The group of small rodents comprised of hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, mice, and rats are commonly found at pet stores and are favorites as family pets. While they are all rodents, they do have varied requirements in caring for them and social interaction and have differing qualities as pets. The following comparisons can help you decide which of these rodents might be the right pet for you.
Hamsters as Pets
Syrian or golden hamsters live on average about two to three years and adults are about six inches in length.
They are typically solitary animals that should be by themselves in an appropriately sized cage. A basic minimum cage size is 12 x 18 inches (and 12 inches tall), but since hamsters are quite active the bigger the cage the better (and those cute modular plastic hamster cages are often too small for hamsters). Syrian hamsters that are handled from a young age usually have an agreeable temperament, but if they are not handled much they can become defensive and deliver a painful bite (they are also nocturnal and can be difficult to wake or act grumpy if woken during the day). Hamsters are small so they are fragile and children should always be supervised and sitting on the ground when handling them.
Overall, hamsters are widely available and make good beginner pets. Plus, you don't need a whole group of them to keep them happy since they most species are solitary animals (with the exception of some dwarf hamsters which can sometimes be social with other hamsters of their own species).
Gerbils as Pets
Just like hamsters, gerbils live an average of two to three years (although up to five years has been reported). They have a body length of about four inches and a furry tail (unlike a rat or mouse) that is almost as long as their body (never pick a gerbil up by that tail, though). Gerbils are very active and social so they are happier as a pair or part of a group (get all males or all females to prevent prolific breeding).
Introducing adult gerbils to each other is difficult though, so it is best to acquire a pair (or more) that are litter mates or while they are quite young. A recommended minimum cage size for a pair or small group of gerbils is 12 x 24 inches with a height of 12 inches (although more space is always better).
With regular handling, gerbils can become quite tame and are interesting to watch as they play and interact with their cage-mates. They seem to be less prone to biting than some hamsters but are also even more energetic so they can be difficult for little hands to safely hold.
Mice as Pets
Fancy mice live one to three years on average and are quite easy to care for. They are the smallest of the mentioned rodents here with bodies that are only about three inches long and a long hairless tail (like a rat). They are social and females do well in pairs or small groups (males tend to fight if kept with other males). They require only a relatively small cage (a minimum of 12 x 18 inches and 12 inches tall), although a larger cage is recommended if you have more than one pair.
Mice can become quite tame if handled regularly but are small, fast, and can be skittish. They are low maintenance, active, playful and entertaining to watch.
Rats as Pets
Rats live an average of two to four years and make great pets. They are very social so it is best to keep a same sex pair (two males or two females). Since they are larger than most other pet rodents, with a body length of about eight inches and a hairless tail about the same length as their body, they are easy to handle. With regular handling they become very tame and enjoy human companionship. They are highly intelligent, aren't as unpredictable as a little hamster that may easily jump out of little hands, and they rarely bite. They need time outside of their cage for social interaction and exercise, and can even be taught simple tricks (they have been compared to dogs in their ability to bond and interact with people).
Rats do need a tall cage with at least 24 inches x 36 inches of floor space since they are a larger rodent and need space to climb and play.
Due to their social nature they need more time and attention than many of the other small rodents, but make very rewarding pets.
Guinea Pigs as Pets
Guinea pigs are fairly long lived rodents with an average lifespan of five to seven years (up to 10 is sometimes seen). At an adult size of about 10 inches long and two to three pounds, they are also the largest of the commonly seen pet rodents. Their size and gentle temperament have made guinea pigs popular pets, especially for families. They rarely bite, even when stressed. They are social so they do best when kept in pairs of the same sex, and they need a larger cage than is typically found in the guinea pig section at the pet store.
A suggested minimum is four square feet of floor space for a pair and this is only if daily exercise outside of the cage is available. A larger cage is needed if you aren't able to let your guinea pig roam regularly. Larger cages can be easily created with household materials to create a wonderful habitat since guinea pigs are not escape artists like the other rodents mentioned here. They have slightly more demanding diets, needing a fresh supply of hay and veggies as well as adequate amounts of vitamin C but they make rewarding pets. There are also less concerns with children handling guinea pigs since they are bigger and less fragile than the smaller rodents.
Other Pet Rodents
There are also other kinds of rodents that are kept as pets including chinchillas, jirds, degus, dormice, duprasi, chipmunks, squirrels, prairie dogs, Patagonian cavies, and more. You have a lot of options in the rodent family and it's up to you to figure out which one is best suited for you.
Edited by Adrienne Kruzer, RVT