Families have kept hamsters for decades, but gerbils are a more recent addition. While the two may appear similar, they're quite different when it comes to companionship and behavior. It's important to fully understand each animal before choosing one for your family. This ensures that your family is happy with the final decision.
Depending on breed, hamsters can measure roughly 2 inches (Robo hamsters) to 5.5 inches (Syrian hamsters). Gerbils are around 4 to 5 inches in length, not including their tail, which can be as long as their body. Size is important to consider because smaller pets can be hard for children to handle. This means that Syrian hamsters and gerbils are both a good fit for small children, whereas dwarf hamsters (especially Robos) can be injured by a child.
Dwarf hamsters, excluding Robos, live roughly 1 1/2 to 2 years, while Syrian hamsters live 2 to 3 years and Robo hamsters live up to 3 years. Gerbils live 3 to 4 years, which certainly puts them at an advantage if you're looking for a pet with a longer lifespan. These are only estimates; the lifespan of your pet is determined by the level of care you provide and his genetics.
Syrian hamsters love to be handled by the one or two people that they bond with during socialization. Dwarf hamsters are more ideal for observation than handling, especially the tiny and speedy Robo variety. Gerbils also enjoy being handled after socialization. The only breed of hamster that seems to truly enjoy being paired with the same sex is the Robo hamster. Gerbils, on the other hand, are social and love to be paired together.
Syrian hamsters are nocturnal, which means that children usually don't get to appreciate their company. Many dwarf varieties are most active during dawn and dusk hours. Gerbils are active throughout the day and night, sleeping in shifts. This makes them an ideal companion for children. Another behavior you need to consider is biting. Hamsters that haven't been socialized are apt to bite, while gerbils rarely bite. Both gerbils and hamsters can be fun to watch, especially Robos and gerbils, since they can be kept in pairs. Both also enjoy playing with toys, running on a wheel and burrowing to stay warm. Gerbils, being desert animals, are cleaner than hamsters, but both will still need daily spot-cleanings of their cages and weekly thorough cleanings.
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Amy Brantley has been a writer since 2006, contributing to numerous online publications. She specializes in business, finance, food, decorating and pets.