Hamster vs Gerbil: 4 Key Differences Explained

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For centuries hamsters and gerbils have been kept as pets and they have increased in popularity so that they are now some of the most popular pets around.  You’d easily be forgiven for thinking that there’s not much difference between them.  After all, they’re both small and can be found in a range of different colors.

But just how different are they?  Well, for a start, there’s a few noticeable differences to their features.  But that’s not all, as they even have different temperaments and one prefers to live in groups while the other doesn’t.  Here we’ll dive into their differences and discover how to easily identify them.

Comparing Gerbil vs Hamster

There are currently around 20 species of hamsters alive today and more than 100 species of gerbil.  However, despite there being so many species of gerbil, only two are kept as pets – the Mongolian gerbil and fat-tailed gerbils.

It can be quite easy to confuse hamsters and gerbils, especially as there is some variation between the individual species.  Despite this, there are still several ways that they are different.

Check out the chart below to learn a few of the easiest ways to tell hamsters and gerbils apart.

Gerbil Hamster
Size Average 4 inches Average 2 to 4 inches
Tail Long, approximately 4 inches Short and stubby, usually less than 1 inch
Face Long and narrow Round and wide
Body Long and lean, long hind legs Short and narrow, short legs
Cheek pouches No Yes
Nocturnal No Yes
Social habit Prefers to live in pairs or in groups Most prefer to live alone
Temperament Curious and agile Docile and easy to handle

The 4 Key Differences Between Hamsters and Gerbils

Great Gerbil (Rhombomys opimus) adult standing up on river bank, Kazakhstan.
Gerbils have long tails around 4 inches long

Hamster vs Gerbil: Tail

One of the most noticeable differences between hamsters and gerbils is their tails.  Gerbils have long tails that are approximately 4 inches long, or around the same length as their bodies.  Some species of gerbil have tails with hair on them and some are bald.  Mongolian gerbils have hairy tails, while fat-tailed gerbils have bald tails.  As their name suggests, fat-tailed gerbils also have a noticeably fatter tail than other gerbils, which makes them easy to spot.

Hamsters are completely different to gerbils and have very short tails that are short and stubby and usually less than one inch long.  The exception to the rule is the Chinese hamster which has a long tail that is around the same length as its body.

Hamster vs Gerbil: Face

Hamsters have a face which is round in shape with a short, blunt nose and distinctive cheek pouches.  These pouches are pockets that can stretch all the way back to their shoulders and are used to store food and carry it from place to place.  In the wild hamsters use their pouches to carry food back to their nest area.

Gerbils have a narrow face and a long nose which is much more like a rats face than a hamsters.  They also lack the cheek pouches that hamsters are famous for.  However, even though they don’t have cheek pouches to store food in, gerbils are still known to carry food back to their nest area.

Hamster vs Gerbil: Body

Gerbils have long, lean bodies and are often described as being streamlined in their body shape.  They also have long, powerful hind legs and large feet which mean that they are extremely agile.  Therefore, it’s not unusual to see a gerbil jumping around and generally being quite acrobatic.

Much like their faces, hamsters have bodies which are short and round – often giving them the appearance of being a cute ball of fluff.  Hamsters also have short legs which means they are not as agile as gerbils.

teddy bear hamster eating
Hamsters have short, round bodies

Sharon Snider/Shutterstock.com

Hamster vs Gerbil: Temperament

One of the key differences between hamsters and gerbils is the difference in their temperaments and social habits.  Hamsters are nocturnal and are most active during the night time.  They are also solitary animals and don’t take well to sharing their space with others, so as pets they are usually kept alone.  Hamsters have been known to fight to the death when others invade their territory.  However, despite being territorial with other hamsters, hamsters are usually quite docile.  Towards humans they are generally very good natured, although they can bite at times, particularly when surprised or looking for something edible.

On the other hand, gerbils are usually most active during daylight hours and will live quite happily in a pair or group.  They have a curious and friendly nature and are very sociable animals as well as being active a lot of the time.  Towards humans they are generally very good natured and not prone to biting even when handled.

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About the Author

I’m an avid animal lover, and when not writing I can be found on my farm surrounded by dogs, horses, and sheep.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Are hamsters and gerbils both rodents?

Yes, both hamsters and gerbils are both rodents.  However, they are from different family groups.  Hamsters are from the family Cricetidae which includes voles, lemmings, and muskrats.  Gerbils are from the family Muridae which is the largest family of both rodents and mammals and includes many species of rats and mice.

Do hamsters and gerbils burrow?

Yes, both hamsters and gerbils love to burrow and are experts at creating intricate networks of tunnels.

Where are gerbils found in the wild?

Gerbils are found in deserts and dry scrublands across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.  Mongolian gerbils, which are popular as pets, originally came from Mongolia.

Are hamsters still found in the wild?

Yes, despite being a popular pet, hamsters are still found in the wild today.  They mostly inhabit dry deserts and sand dunes and are found in many places – including Africa, Asia, and Europe.

Are hamsters endangered?

Yes, some species of hamster are under threat today, such as the European hamster which is critically endangered and is the rarest hamster in the wild.

Are gerbils endangered?

Yes, there are still some species of gerbil that are endangered.  The principal gerbil is an endangered species from Sudan and there are less than 250 animals alive.

More from A-Z Animals

For centuries hamsters and gerbils have been kept as pets and they have increased in popularity so that they are now some of the most popular pets around.  You’d easily be forgiven for thinking that there’s not much difference between them.  After all, they’re both small and can be found in a range of different colors.

But just how different are they?  Well, for a start, there’s a few noticeable differences to their features.  But that’s not all, as they even have different temperaments and one prefers to live in groups while the other doesn’t.  Here we’ll dive into their differences and discover how to easily identify them.

Comparing Gerbil vs Hamster

There are currently around 20 species of hamsters alive today and more than 100 species of gerbil.  However, despite there being so many species of gerbil, only two are kept as pets – the Mongolian gerbil and fat-tailed gerbils.

It can be quite easy to confuse hamsters and gerbils, especially as there is some variation between the individual species.  Despite this, there are still several ways that they are different.

Check out the chart below to learn a few of the easiest ways to tell hamsters and gerbils apart.

Gerbil Hamster
Size Average 4 inches Average 2 to 4 inches
Tail Long, approximately 4 inches Short and stubby, usually less than 1 inch
Face Long and narrow Round and wide
Body Long and lean, long hind legs Short and narrow, short legs
Cheek pouches No Yes
Nocturnal No Yes
Social habit Prefers to live in pairs or in groups Most prefer to live alone
Temperament Curious and agile Docile and easy to handle

The 4 Key Differences Between Hamsters and Gerbils

Great Gerbil (Rhombomys opimus) adult standing up on river bank, Kazakhstan.
Gerbils have long tails around 4 inches long

Hamster vs Gerbil: Tail

One of the most noticeable differences between hamsters and gerbils is their tails.  Gerbils have long tails that are approximately 4 inches long, or around the same length as their bodies.  Some species of gerbil have tails with hair on them and some are bald.  Mongolian gerbils have hairy tails, while fat-tailed gerbils have bald tails.  As their name suggests, fat-tailed gerbils also have a noticeably fatter tail than other gerbils, which makes them easy to spot.

Hamsters are completely different to gerbils and have very short tails that are short and stubby and usually less than one inch long.  The exception to the rule is the Chinese hamster which has a long tail that is around the same length as its body.

Hamster vs Gerbil: Face

Hamsters have a face which is round in shape with a short, blunt nose and distinctive cheek pouches.  These pouches are pockets that can stretch all the way back to their shoulders and are used to store food and carry it from place to place.  In the wild hamsters use their pouches to carry food back to their nest area.

Gerbils have a narrow face and a long nose which is much more like a rats face than a hamsters.  They also lack the cheek pouches that hamsters are famous for.  However, even though they don’t have cheek pouches to store food in, gerbils are still known to carry food back to their nest area.

Hamster vs Gerbil: Body

Gerbils have long, lean bodies and are often described as being streamlined in their body shape.  They also have long, powerful hind legs and large feet which mean that they are extremely agile.  Therefore, it’s not unusual to see a gerbil jumping around and generally being quite acrobatic.

Much like their faces, hamsters have bodies which are short and round – often giving them the appearance of being a cute ball of fluff.  Hamsters also have short legs which means they are not as agile as gerbils.

teddy bear hamster eating
Hamsters have short, round bodies

Sharon Snider/Shutterstock.com

Hamster vs Gerbil: Temperament

One of the key differences between hamsters and gerbils is the difference in their temperaments and social habits.  Hamsters are nocturnal and are most active during the night time.  They are also solitary animals and don’t take well to sharing their space with others, so as pets they are usually kept alone.  Hamsters have been known to fight to the death when others invade their territory.  However, despite being territorial with other hamsters, hamsters are usually quite docile.  Towards humans they are generally very good natured, although they can bite at times, particularly when surprised or looking for something edible.

On the other hand, gerbils are usually most active during daylight hours and will live quite happily in a pair or group.  They have a curious and friendly nature and are very sociable animals as well as being active a lot of the time.  Towards humans they are generally very good natured and not prone to biting even when handled.

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