Congrats! Maybe you’re here because you’ve decided to add the first exotic pets to the family, or maybe you just saw some cute baby gerbils on the Internet and want to learn more. I’m here to outline the top five rodents kept as pets, their differences and similarities, and how to choose the right species for your family.
The top five species of rodents have strongly differing characteristics. Gerbils are energetic, hamsters nocturnal. Mice are friendly, guinea pigs not very bright, and rats are highly intelligent. Each requires a different perspective on pet ownership, but all entertain in their own way.
Diurnal vs. Nocturnal
While all five species sometimes stay awake all night, only hamsters are truly nocturnal. Hamsters prefer to sleep all day and often bite if woken. However, in the evening they are sociable and friendly. Because they exercise for three to five miles a night, hamsters should live outside of the bedroom. Otherwise they will keep the kids awake.
Gerbils and mice are active both at night and during the day. They also don’t do well in bedrooms, because they run and chew loudly, but they don’t spend all day cranky.
Guinea pigs sleep through the night and stay quiet. They usually only make noise when they think you might feed them, so guinea pigs sleep when you sleep.
Rats do whatever you do. They love attention and playtime, and will adjust their schedule to fit yours. They need lots of interaction when the family is awake, but will sleep at night if it’s quiet and dark.
Ease of Care
Hamsters, gerbils, and mice require similar care. Their cage should be as large as possible, with some sort of bedding deep enough to dig. Use houses, paper towel tubes, and cardboard for enrichment.
Guinea pigs require larger cages but otherwise similar layout: a few hideouts, daily food, and fresh bedding.
Rats need extra care. They bond closely to their owners, and need cage-free time every night. They learn tricks and play, and love enrichment. While they don’t live as long as dogs, they act otherwise very similar, and learn routines. Rats do bite if they feel threatened, but they learn quickly. Rats must receive daily handling, as they bond closely to their family.
Training & Social
Individuals of all five species show personality, curiosity, and learn to interact with their owners. However, they behave differently while doing so.
Hamsters like their owners and like food. They learn simple tricks, but because they sleep during the day, have limited hours to bond with their owners. They do not require daily interaction beyond providing food and water, and keeping the cage clean.
Gerbils learn their people but typically need careful handling or they escape. They are friendly and inquisitive, but desperately fast and jump the best of the five species. Gerbils also do not require daily interaction, though they tend to like people.
Mice behave similarly to gerbils, but are slower and less jumpy. They learn simple tricks and interact with their owners. Like hamsters and gerbils, mice do not require daily interaction.
Guinea pigs have difficulty learning tricks, but are very social and genuinely like their family. They learn the comings and goings, and will call out anytime you step near their food or rustle a bag. Guinea pigs are large enough to handle easily and are unable to jump much more than a foot high. They can try to escape but are large enough to catch. If guinea pigs receive daily handling, they are friendly and inquisitive, and rarely bite. Abysinnians, the short-haired ones with cowlicks, are known to be the nippiest of the breeds by show breeders, but most do not bite.
Rats thoroughly love their owners, and learn complex tricks. They prefer to be with their owners whenever possible, and will come out when called once they learn their name. They will escape if left to their own devices, but as long as they are supervised and well-trained, they will not disappear in front of you.
Guinea pigs hold the record for longevity, hands down. Spayed or neutered, and kept properly, they can live up to eight years.
Hamsters, rats, gerbils, and mice typically live under three years in captivity. Remember the animal you buy at the pet shop may be four or six months of age, and they fall ill easily. With proper care, expect about two years.
While mice, gerbils, and hamsters can be kept in cheap ten gallon aquariums, expect to spend around $100 setting up for these three species. A larger twenty gallon tank provides extra space for digging and hoarding, and improves the quality of life of these species. Feed costs very little for the amount your pet will eat.
Guinea pigs need significantly more space, and a typical setup costs around $100 plus $30 for each animal. As they must live in pairs, expect to spend around $200 for setup. Your family will spend more on feeding guinea pigs than the other five, since they need pellets, fresh hay, and fresh fruits and veggies every day.
Rats should have large enclosures with multiple levels, and frequent handling. Their cage can cost up to $100 or more, depending on customization, and pet-bred rats can cost $20 or $30 each. Rats must also be kept in same-sex pairs, and bond strongly to their cagemates. Rats eat almost everything humans eat, and custom rat mixes made from common pantry ingredients are common. Avoid buying feeder rats as pets, they are not bred for sound temperament and are more prone to biting.
Consider your options carefully if cats reside in the house. Gerbils, mice, and hamsters strongly trigger prey drive in cats that hunt mice. More than one cat of mine chose to sit on top of their cage and stare! Guinea pigs and rats also trigger feline prey drives, but rats will fight back and bite, and guinea pigs are large enough to give most cats pause. However, cats do kill both species as well.
If your family includes a predatory cat, make sure you can keep your little furry safe.
- Get gerbils if your family wants to interact on a limited basis, but watch high-energy animals play and do their thing. For me, gerbils are like aquariums.
- Get a hamster if you want a really cute pet that you don’t have to interact with much.
- Get mice if you want a small, active pet, that is halfway between gerbils and hamsters in activity level.
- Get guinea pigs if your family wants an interactive pet that lives a long time, but does not require a ton of daily hands-on attention, but will happily run around the house.
- Get a rat if you want a pet that you will interact with constantly, eats table scraps, and finds all sorts of trouble to get into.
My personal favorite pet for families, especially those with children, is the guinea pig. Sturdy but small, unlike the others they talk quite a bit, and come in beautiful colors. This page outlines more information about the species. I hope to get the rest done soon!
Do you have little critters?
Do you have another species that you think belongs on this list? Let me know!