Guinea pigs and hamsters are just two of the many small domesticated critters that are typically given as pet starter gifts for kids. Both are adorable, lovable, and command a respectable following from pet lovers everywhere (both species are neck-and-neck when it comes to pet ownership in the US). However, if you were to choose between these two cute, chubby-cheeked fur balls, you may find yourself scratching your head as their difference is not only limited to their size. That being said, you’d have to understand a number of factors that can play into their optimum care and how they can fit into your life. Here are some questions you have to ask yourself to determine which between a hamster and guinea pig is the right choice for you.
Do You Prefer a Bigger or Smaller Pet?
Size is the most obvious difference between a guinea pig and a hamster. The biggest hamster, the Syrian, can grow up to 6 to 7 inches while the smallest hamster, the Campbell’s, can be as small as 3 inches. On the other hand, guinea pigs are slightly longer at 8 to 9 inches, although some Peruvian guinea pigs have been known to grow up to 20 inches long.
When it comes to their weight, a Syrian hamster will typically come in at about 5 to 7 ounces while dwarfs like Roborovskis, Chinese, Campbell’s, and Siberians can only weigh anywhere between 1 and 2.5 ounces. On the other hand, guinea pigs can tip the scale at 2.6 lbs with the minimum at 1.5 lbs, depending on the type or breed.
These size differences should always be considered whenever choosing between the two. If you want something smaller, then a hamster should be a great choice. However, if you prefer something that is bigger, more like a kitten, then you should pick a guinea pig.
Is Child-Friendliness Important to You?
The next natural question that pops out of your head is which of these two pet critters is best for kids. It is easy to think that a hamster is best because of its small size. However, one should understand that hamsters are nocturnal creatures. They are mostly active when everyone else in your household is already sound asleep. That being said, it may not be a good idea for your school-age kid to have a hamster as a pet. Just imagine how unhappy and grumpy the hamster can be, when instead of sleeping during the day, it will be played with by your child who just came from school.
Additionally, hamsters can get nippy if they are disturbed in their supposed ‘rest periods’. We’re pretty sure you also don’t like being awakened from your much-needed slumber. No one does. And if it nips on your kid, then that’s the end of the child-pet bond. There is another matter about hamsters that makes them quite unsuitable for younger kids. These fur balls have a knack for escapism. Considering your child’s hands are not really that large and that they’re reflexes are not yet fully refined as what you may have, hamsters can easily bolt out of their cages or from little hands. And if you happen to have a cat or a dog in the house, then you’ve got the classic predator-prey scenario.
Sure, your kid can grasp the hamster in a manner that will not allow escape. But doing so can also hurt the hamster especially the dwarfs. And you know what an animal will do if it is hurt.
If child-friendliness is what you seek, then a guinea pig will be a much better choice. They are bigger, allowing for better grasp. They are also diurnal creatures, meaning they are mostly active when you are active. So when your child comes home from school, he or she can still play with the little fellow. When it’s time for bed, both your child and his or her guinea pig will be sleeping at the same time.
Of course, these are not your only considerations when it comes to child-friendliness of pets. You need to realize that both hamsters and guinea pigs are carriers of zoonotic diseases. These are health conditions that can be transmitted from animals to humans and from humans to animals. Sadly, younger children do not have a fully-developed immune system yet. This can make them highly susceptible to these kinds of health conditions. The same is true with individuals who may have compromised immune systems.
Is Space an Issue in Your Home?
Owing to the size of guinea pigs, some of which can grow up to more than a foot and a half long, they are ideal for households that do not have issues with space. As a matter of fact, if you’re thinking of creating a miniature zoo right in your home, the guinea pig will fit right in. But this doesn’t necessarily mean you should devote that much space for them.
At the very minimum, a single guinea pig will require about 7.5 square feet of floor space. When translated into a cage dimension, the magic numbers are 30 and 36 inches. This is the minimum. As a rule, the bigger the guinea pig cage, the better. You also need to understand that guinea pigs are social creatures – they thrive best when accompanied by their kind. It is for this reason that your cage should always be bigger to accommodate at least a pair of guinea pigs.
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As such, if you live in a home or even an apartment where space is simply a resource that you are having difficulty with, then a guinea pig might not be a good idea. A better option will be a hamster. If you’re really fighting for space, get a dwarf.
Majority of hamsters are solitary creatures. They prefer living alone, except for certain dwarfs. Regardless of the type, a hamster will require a cage that measures a foot wide and 2 feet long at the very least. That big? Yes, that big. You have to understand that hamsters, while they can live perfectly on their own, will require a lot of activities to keep them busy and entertained. This is where tunnels, hamster balls, and other playthings come in. And if you have a teenie weenie cage, how do you expect to put all of these accessories inside?
Are You a Day or Night Person?
There are some of us who turn our days into nights and vice versa. People working the graveyard shift as well as those who consider themselves as night owls will do a lot better with hamsters in their homes. As we’ve already said, these small critters are mostly active at night, but most especially towards the break of day. Don’t blame them. Nighttime is the only part of the day that is relatively ‘safe’ for them.
In the wild, they don’t go out during the day because most of their natural predator enemies are prowling the fields. As such, they switch off and get as much sleep as they can to help them last the night hunting for their own food. Of course, there are still nighttime predators, but they are relatively few compared to those that hunt during the day.
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Now, if you’re like most of us who feel the call of the bed as soon as the day turns to dusk, then a guinea pig is best. These critters are pretty much like us – awake in the day, asleep at night. So you will definitely have more fun playing with a guinea pig while you’re fully awake and with the sun shining ever so brightly in the sky.
You may think that you can still play with a hamster during the day. We don’t have to remind you that disrupting the sleep cycle of an animal can really make it grumpy. In the case of the hamster, it will never mind being nippy if only to remind you that it needs to sleep during the day.
Are You a Cuddler Type of Person?
Can you imagine yourself cuddling a 3-inch long, 5-oz Campbell’s dwarf hamster? Now, try imagining cuddling a 14-inch long, 3-lb Peruvian guinea pig. Because of its size, you’ll feel like you’re cuddling a Chihuahua. As such, if you’re a cuddler type of person, you will definitely have a much better chance with a guinea pig than a hamster. Even the largest hamster, the Syrian, can only grow a maximum of 7 inches and tip the scale at 4.5 ounces, tops.
There’s another reason why hamsters are not really for cuddler folks. Given their size, hamsters are more defensive around humans. They can get really nervous, too. Animal anxiety can translate into many different behaviors. They can be very fearful or very aggressive. Unfortunately, most hamsters will be more of a combination of both – fearful aggression. They can be nippy. Add to this the fact that they’re still sleepy when their human owners scooped them up from their cages (unless, of course, it’s nighttime).
Do You Prefer Cat-Like Independence or Dog-Like Sociability?
Here’s something that you should really think about. Cats are known to be highly-independent creatures, preferring to live alone. That’s the same for majority of hamsters (some types of dwarf hamsters require a partner). They prefer to do their own thing. Just give them the essentials and let them be. They’re much happier if they are not disturbed. This is not to say that they don’t need social interaction, however. They still do, but only minimally. Ten to 15 minutes every day is fine.
On the other hand, guinea pigs are very social creatures – yes, like dogs. They thrive in social interactions. They require a partner when they are put in cages, otherwise they will grow very unhappy. You can still get a single guinea pig, provided you make sure you give it the attention and social interaction it needs. If the guinea pig feels you’re not giving it the much-needed TLC it expects from you, it will let you know through its vocalizations.
Do You Prefer Short- or Long-Term Commitment?
Guinea pigs can live up to 7 years, although it’s not uncommon that some can reach up to a decade. That means you will have to really take care of it through this number of years. That’s a long-term commitment. Guinea pigs are perfect for individuals who are really serious about taking good care of their pets and are committed to seeing them grow and thrive.
Hamsters, on the other hand, typically live only up to 3.5 years in the case of the Roborovski. The Syrian typically reaches 2.5 years while the Winter White can only last about 2 years. In other words, if you’re not really sure whether you can keep up with the responsibilities and commitments of being a pet parent, then a hamster is a good choice.
Is Escapism an Issue for You?
Both guinea pigs and hamsters, like most pets, have this inherent need to escape from captivity. After all, no one likes to be ‘imprisoned’ for the rest of his life. But when it comes to the intense desire to escape, the hamster’s wish to escape is a thousand-fold greater than that of the guinea pig. Hamsters will chew on the bars of their cages and will always try to look for ways by which they can escape. And if you happen to have a Roborovski or even a Chinese hamster, the spacing in between the vertical bars in its cage should not be too wide to let it escape.
Guinea pigs chew, too. They do this to keep their teeth at a more desirable length. And while guinea pigs will also try to escape, their determination is not as intense as a hamster’s. Why? Well, they have learned to love the affection you’re giving them.
Hopefully, these guide questions will help you determine the right pet for you between a guinea pig and a hamster. For all its worth, hamsters and guinea pigs are both adorable pets to have.