They do it only out of protection (when a mother wishes to hide the rest of the litter from a predator by eating a stillborn). Other cases are accidental, such as when another poor piggy is dead and the remaining cavies think they are trying to wake the other one up.
5 – Behavior
Hamsters and Guinea pigs vary in many aspects of behavior which could be attributed to the differences in their ancestral nature. Hamsters are hunter-gatherers while guinea pigs are herd types which is why their behavioral difference can be grouped into the following:
- Social Structure
Hamsters are territorial and highly competitive with their food. They are usually solitary except on estrus when they go in pairs. Dwarf hamsters, however, are an exception as they live in colonies, yet co-members need to be their littermates.
Hammies are also aggressive towards the opposite sex. Even dwarf colonies have to be of the same sex unless they are Roborovski or Russian breeds since these types of hamsters can live monogamously with their partners.
Take a Robo or Russian hammy’s partner away and expect your hamster to become depressed. It will exhibit characteristics similar to how humans behave when depressed, like overeating, inactivity, and becoming obese.
Guinea pigs, on the other hand, are highly social creatures so they can get along with a pair or a same-sex group. They can also group in any number so long as their personalities match and their age gaps are not that far from each other.
Males grouped together with a female mix might fight one another, so you still need to check if their personalities match.
Piggies can get along with other pets like cats and dogs, but they are not to be mixed with other rodents because they are too gentle in nature compared to the frisky and more aggressive mice, rats, and hamsters.
Because cavies are social creatures, they do get affected when a companion piggy dies. They grieve and show symptoms of depression and sickness such as lethargy, no more popcorning, quiet (no vocalizations), and loss of appetite. Some piggies do recover, however, if maximum care and monitoring are given.
A guinea pig’s initial defense is to run – it prefers to flee when alarmed and may even drive its hooman to a wild piggy chase if it wishes to. If cornered against other animals, however, this little gentle hairball may bite and scratch.
As mentioned above, hamsters are good housekeepers. They put their pee, poop, and extra food in different areas of their cage, which makes it easier for you to spot clean.
They also make their own beds so there is no need for you to change all substrates at once except at least once a week. And when you do, there is no need for you to arrange their “beds” as they themselves will pick their favorite sleep areas.
Guinea pigs, on the other hand, are messy residents. They mess around as they eat and their waste can get to their beddings as well, so daily bedding or substrate clean-up is necessary. They can thrive in the same type of substrate that hamsters can – wood shavings or paper unless they are inked, made of evergreens, or still have sawdust in them.
A good thing about cavies is that they are less of a burrower so some pet owners opt to get their piggies fleece beddings, flippers, or pillows with paper towels underneath. This saves pet parents the trouble of so much cleaning as the waste can just seep through so a daily spot cleaning is possible by removing the underlying paper towels.
Mind, however, that not all pigs are the same. Some cavies are burrowers and may wish to play and flip the entire fleece!
Hamsters are gentle and docile but they may turn aggressive and bite when they are startled, frightened, starving, and angered or provoked. Since their mode of communication is in the ultrasonic range which is beyond our scope of the hearing, hammies sort to nips, bites, waving arms, and other nonverbal actions that we humans will have to read.
Although they do not mind handling it, an excess of it will still stress them and even make them sick.
Guinea pigs can adapt faster to frequent handling. They can even be trained to wear harnesses and go outdoors for lead walking. Additionally, they have sound variations that their hooman may be able to hear and understand such as squeaks, purrs, and hisses.
Cavies do bite – although accidentally. They may do this out of discomfort; perhaps they got frightened from so much noise, or it may be because they need to pee; or worse, they could have gotten themselves mites. They could also be complaining because their cage is too small.
Sometimes piggies bite because of grooming. They may not wish to be touched on their rump or on other sensitive areas. You may have brushed them the wrong way like how we tend to complain if someone else brushes our hair clumsily and pull our hair in the wrong direction. Or maybe they just wish to groom you back since guinea pigs like to groom each other.
Guinea pigs also prefer set handling patterns as they grow older. If mishandled or given an excess of it, they get stressed and display signs like circling about their cage, making shrill squawks and hisses, and in the worst case, literally, freeze for 30 minutes.
6 – Pet Care
Hamsters need a LOT of exercise. This means, aside from your pet’s substrate, food, and water, you also need to give it an exercise wheel for its regular runs as well as furniture like climbers, swings, and tunnels, along with a couple of toys that it can chew, roll in, and run about.
Its exercise wheel and cage have to be of adequate size so that it can safely move about without any consequential back or leg problem.
Because hammies generally have shorter fur, there is no need for grooming. There is no need to bathe them because of their aversion to water but if you wish them to have well-maintained coats, you can give them sand baths in which they love to roll and play.
Hamsters are sensitive to drafts and cold temperatures so you have to place them and their cages at warm or room temperature, away from any noise, moisture, nosy animals, and drastic weather changes. Doing so will keep them away from stress.
Guinea pigs, on the other hand, do not need exercise. Wheels are a no-no for cavies as these will give them foot and back problems. If you wish them to play or run, you can put them in high playpens, on the floor, or in deep wading pools. You can even put them on a leash and take them out for some lead walking and some pet parents train their cavies to jump over toy horse oxers.
Cavies can handle a cooler atmosphere especially if they are long-haired. This does not mean they like snow straight away; you still need to keep them indoors in cold weather. On hot summer days, guinea pigs will appreciate getting presented with ice cubes to play and chew.
Piggies also need grooming, especially if it is long-haired like the Sheltie and Peruvian breeds that need a combing twice a day. Short-haired breeds need daily combing only. A monthly nail clipping is also necessary.
Bathing need not be regular; you can give a guinea pig a bath if its coat looks really soiled, as well as before participating your pet in a guinea pig show.
A Few Facts About Both
Whether you choose to get a hamster or a guinea pig, it is good to know a few more things about your pet since you may need to communicate with the vet or with fellow parents. Here are some more interesting facts about hammies and piggies:
- Domestication – Hamsters have only been recently bred and domesticated. The earliest report about them was in 1773, but the first domestication recorded was a Chinese hamster in China in the early 1920s. The first hammy to be raised as pets in the west, however, is the Syrian hamster in 1939.
Guinea pigs have long been domesticated since 5000 BC by several tribes of the Andes Mountains in Peru. The earliest written account was in 1547.
- Largest Recorded Litter – Syrian hamsters can produce as many babies as 24, while guinea pigs can produce as many as 17.
- Lab Rodents – Hamsters have been used in lab tests for alcohol, cosmetics, and other human products. Guinea pigs are raised and tested in labs especially in health and medical research, thus, the colloquial term “guinea pig” for any test subject.
- Food Farm – Hamsters are sometimes bred and farmed to become snake feeds; guinea pigs in South America have been farmed for human food, thus, the dish “cuy.”
- Rituals and Celebrations – World Hamster Day is celebrated by hamster enthusiasts and some owners on April 12. Guinea Pigs, on the other hand, have celebrations and feasts dedicated to them in various Andean tribes. They are also connected to some religious rituals. Some feasts have cavies dressed in an assortment of costumes and colorful paints.
- The Terms – Hamsters may be called hammies; males are called buck while females are doe, and babies are termed as either puppies or pups. Guinea pigs, on the other hand, are also known as cavy, pig, or piggy; males are termed boar, females are sow, and their babies are pups.
Additionally, hamster breeds are classified according to species, while all guinea pigs regardless of the breed belong under one species, Cavia porcellus.