Guinea Pig vs. Hamster (What Is Better for Each Situation)


At first glance, it may seem like there isn’t much difference between a guinea pig and a hamster. If you don’t own one or the other, you might not even be able to tell which is which. It’s true that they’re both small rodents that are typically kept as house pets, but there are some differences between them that make each more suitable in certain situations.

Depending on your living situation, other pets you might have in your house, the presence of children, or even the climate you live in, you might choose a guinea pig over a hamster or vice versa. This article will help guide you through this decision and, hopefully, help you determine which type of pet is better for you.

General Care Tips for Guinea Pigs

Guinea pig being brushed in lap

The guinea pig is a small rodent that was initially found in and domesticated in South America. It’s a popular housepet because of its calm and docile nature and how easy it is to care for them, and there are a wide variety of breeds of differing colors, sizes, and coat textures. Apart from being pets, they’re still a popular food source among indigenous Andean cultures.

Guinea pigs are somewhat large for rodents, weighing between 1.5 and 2.5 pounds when fully grown. This size might impact your ability to have one, depending on your living situation. Guinea pigs live for about 4 to 5 years on average. They’re relatively smart for a rodent, not very fast, and may startle and freeze quickly, which could be a concern if you have other pets.

Guinea Pigs’ Group Behavior

They do well in groups and are a social animal, so you could potentially want to get a second or third guinea pig to keep your first one company, although they do fine by themselves as well. They’ll establish social hierarchies, groom each other, struggle for dominance, and even “stampede” if a large group of them encounter a predator.

Diet and Environment

Pair of guinea pigs eating lettuce

Guinea pigs have various needs in terms of the optimal environment and diet they need to be a happy house pet. These needs include:

  • Group living – guinea pigs are social animals and ideally 2 or more will work.
    • If you are not looking to breed them, make sure they are spayed/neutered or of the same sex.
    • Keep in mind that the behavior of guinea pigs may not change even after desexing.
  • Guinea pigs are typically housed in wire or mesh cages, lined with wood shavings.
  • Guinea pigs are messy creatures, frequently mixing feces or urine with their food.
  • Guinea pigs do not do well with rodents of differing species (hamsters or gerbils, for instance)
  • It is a prey animal, which may trigger predatory instincts in larger pets such as dogs or cats.
  • Guinea pigs naturally eat grass as their primary food source.
    • They can also eat fresh hay, guinea pig food pellets, alfalfa hay, fruits, and vegetables as an occasional treat
  • They do not respond well to sudden diet changes as adults, and may starve and die rather than try new things.
  • Like all rodents (whose teeth will continue to grow throughout their entire lifespan), guinea pigs will need something in their cage to gnaw on to control tooth growth.

While this may seem like a lot, guinea pigs are, in all reality, a relatively easy little mammal to take care of. As long as you feed them the right food, make sure they get enough water, clean their cage, and give them attention each day, you should have them around for at least 4 or 5 years.

Supplies Needed for Guinea Pigs

If you’re buying a guinea pig to take home, you should get its habitat set up before bringing your new friend home for the first time. Taking the time to have a comfortable habitat established will help ease the guinea pig into the transition from the pet store to home, which can be very stressful for the little guy. At a minimum, you should have the following things:

  • Cage
  • Hiding spot
  • Hay
  • Bedding material
  • Water bottle
  • Food tray
  • Hairbrush and nail clippers
  • Chew toy for chewing on
  • Hamster food

General Care Tips for Hamsters

Hamster Eating

Hamsters are another rodent that is very common as a small housepet, similar to the guinea pig. However, they’re more closely related to rats and mice than guinea pigs (who are actually closely related to the largest living rodent, the Capybara). Therefore, there are a number of crucial differences that potential hamster owners should be aware of.

Hamsters’ Group Behavior

Hamsters are usually kept in plastic containers with shaved wood bedding, similar to guinea pigs, but they aren’t as social as guinea pigs are. While you may be able to have 2 hamsters in the same cage if they were siblings or same-gender, this is only if you introduce them at a very young age.

However, most of the time, hamsters are fiercely solitary and will sometimes fight to the death if housed with another hamster. This isn’t isolated only to other hamsters; they’ll fight gerbils, guinea pigs, or even rabbits. This is almost entirely the opposite of the guinea pig, which is a very social creature.

Diet and Environment

Hamsters don’t graze like guinea pigs; instead, they are food hoarders like other species of mice and rats, filling their cheeks with food while foraging and taking it back to their lairs. They are omnivorous, eating fruits, vegetables, and small insects, so your hamster will require a more varied diet than a guinea pig, in addition to pre-packaged hamster food.

Hamster eating some sunflower seeds

In terms of living requirements, the following are some needs that hamsters have that you’ll have to be prepared to meet if you’d like to have one as a pet:

  • They’ll explore their habitat and chew their way out of their home if possible.
  • Hamsters thrive on a varied diet that includes grass, fruits, vegetables, insects, and nuts. You shouldn’t give your hamster junk food, though.
  • Hamsters are crepuscular, meaning they’re most active at twilight.
  • Hamsters in captivity usually won’t hibernate, but hamsters in the wild will.
  • Hamsters are excellent diggers and love to burrow.
  • Depending on the breed, hamsters live anywhere from 2 to 4 years in captivity.
  • Hamsters can be very active. As a result, many people get hamster wheels for them to run around in.

Again, hamsters aren’t necessarily difficult to care for, but you should have a general idea of their temperament and needs before you get one. As long as they get a varied diet, plenty of exercise, and a clean cage, a hamster will be a happy, healthy pet to have.

Supplies Needed for Hamsters

If you’re looking at buying a hamster, it helps to know what you’re getting yourself into. A full-blown hamster living space could be expensive if you buy it all brand new, but at a minimum, here’s what you’ll need to make sure your hamster is well-cared for:

  • Small cage or pen (sealed at the bottom so they can’t escape, but also well-ventilated at the top)
  • Hamster wheel for exercise
  • Hamster ball for placing your hamster in when cleaning its cage
  • Water bottle
  • Food bowl
  • Bedding material (shaved wood, wood chips)
  • Toys for mental stimulation
  • Variety of food
  • Differing terrain, levels, tubes, etc. in the habitat for them to explore
  • Hiding spot (tunnel, rock, etc.) for them to nap and hide in

Which Rodent Has Fewer Health Issues?

Another consideration you might want to make when deciding which animal to bring home is fewer health issues. Having a pet die is a sad event, so it follows that you’ll want a pet that has fewer potential health problems and, thus, may have a longer lifespan.

Guinea pigs, in general, tend to live longer than hamsters, anywhere from 2 to 3 years longer in some cases. However, each of these little creatures is prone to a variety of health issues and concerns, which are listed in the table below.

Guinea PigsHamsters
Respiratory infections like pneumoniaSkin diseases and infections/fungi
ScurvyHair loss
DiarrheaTeeth issues
AbscessesDiabetes
Urinary Infections/stonesRespiratory infections
ParasitesGeriatric diseases
TumorsDigestive problems
Table Data Sources: www.vcahospitals.com & www.petcentral.chewy.com

As you may well imagine, these health problems can be quite serious if left untreated, and if you start to suspect your hamster or guinea pig is afflicted with any of these problems, you should seek help from a veterinarian. However, both animals can be affected by very similar health issues, so both species are essentially the same if they’re an issue for you.

Living In An Apartment

Apartment Blocks

If you live in a small apartment, either a guinea pig or a hamster is a great pet choice. Frequently, apartments that may not allow dogs or cats may allow smaller, caged animals like a guinea pig or hamster without a pet fee. Since their cages are typically small and don’t need to be taken outside, either rodent would be a good choice for an apartment pet.

Pros and Cons of Hamsters in an Apartment

In terms of which type of rodent may be more suited to apartment living, it’s really up to personal preference. Hamsters are smaller in physical size, but their propensity to burrow and escape means they may get out of their cage and ultimately lost in an apartment complex. Since they don’t get along great with other animals, they’d be an ideal pet if that’s the only pet you have.

Pros:

  • Small cage
  • Quiet animal
  • No requirement for more than one hamster for health and happiness
  • No requirement for walking or taking it out of its cage for exercise

Cons:

  • If it escapes, it could leave the apartment and be lost forever.
  • Other pets in the apartment complex may try and prey upon it.
  • The tendency to be noisy and active at night or dusk could annoy neighbors.
  • If not adequately cleaned, their cages can be smelly and could bother neighbors.

Pros and Cons of Guinea Pigs in an Apartment

Guinea pigs don’t try to escape their cages nearly as much, but they do make loud noises when startled or scared, which could end up annoying nearby neighbors in your apartment. Guinea pigs are social creatures, so keeping them at optimal health levels often requires having at least two guinea pigs, which could be a problem for some apartments or neighbors.

Guinea pigs are also very messy, so their cages require constant cleaning, or they will get smelly. This could even bother neighbors. Like hamsters, they’re the natural prey of a variety of other pets, like dogs and cats, so any of those pets in the apartment building could start hunting your guinea pig.

Pros:

  • Small cage, so space requirements are minimal.
  • Guinea pigs are quiet creatures that aren’t very active in a cage, which makes them neighbor-friendly
  • Don’t try to escape their cages as much, so smaller risk of them getting loose in the apartment.

Cons:

  • Make loud noises when they’re scared or startled, which could cause problems with other tenants.
  • Often require another guinea pig to be happy and healthy, and your apartment may not allow multiple guinea pigs.
  • Could become prey for dogs, cats, or other apartment animals

Living In A House

Large house

If you live in a standalone house or a townhouse, either of these pets will make a fine addition to your family. With the extra room that typically comes in a home, you’ll have space for the cages, and you could conceivably even have one of each. Just make sure you don’t house them in the same cage since hamsters may attack guinea pigs if housed together.

Both guinea pigs and hamsters will get used to living in your house, and depending on the noise levels, they’ll get used to whatever the normal activity levels are. However, in particular, guinea pigs are easily startled, so they may take some extra time to get used to your place, especially if you have other animals (more on that later).

When you bring your new guinea pig or hamster home, laying a light cloth over their cage will help ease them into the sights, sounds, and smells in your home while letting them spend some time getting to know their habitat. It’s essential to not over stimulate them at first. Once they’ve had a couple of days to get used to their cage, you can remove the cloth and get to know them.

Habitats

Guinea pigs do best in a habitat that’s roughly 36″x30″x18″, but the larger, the better so they can exercise. A house has more space than an apartment, so you may be more able to house a guinea pig. Hamsters are smaller, so they require a smaller space, but they also like to have hidden nooks and crannies to explore, as they’re naturally curious creatures.

Their habitats should have things for your pet to explore, exercise on, and play with for both animals. Even though they’re small, hamsters and guinea pigs both need exercise and mental stimulation, or else they’ll get bored and devote most of their time and energy to escaping their enclosures. Some ramps or things to climb, small toys, and places for them to hide will help.

Living In A Dorm

Small dorm room

College-aged kids often find themselves homesick and lonely, so they consider the possibility of having a small rodent-like a guinea pig or hamster as a pet/companion. College dorms are hit or miss, but there are some colleges out there that allow small pets in dorm rooms. We wouldn’t recommend picking a college based on its pet policy, but it might be considered.

If you’re looking to bring a hamster or guinea pig to your college, there are some factors you should keep in mind before making your decision.

  • While crepuscular, hamsters are nocturnal, so they may disrupt your sleep or your roommate’s sleep.
  • Your roommate may not be ok with having a pet.
  • Disposing of dirty bedding may be difficult, depending on trash rules where you live.
  • Hamsters and guinea pigs are generally ok with being alone throughout the day, but you may not be able to go away for a weekend if you have a pet at college.
  • Some residential halls on campus may not allow small pets, while others might.
  • If you don’t have a car, you’ll have to figure out how to get to the local store for pet supplies.
  • Guinea pigs do better when they’re in pairs, so if your dorm only allows you to bring one small pet, it’s better to go with a hamster.

Guinea Pigs vs. Hamsters: Better for Budget Living

If you’re on a Dave Ramsey financial plan or trying to minimize your expenses, you might think that a small rodent-like a guinea pig or a hamster is an excellent way to scratch the “pet itch” without breaking the bank, and you’d be right – to a certain extent. While it is true that a small pet isn’t going to cost as much as a larger pet like a dog or a cat in terms of food costs, they’re not going to be cheap.

Savings

Hamsters and guinea pigs cost roughly the same amount of money, both in terms of up-front costs as well as their monthly expenses. Both will require a small to medium-sized cage or similar enclosure, bedding, food tray, water bottle, and the other things we’ve discussed that will keep your pet happy and healthy.

Guinea pigs are a little larger, so they may eat more, but a hamster requires a more varied diet, which could get pricey as well. Likewise, hamsters need more “activities” to stay entertained, as well as a hamster ball for when you want to clean their cage. Therefore, a slight edge might go to the guinea pig in this case, but it’s tough to say definitively.

Living with Kids

If you have kids, you may be interested in picking up a guinea pig or hamster as a way to ease your child into having some responsibility. Most experts agree that either hamsters or guinea pigs make great introductory pets for kids, given their simplicity and how simple they are to care for. Let’s take an in-depth look at both guinea pigs and hamsters as a child’s pet.

Guinea Pigs as a Kid’s Pet

Child holding a guinea pig

Out of the two rodents, guinea pigs are arguably the better choice for a child’s pet. They’re large and hardy enough to be handled by clumsy hands, yet gentle enough that they won’t hurt your child either. However, that doesn’t mean you can just turn your kid loose with a guinea pig. Especially with kids who haven’t a pet before, supervision is essential.

Guinea pigs can be fun, and they require minimal care besides cleaning the cage once a week, replacing their bedding, and feeding them. They’re fun to play with and can get attached to their owners, which can be exciting for kids. As long as you’re keeping an eye on your child with their guinea pig, choosing one as a child’s pet is an excellent choice.

Pros and Cons of Guinea Pigs as a Kid’s Pet

In summary, you should be aware of the following things when deciding to give your child a guinea pig:

Pros:

  • Hardier than hamsters or gerbils.
  • Low maintenance and require minimal care.
  • Fun to play with “popcorn” when they’re excited, which means they bounce up and down and make “wheeking” sounds.
  • Easy to handle, gentle creatures.
  • Can bond with their owners; more social creature than a hamster.

Cons:

  • Usually require at least one other guinea pig to be happy.
  • Small and relatively fragile if your kids tend to be rough.

Hamsters as a Kids’ Pet

Child looking at a hamster

Although they’re well suited to be a child’s pet, there are several disadvantages hamsters have to guinea pigs in this regard. They’re smaller and faster, and they can fit in smaller places, so kids have to be extra careful if handling them, so they don’t run off and escape. They’re also more delicate than their larger cousins, so they’re more likely to be accidentally injured.

Their fragility may not make them the right pet for very young children, but hamsters can make excellent pets for older kids. They’re fun to play with, very interactive with their environment, and low maintenance. As with guinea pigs, they just need a weekly cage cleaning and fresh food and water daily to be healthy and happy.

Pros and Cons of a Hamster as a Kids’ Pet

In summary, you should be aware of the following things when deciding to give your child a hamster:

Pros:

  • Fun to play with.
  • Highly interactive with their environment.
  • Low maintenance pet who doesn’t require constant attention or care.

Cons:

  • Smaller and more fragile than a guinea pig.
  • Faster and more likely to escape their enclosure.
  • It can get lost in a house or apartment more easily.

Other Pets in the House

If you have other animals in your house, you should keep your guinea pig removed from them. Guinea pigs are easy-going creatures, but they do startle easy, so it takes finesse. Guinea pigs are also naturally prey for various creatures, so you’ll want to be careful around dogs and cats, and other animals that may try and eat your guinea pig.

With other guinea pigs and even rabbits, guinea pigs are usually ok. You probably don’t want to have more than one other guinea pig in the same cage, though.

Hamsters are solitary creatures, and you can’t have more than one hamster in a single cage because they’re fiercely territorial and will attack other hamsters. In terms of other pets you might want to have, here’s a quick breakdown of their compatibility with the small yet scrappy hamster, as well as an idea of why they are or are not compatible:

PetCompatible with HamsterReason
SnakeNoSnakes love mice and rats, and your hamster is just another mouse to them.
CatPossiblyAs long as your hamster is kept in its enclosure, you’re probably fine.
DogProbablyPlace your hamster out of your dog’s sight, and you should try and keep your dog from barking as much to keep from startling your hamster.
TurtleYesKeep your two pets in separate enclosures, and they’ll never even know each other exists.
RabbitNoRabbits and hamsters are both very territorial, and a rabbit is a lot bigger than a hamster.
BirdNoBirds and hamsters don’t get along; keep them completely separated and unaware of the other for the hamster’s safety.
Table Data Source: www.hamsters101.co

In short, hamsters don’t get on well with most other pets, either because they’ll be prone to fighting the ones that are similar in size or the predatory animals eat them. If you have other pets and you want to add a hamster into the mix, make sure they’re in the proper enclosure and, if possible, keep them physically separated from your other pets.

Closing Thoughts

Depending on your living situation, you might choose a hamster or a guinea pig. While they’re both small rodents and both require roughly the same items, the similarities mostly end there. They have different diets, different social behaviors, temperaments, and different enclosure requirements; the list goes on and on.

Ultimately, you may just find one of them cuter than the other and go with the cutest one, and that’s fine. Hopefully, though, this guide was able to provide you with a general idea of what caring for each entails and whether one of these two fine choices for a pet would better fit your current situation. Don’t forget to consider adopting a rescued rodent!

Lee Cameron

When I was younger, I had guinea pigs and hamsters as pets. There was limited information back then as to how to take care of rodents, and indeed information on the various types of rodents that could be kept as pets. In this website, I hope to make it an easy, one-stop information portal on raising rodents!

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