Beneath the Fur: Are Hamsters Really Rodents?

Hamsters are just one of the almost 30 families in the largest mammalian order: Rodentia.

Nov 20, 2023By Maya Keith
are hamsters really rodents

Most people think of hamsters positively and have fond memories of their experiences with the cuddly creatures. Rarely are they considered vermin like mice or rats, but these small animals are much closer than you may think.

As rodents, hamsters exist among over 2,000 living species spread across every continent (except Antarctica). While they share many characteristics with their rodent cousins, hamsters have plenty of unique features that make them the perfect pets.

Characteristics of Rodents

golden hamster in bedding
Image Credit: Jie Wang

The biological order Rodentia gets its name from the Latin word “rodens”, meaning “to gnaw” or “to eat away”. As you would expect, the mammals in this order mainly share characteristics regarding their dentition.

Hamsters, like all rodents, have larger open-rooted incisors that never stop growing. These teeth allow them to chew through and gnaw on certain materials without losing the function of their teeth.

Because they keep growing, a rodent’s incisors have thick enamel on the front and little-to-none on the back. This allows them to chisel the teeth down as they chew, keeping them sharp and trimmed so they don’t pierce the skull or impede eating habits.

Hamsters also have a diastema, or a space, between their incisors and their cheek teeth. These gaps leave space to suck in their cheeks and protect the throat from inedible material as they gnaw it down.

Because rodents exist on all but one continent, their evolutions travel down an array of routes. Still, most rodents have small, rotund bodies and small limbs. They’re mostly plantigrade, walking on their palms and soles, although many can stand for short periods on their hind legs.

How Hamsters Compare to Other Rodents

white hamster in tube
Image Credit: Kim Green

While hamsters share plenty of characteristics with their cousins, their unique behaviors and needs distinguish them from other popular small animals. Comparing a hamster to a sugar glider is easy enough, but closer rodent relatives like rats, mice, gerbils, and guinea pigs are trickier.

Most domesticated rodents are those who like hidey spaces, but they need a certain degree of sociability to make them good companions. Hamsters make fantastic first pets for kids, but they aren’t the only rodents on the list.

Hamsters vs. Rats and Mice

hamster with full cheeks
Image Credit: Henry Lai

Mice and rats are much more opportunistic than hamsters. While hamsters were settling into their burrows in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, rats and mice ventured into cities and hitched rides on ships as humans explored the globe.

Hamsters have the same Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, and Superfamily as mice and rats, but they branch off at the subfamily. While old-world mice and rats belong to the Murinae family, all 19 species of hamsters fall under the Cricetinae family.

It’s easy to distinguish hamsters from mice and rats on sight alone. Hamsters have larger, more rotund bodies with short, nearly nonexistent tails, while mice and rats are slimmer with tails as long as their bodies.

Hamsters are quite social, but they don’t crave human company in the same way that rats do. All these rodents play an important role in the wild, and they may serve faithfully as companions.

Hamsters vs. Gerbils

hamster stands with seeds
Image Credit: Doina Gavrilov

The easiest way to distinguish between a gerbil and a hamster is by looking at their tail. Gerbils belong to the family Muridae (which includes New World mice and rats). They have long, furry tails about the length of their body (roughly 4 inches) with a soft tuft at the tip.

Pet hamsters come in a variety of sizes depending on the species you choose, but all domesticated gerbils are Mongolian Gerbils and have the same general shape and appearance. They’re leaner than hamsters and have a narrow face more similar to that of a mouse.

Gerbils also utilize their back legs more than hamsters do. Like kangaroo rats, the back feet and legs of gerbils are longer than the front. They are fantastic jumpers and tend to be a bit flightier than certain species of hamsters.

Unlike many other rodents (including hamsters), gerbils are diurnal. They prefer to rise and set with the sun, leaving hamsters to burn the midnight oil.

Hamsters vs. Guinea Pigs

golden hamster sits up
Image Credit: Ricky Kharawala

Hamsters are some of the smallest pet rodents you’ll come across, but guinea pigs are among the largest. They belong to the family Caviidae, which includes even larger rodents like capybaras and maras.

Guinea pigs have the same continuously growing incisors that hamsters have, but they’re less likely to chew on wood or burrow than the smaller rodents. Instead, guinea pigs spend their days grazing on hay or other fiber-rich foods to keep their teeth short.

Guinea pigs are quite a bit larger than hamsters, weighing as much as 2.5 lbs., while hamsters weigh anywhere from 1 to 10 ounces. Their larger size also means they live longer; a healthy guinea pig will live up to 8 years, while the healthiest hamsters usually pass on by 3 years.

It’s easy to see how different rodents can be when comparing hamsters and guinea pigs. Hamsters store their food in their cheek pouches and eat an omnivorous diet, while guinea pigs rely on grazing and remain obligate herbivores. These differences only get further apart when you start to compare hamsters to wild rodents, and it quickly becomes clear why the tiny creatures often make perfect companions.

Maya Keith
By Maya Keith

Maya is a lifelong animal lover. While she switched from studying veterinary medicine to English, she continues to help by fostering animals in her community. Her permanent residents include 3 dogs, 2 cats, 5 quail, 19 chickens, and a small colony of Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches.