Similar in size and shape, and both hailing from the rodent family, hamsters and gerbils are generally thought of as interchangeable and compatible. However, confusing the two animals, and their individual needs, can have dangerous consequences for pet owners. Understanding the unique personalities and differences between hamsters and gerbils is essential for their proper care and necessary for selecting the right household pets.
Gerbils are social animals, known for living in pairs and even large colonies. Without the proper stimulation, gerbils housed alone are prone to depression and more susceptible to other health problems. Hamsters, on the other hand, are primarily solitary animals that prefer to live alone. Known for their territorial nature, when confronted by other animals, hamsters will attack. Because of these drastically different social needs, gerbils and hamsters should never be placed in the same cage together.
Gerbils and hamsters have very different sleeping habits because hamsters are nocturnal, whereas gerbils are diurnal, or active during the day. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, both hamsters and gerbils are known to nip or bite when their sleep patterns are disturbed. Housing the two animals together will inevitably lead to physically conflict as one scurries about while the other needs to sleep.
The basic food requirements for both hamsters and gerbils are similar. Both animals require a balanced, nutritious diet comprised of commercial pellet feed, fresh fruits and vegetables and hay. However, gerbils should be fed smaller amounts of food and are more prone to gastrointestinal issues when fed an abundance of leafy greens or fruit. If a gerbil and hamster were housed together, special attention would need to be given to the gerbil's diet to prevent any health potential issues.
While housing a gerbil and hamster together should be avoided, if a pet owner is simply looking to adopt a pair of small animals, there are safer alternatives. Gerbils, because of their social nature, should be housed with other gerbils. The Humane Society of the United States recommends gerbils be adopted in same sex pairs. Hamsters, despite their territorial nature, can be paired successfully with other hamsters as well. Hamster breed and sex are key factors to consider when pairing hamsters together.
Jen Gehring is a political consultant and college law professor. She holds a J.D. from American University and a Bachelor of Arts in history from the University of Cincinnati. She began working as a professional writer in 2010.