Hamster vs Guinea Pig: Which Pet Should You Get? (With Pictures)

Last Updated: November 23, 2020

Many people think of small animals like hamsters and guinea pigs as good starter pets. They are a manageable size and require less care when compared to a dog or cat. Parents often get their children these pets to teach them responsibility. Over 5 million American households have invited small animals into their homes.

The essential thing to remember about owning any pet is that it is a commitment, whether you’re buying one for yourself or the kids. Adult supervision is also imperative for both hamsters and guinea pigs. The fact remains that both can—and do—bite if mishandled. However, with patient and gentle handling, either one will make a welcome to your family.

Both hamsters and guinea pigs are rodents. However, that’s where most of the similarities end. Our guide will run down the differences between these two pets. We’ll discuss the care of each pet in detail to help you decide which one is the better choice for your family.

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Visual Differences

guinea pig vs hamster
Image Credit: Left: Guinea Pig (Source: Pezibear, Pixabay), Right: Hamster (Source: Free-Photos, Pixabay)

A Quick Overview

Hamster
  • Average length (Adult): About 6 inches
  • Average Weight (Adult): 3.5–7.9 ounces
  • Lifespan: 2-3 years
  • Activity: Crepuscular
  • Exercise: Hamster wheel recommended
  • Family-Friendly: Suitable for children over 6 years old
  • Social Needs: Solitary
  • Trainability: Possible with younger animals
Guinea Pig
  • Average Length (Adult): 8–10 inches
  • Average Weight (Adult): 1.5–2.6 pounds
  • Lifespan: 4-5 years
  • Activity: Crepuscular
  • Exercise: Time outside of the cage recommended
  • Family-Friendly: Suitable for children over 6 years old
  • Social Needs: Tolerates other guinea pigs
  • Trainability: Possible with younger animals

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Hamster

It’s hard not to fall in love with a hamster. His big brown eyes and twitching nose could melt anyone’s heart. These rodents call Eurasia their home, with some species living from Russia to northern Africa. The Syrian or Golden Hamster is the one you’ll most likely find at the pet store. They have been companion animals for humans since around 1930.

The popularity of these pocket pets has risen steadily. Today, you’ll find other species, such as the Roborovski Hamster, Chinese Hamster, Winter White Hamster, and Russian Campbell Hamster. Each one varies slightly in size and color. Females are typically a bit larger than males. However, the care for any of these animals is essentially the same.

Syrian Hamster
Image Credit: Johannes-Menge, Shutterstock

Personality

Hamsters are docile creatures that can learn to tolerate handling. In the wild, these animals are usually crepuscular, which means they are active at dusk and dawn. Bear in mind that they are prey, so it’s essential that they are out and about before their predators start hunting. It’s a vital point, especially when considering whether to put the pet’s cage in a child’s bedroom.

It’s tempting to get more than one hamster, particularly if you have two or more children. Unfortunately, these animals aren’t as tolerant of another one in such close quarters. You’re better off just getting one pet that the kids can share. During the hamster’s waking hours, he is quite active. He’s also very curious about his surroundings. He fares best if you provide mental stimulation as part of his care.

Training

The essential thing to understand about training hamsters is that they are near-sighted. Sudden movements can easily frighten a pet. The key to getting him used to you is patience. Remember that a startled animal is more likely to bite. That’s one reason we suggest supervising your children when attempting to handle their pets.

Younger hamsters are easier to train than older ones. Treats are an excellent way to build trust between the kids and their pets. Remind your children to use their inside voices and speak quietly. Eventually, he’ll make positive associations between your child and food. If someone does get bit, wash the wound with warm, soapy water and apply a first-aid ointment.

Health and Care

You have several options when it comes to living quarters for your hamster. Ease of cleaning is the priority. Habitats with long trails and attachments look cute but require more work to keep his space healthy. Instead, we suggest a cage with a plastic bottom. Make sure to get one that is chew-proof. The teeth of hamsters, like other rodents, continues to grow during their lifetime.

You should fill the bottom of the cage with dust-free bedding material, such as wood shavings. These products are absorbent and can control odors better. It’s imperative that you or your children change it regularly. We also suggest adding a hamster wheel to help keep your pet active. Most likely, he won’t be outside his cage, so he must be able to get enough exercise inside of it to stay healthy.

Chinese hamster
Image Credit: alexvey, Shutterstock

You’ll also need a water bottle. We recommend getting a glass one versus a plastic one. A common complaint with some products is that the hamster chews through the bottom, making a mess inside his cage. Likewise, make sure to get one that doesn’t like the so-called dripless bottle. Provide your pet with fresh water every day, taking care to clean the nozzle.

Hamsters are omnivores, which means that they eat a variety of foods, from seeds to hay. Commercial diets are ideal for ensuring that you’re meeting his nutritional needs. It’s essential to keep your pet on the same diet. These animals don’t tolerate changes in their food well. Keep greens, such as lettuce, to a minimum if at all. The bulk of his diet should come from the packaged pellets or mixes.

Suitable For:

Hamsters are an excellent first pet for older children to teach them responsibility and pet care. While they’re not as cuddly as a puppy, your child can hand tame him with gentle handling and patience. The critical issue is to ensure that his cage is clean and dry.

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Guinea Pig

Guinea pigs or cavies are another popular small animal that makes an excellent pet for kids. They are larger and somewhat easier to handle. Humans and these rodents have a long history going back thousands of years, although not as pets at first. They were and still are raised in South America as food. However, now you’ll find a variety of breeds for pets and show.

The American Cavy Breeders Association registers 13 different breeds of guinea pigs, with exotic names such as Peruvian and Abyssinian. The organization sets standards and runs shows for confirmation, not unlike the American Kennel Club (AKC) for dogs. You’ll find a wide range of different traits, from short-haired to long-haired.

Unlike the hamster, the domesticated guinea pig only exists as pets and in the show ring. There are other species in South America that still serve their ancient purpose.

brown and white silkie guinea pig
Image Credit: krithnarong Raknagn, Shutterstock

Personality

Guinea pigs are social animals both among themselves and with people. Like cats, they will sometimes even groom each other. They are also quite vocal with the characteristic whistling sound that they make. There are other shared vocalizations for communicating that signal emotion like fear or contentment. Cavies even purr like a kitten when they’re happy.

Like hamsters, guinea pigs are crepuscular. You have to give the same thought about his cage placement because of his activity level and sounds he’ll likely make when he’s awake. While they are active, they don’t approach the same degree as hamsters. However, it’s just as essential to avoid sudden movements that may scare your pet. After all, he is also near-sighted.

Training

Guinea pigs are intelligent. That means a child can have more of a relationship with their pet. He can learn to recognize his owner, especially if it means a treat. The same gentle handling is vital for these pets. As a prey species, they are naturally wary of anything new in their world. They will make better pets if your children know about their personality and how to approach them.

Like hamsters, you’ll have better luck training a young animal versus an older one. Cavies are less curious about their surroundings. However, they are large enough where it’s possible to take them out of their cage. Keep them in a confined space to make it easier to catch him when playtime is done. Start slowly to give your pet time to get used to the new environment.

Health and Care

Guineas pigs are strictly herbivores. Their diet consists of greens. We recommend feeding him a commercial diet of a high-fiber grass such as timothy. Cavies are notorious for having sensitive digestive systems. It’s imperative not to give your pet lettuce or make sudden changes in his food. Doing so can cause potentially life-threatening GI distress.

Interestingly, guineas pigs and humans share one vital trait. Neither can synthesize vitamin C in their bodies. We must include rich sources in our respective diets. That’s one reason that commercial products are the safest option for your pet. They can ensure that he gets the nutrition he needs in a form that is easily digestible.

guinea pig eating tomato
Image Credit: Jackson Stock Photography, Shutterstock

The cage for a guinea pig must provide enough space for him to get exercise, especially if you don’t plan on letting him outside of it. Having a hiding place is essential to help him feel secure. Line the bottom with absorbent material. Regular cleaning is imperative to keep your pet healthy. We suggest using a water bottle instead of a bowl to keep the litter dry.

Suitable For:

A guinea pig is an excellent choice for an older child who wants a pet that they can train and form a bond with. The fact that you can take him outside of the cage makes him more a part of the family, which many will find more rewarding.

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Which Small Animal Is Right for You?

Hamsters and guinea pigs both make delightful pets for children who are old enough to handle this responsibility. Of the two, the cavy is more of an investment, if just because of the larger cage he’ll need. Both animals require daily care, which is a vital point to keep in mind when it comes to cleaning. It’s also worth noting that the guinea pig has a longer lifespan.

The other striking difference is the amount of interaction you can have with your pet. Your child can handle a guinea pig more and let him outside of the cage. If a hamster gets out, you’ll probably have a devil of a time trying to find him. It’s a vital point when you think about the quality of life from the animal’s point-of-view.

Therefore, the choice of a hamster and a guinea pig depends on the amount of time and money you want to invest. However, the life lessons that a child will learn from owning their first pet are priceless. If you think your family is ready for the responsibility, everyone will likely find it a rewarding experience.