Fact checked by Dr. Antoinette Martin, DVM
Both guinea pigs and hamsters fall into the category of “pocket pets,” which is an informal blanket term that refers to small, pocket-sized mammals that people keep as pets. These small and furry species are often chosen as starter pets for a variety of reasons. While it is true that either pet rodent can be an excellent option for first-time owners, both animals still require all of the love and care you would offer a larger type of pet.
Choosing the Right Pet
While many people assume that hamsters and guinea pigs are easy to care for and practically the same because they are both small rodents, it is important to remember that they each have their own specialized needs. Just like choosing between a cat and a dog, deciding whether you want to welcome a guinea pig or a hamster into your family is a big decision that requires plenty of research.
To help you choose the right type of small mammal for your specific preferences, we are going to explain some of the many differences between guinea pigs and hamsters. By understanding how these two seemingly similar types of pets differ, you will be better prepared to make the right choice.
Do not be fooled into thinking there is little difference between hamsters and guinea pigs just because they look somewhat similar. Learn the differences so you can find the perfect pet for yourself and your family!
The Main Differences Between Hamsters and Guinea Pigs
To help you make the correct decision, we are going to go over some of the main differences between hamsters and guinea pigs.
While they are both relatively small types of pets, guinea pigs are much larger than hamsters. In fact, most guinea pig breeds are between two and four times larger than the average hamster.
While hamsters tend to grow between 5-7 inches in length and weigh between 3 and 7 oz, most guinea pig breeds measure closer to 10 inches in length and weight closer to 2.5 lbs.
The size difference means the two types of pets require different enclosures. Where hamsters can do quite well in relatively small cages, guinea pigs require more spacious enclosures and also do better when they are taken out of their cages regularly. In fact, some people will even take their guinea pigs outside so they can roam around and explore.
Guinea pigs are playful and social animals. Most breeds are very gentle and mild-mannered, which means they enjoy cuddling and human interaction, especially when they are familiar with their surroundings.
On the other hand, hamsters are far more solitary. While they can be affectionate toward humans, they can bite if they have not become accustomed to those interactions. Unlike guinea pigs, hamsters are also nocturnal, meaning they will be far more active in the evening, night, and early mornings.
Guinea pigs have an average lifespan between five and eight years, with many living even longer. On the other hand, hamsters usually only live between two and three years.
While diet, genetics, exercise, living environment, and quality of care will always impact the lifespan of any pet, it is fairly clear that guinea pigs are a better option for those looking to form a lengthier bond with their pet.
Where guinea pigs tend to make a variety of noises and are considered very expressive animals, hamsters are fairly quiet. However, when the two types of animals make their noises is very important. Guinea pig vocalizations occur during the day and usually consist of chirps, whistles, and purring sounds, while hamsters make more noise late at night and do so by scurrying around their cages and hissing at their cage-mates.
While a guinea pig might make more noise overall, the nocturnal nature of a hamster can be an issue for those that are light sleepers.
Where hamsters are omnivores, meaning they can digest both plant and animal-based foods, guinea pigs are strictly herbivores, which means they can only have a plant-based diet.
Guinea pigs also need constant access to hay, as their teeth never stop growing and they need fibrous plant material to grind them down and maintain good oral and gut health
While their diets are fairly similar, guinea pigs have slightly stricter diets. Guinea pigs also need more food, which is unsurprising given how much larger they are. Remember, the fact guinea pigs eat more also means they produce more waste, so you will have to clean up after them more often.
So, Should You Get a Hamster or a Guinea Pig?
As you can see, there are some fairly significant differences between hamsters and guinea pigs. While both types of animals can make excellent pets, the decision largely comes down to personal preference.
Due to their more social behavior and longer average lifespans, guinea pigs are better suited to individuals and families that are looking for a pet they can commit to caring for. While their more playful demeanor, and the fact they like being taken out of their cages, is great for those looking for a companion, they do require a decent amount of work. They need fresh hay daily, regular cage cleanings, more time outside of their cages, and some breeds even need to be brushed regularly.
On the other hand, hamsters can be easier to look after. While they also require daily care, they can be left to themselves more often, especially if you have more than one. Hamsters are also usually more temperamental, and they have more fragile and smaller bodies than guinea pigs. Plus, hamsters can nip and bite when they are scared, which is why they do not always make the best pets for very young children. Then, of course, there is their nocturnal nature, which can be irritating for certain pet owners.
Consider your own personal preferences and your living situation. If you are looking for a more playful pet that can live for as long as a decade, a guinea pig might be the better choice; however, if you cannot commit to pet ownership for that long and you want a more independent animal, a hamster might be what you are looking for.
As always, you can book a virtual vet appointment with one of our qualified Hello Ralphie online veterinarians if you ever have any questions about hamsters and guinea pigs. After you have made your decision, scheduling a virtual vet appointment is also one of the easiest ways to make sure you have everything your new pet needs!