Many decide that a hamster or gerbil is the best choice as a small pet in the home. There are a few noted differences between the two, which can help one make the decision about the best individual choice.
One of the primary differences between the hamster and the gerbil is socialization needs. Gerbils in the wild live in groups for the most part. A solitary pet in the cage may be quite unhappy. Thus if one is choosing a gerbil, it is best to purchase more than one to prevent loneliness. However, when buying more than one, it is wiser to get younger gerbils, as they will naturally bond.
If one wishes to avoid a gerbil family, choose two males. Females tend to be more aggressive with each other, but males tend to get along fairly well. This is particularly the case if they are littermates or are housed together at a young age.
The hamster, conversely, tends not to need a friend in captivity. So if one is looking for a single small pet, this may be the better choice. Females tend to be aggressive with each other, as well. So one should avoid housing two female hamsters together. Two males are ideal.
Another big difference between the animals is sleeping patterns. Hamsters are nocturnal, and will spend most of the day sleeping. The captive gerbil is diurnal, and thus will not disturb one’s sleep by shuffling or digging around in a cage. They are also more up for play during the day, while the hamster may not be quite as happy to wake up and play.
The two animals eat basically the same diet. However, the gerbil is more likely to be gassy or have diarrhea if given an excess amount of green vegetables or fruit. Most enjoy a small amount of fruit and veggies, but it should remain a small amount.
The gerbil also has a slightly different personality than the hamster. It tends to be a little more active, and a little more hyper. Both animals need lots of exercise, but a wheel in a cage should never have wires or slots. Both animals can catch a foot in a wheel, and the gerbil can catch its tail. This can result in broken bones, so choose a wheel with a smooth surface for either animal.
The two also differ in appearance. The gerbil has a soft tail, and enjoys standing on its hind legs. The hamster has no tail. Many consider the gerbil to be more rat or mouselike in appearance because of its longer snout. It is more closely related to these rodents than the hamster. Those who enjoy rats and mice may find the gerbil more visually appealing. Those who are not fond of rats and mice may find the hamster has the most appeal.
The gerbil has a higher risk of overheating. If one does not have air conditioning, then the pet should have a temperature-controlled cage that protects the animal from overheating. Care guides for them do suggest a cage or aquarium type enclosure be temperature controlled between 68° to 77° F (20° to 25° C) because gerbils can get dehydrated in hotter temperatures.
Both can be gently raised to not bite. However, the hamster is a little more prone to biting. This can occur if the pet is suddenly startled or if it is suddenly woken from a deep sleep.
The hamster and gerbil have the same average life span, about three years. Different varieties may have a slightly longer life span. Some can live for up to seven years, though this is unusual.