Rodents are among the most popular pet species (following cats and dogs), but if you’re unfamiliar with these pocket-sized pets, you could struggle to tell them apart. While they share some similar characteristics, there are also key differences. Guinea pigs are significantly larger, hamsters are small and round with stubby tails, and gerbils tend to be leaner with longer tails.
And physical characteristics aren’t the only way to differentiate these animals. Each can make the perfect pet, but they come with different needs and varying levels of sociability. Continue reading to compare these three cute creatures and find out which makes the best pet for you.
Guinea Pig vs. Hamster vs. Gerbil: Stats
|Length||8 - 12 inches||2 - 7 inches||Around 4 inches|
|Weight||16 - 48 ounces||1 - 7 ounces||Around 4 ounces|
|Lifespan||4 - 6 years||2 - 3 years||3 - 5 years|
|Social Needs||Must be kept in pairs||Must be kept alone||Must be kept in pairs|
|Temperament||Easy to handle Requires daily interaction||Only handle for short periods of time||Loves being held and petted|
|Care Needs||Requires a daily care routine||Requires a daily care routine||Low maintenance|
|Average Yearly Cost||$500 - $800||$150 - $200||$150-$250|
What is a Guinea Pig?
Guinea pigs are rodents that live in the Andes mountains and have significantly larger bodies than hamsters or gerbils. These adorable creatures' calm and friendly nature makes them perfect for keeping as pets, but their social nature means they are best kept in pairs.
Despite popular belief, you should not house your guinea pig alongside rabbits as the two species do not get along. Rabbits are likely to bully guinea pigs, and the care needs for each are very different. In addition, rabbits carry diseases that can make guinea pigs sick. So, stick with the same species pairs (and same gender pairs to avoid unwanted pregnancies).
What is a Hamster?
Hamsters are small rodents from southeast Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Mainly bred as pets, some wild hamster populations still exist, but they are rare. These adorable creatures make excellent starter pets because they take up minimal space, are happy in their own company, and are easy to look after.
Their crepuscular nature means they are most active during dawn and dusk, the same as household cats. The primary reason why animals evolve in this way is to hunt at a time when they are less likely to be stalked by predators.
What is a Gerbil?
Gerbils are small rodents that share several characteristics with the hamster. In the wild, they're found across several desert environments in Asia, India, and Africa, but when it comes to pet gerbils, the Mongolian gerbil is the most common.
These small, low-maintenance animals also make good starter pets but have some key differences that separate them from hamsters. Firstly, the hamster is a solitary creature, but gerbils are incredibly social; they require other gerbils to keep them company and regular human interaction. And they are metaturnal, which means they do not follow a set sleeping pattern.
Each of these rodents can make an excellent starter pet or a low-maintenance companion for people who don't want the commitment of a cat or dog. However, as the largest of the three species, guinea pigs require a little more care and attention. They need daily attention from their pet parents and exercise opportunities.
All three are good at keeping themselves clean, but hamsters hoard food, which means moldy food stashes can occur if you don't check their cage and nesting box regularly. In addition, hamsters go to the toilet more often than gerbils, requiring more spot cleaning.
Guinea pigs are diurnal animals and follow much the same sleeping routines as their human companions, which makes them perfect companions for people who spend a lot of time at home.
In comparison, hamsters are crepuscular and more active at the beginning and end of our days. This makes them the perfect companion for people who have work or school and want a pet to come home and interact with at the end of the day. Gerbils have a more erratic sleeping pattern, so there are no set rules for when you can interact with these easy-going creatures.
Guinea pigs are herbivores, so their diet relies on plant-based foods. In contrast, hamsters and gerbils are omnivores, so they can get nutrition from plant and animal sources, including insects.
One commonality is that the teeth of all three rodents grow continuously throughout their lives; to prevent overgrowth, you'll need to keep loose forage available for your small pet at all times.
When it comes to cost, the guinea pig is more expensive than the hamster or the gerbil, and there are several reasons for this.
Firstly, guinea pigs are significantly larger than the other two rodents, so they require a bigger space to satisfy their living and exercise requirements. While commercial foods are available for all three species, the guinea pig will eat far more and requires hay access as an additional supplement.
In addition, guinea pigs are more likely to have annual vet checks than hamsters or gerbils, meaning that you'll also face a bill for medical services.
Which Pet is Best?
All three of these rodent species can make excellent pets, depending on what you want from a pet. Hamsters are a perfect choice for a starter pet; they are low maintenance and don't require companion animals. In addition, you can enjoy short interactions with them at the beginning and end of your day, so they are not demanding your time. Still, hamsters can be the messiest of the three thanks to their instinct to hoard food and they are the most prone to biting.
In comparison, gerbils are also inexpensive, low-maintenance pets that are easy to care for. What's different about these creatures is that they're highly social and will love interacting with you. But this does mean you'll have to buy more than one gerbil and pay to accommodate the extra pets.
Guinea pigs are quite different from the other two rodents and have slightly more complex needs; their diet is more specialized, and they will need vet checkups. Still, if you're willing to dedicate a little extra time and cost, these adorable creatures can make terrific companions who are fascinating to watch and will love cuddling up with you.