If you’re researching which small pet you want to adopt, you’re on the right track! Many people simply go to the pet store and pick out the pet that they think is the cutest. By doing your research, you’re already starting on a journey of proper small pet care that many people never do.
When it comes to deciding between a hamster, gerbils, or guinea pigs, there are some very important differences to consider. These three small pets require very different care and have very different temperaments.
Here, we’ll outline the most important differences between hamsters, gerbils, and guinea pigs and try to help you make your decision.
Solitary vs. Social
First, it’s important to understand the difference between these three animals’ social needs.
Guinea pigs and gerbils are both social animals, which means they need to be kept in same-sex pairs or small groups.
Hamsters, on the other hand, are solitary and highly territorial. You should not keep hamsters together because they can fight and seriously injure each other.
So if you want to adopt just one small pet, a hamster might be the right choice for you. If you want to adopt more than one and keep them together, you’ll need to choose between guinea pigs and gerbils.
The next important difference between these three different pets is the amount of space they take up. While gerbils and hamsters require about the same amount of space, guinea pigs have very different needs.
If you don’t have enough space to properly house a pair of guinea pigs, you’ll want to consider a hamster, a pair of gerbils, or another small pet instead.
Here’s how much space you’ll need to allocate to your small pets as the minimum. We always recommend providing more than the minimum!
Also keep in mind that this is just for the footprint of the enclosure. Additional levels do not contribute to the floor space required.
These are our recommended minimums based on a combination of the North American, British, and German hamster space standards, plus our first-hand experience and communication with other pet owners.
- One hamster: 650 square inches
- Two gerbils: 400 square inches
- Two guinea pigs: 7.5 square feet (females) or 10.5 square feet (males)
Read more: Best Gerbil Cages
When They Sleep
Maybe the most surprising difference between hamsters, gerbils, and guinea pigs is their sleeping schedules. This makes a very big difference in what it’s like to own a small pet.
Hamsters: Hamsters are fully nocturnal, which means you might rarely see your pet. Your hamster will come out for water at times during the day, but they typically won’t want to interact. You’ll need to play and bond with your hamster after dark when they’re most active.
Gerbils: Gerbils are active at night, too, but they’re different from hamsters. Gerbils are crepuscular, which means they are most active at dawn and dusk.
Gerbils take frequent, somewhat short naps throughout the day and night. Many gerbils tend to be most active during the evening and at dawn, but they’re not technically crepuscular.
Guinea pigs: Guinea pigs are diurnal, which means they’re most active during the day. But guinea pigs can be active for up to 20 hours per day, and they can get their four hours of sleep at night or in short naps during the day.
Many guinea pigs will sleep for two or three hours at night, for example, and then take a series of naps during the day. This means that you have the most time to interact and bond with guinea pigs out of all three pets.
Disposition and Handling
One of the biggest differences between gerbils, hamsters, and guinea pigs is their different dispositions and behaviors.
Hamsters can be friendly or shy but typically don’t require hours of attention each day. Some hamsters like to be held and played with, while others prefer to keep to themselves.
Gerbils tend to like handling the least out of the three. Most gerbils are too quick and active to enjoy being held or even pet. They do enjoy being hand-fed when tame, and they like to interact with you in a play-pen. But they won’t be a cuddle buddy if that’s what you’re looking for in a small pet.
Guinea pigs require more attention than gerbils or hamsters, but they don’t always like to be held. Instead, stroking, petting, and hand-feeding your guinea pig are all ways to bond with your pet.
You need to interact with your guinea pigs several times throughout the day, which is very different from gerbils or hamsters, who are highly self-sufficient.
Feeding and Care
Finally, the feeding and care requirements of guinea pigs, hamsters, and gerbils are different. Guinea pigs require constant access to hay, a handful of pellets each day, and fresh fruits and veggies. This is more intensive than the tablespoon or so of seed mix and lab blocks that each hamster and gerbil needs.
Of course, hamsters and gerbils also benefit from fresh foods, but they need much less than guinea pigs require.
Guinea pigs also need a great deal more cleaning and maintenance than gerbils or hamsters. You need to spot-clean their enclosure every day and deep clean at least once per week.
Spot-cleaning can take a bit of time since it involves either sweeping or vacuuming up their droppings. Guinea pigs also need nail trimming and, sometimes, hair cutting. If you choose male guinea pigs, you’ll also need to do regular bore-cleaning.
Hamsters and gerbils are both self-cleaning and require very little daily maintenance. You can spot-clean their enclosures every other day, and it just involves cleaning their wheels, sweeping up messes, and removing soiled bedding.
These three small pets also have different life expectancies, which is an important consideration. Facing the death of any pet is extremely difficult, so it’s wise to think about this beforehand.
- Hamsters: 1 – 3.5 years
- Gerbils: 3 – 4 years
- Guinea pigs: 5 – 7 years
As Pets for Children
Are guinea pigs, gerbils, or hamsters better pets for children? Owning a small pet of any kind is a big responsibility for a child, and it shouldn’t be taken on lightly. As the parent, it’s up to you to make sure the animal is well cared for and healthy.
With that said, hamsters and gerbils are smaller, faster, and nippier than guinea pigs, so they can easily escape from small hands. Hamsters and gerbils also don’t enjoy being handled often, and you may rarely see a hamster during the day.
For these reasons, we recommend guinea pigs over hamsters or gerbils as pets for children. But again, taking care of guinea pigs is a lot of hard work and requires a long-term commitment.
Choosing the Best Small Pet for You
Deciding between a hamster, a pair of gerbils, or a pair of guinea pigs can be hard! But when you learn more about these animals, it becomes clear which one will fit your lifestyle and preferences best.
Just keep in mind that whatever small pet you choose, it’s a long-term commitment and a decision that can’t be reversed easily. It’s essential to know what you’re getting into with any small pet and know what to expect.
Once you adopt your small pet, the journey isn’t over! Keep researching and learning everything you can about the animal you’ve adopted, and in time, you’ll learn how to provide it with the best possible care.
Veselinka Šušić, Gordana Maširević. “Sleep patterns in the Mongolian gerbil, Meriones unguiculatus.” Physiology & Behavior, Volume 37, Issue 2. 1986. Pages 257-261. ISSN 0031-9384. https://doi.org/10.1016/0031-9384(86)90229-5.