Dogs and cats are the planet’s most popular companions, but small animals like hamsters and hedgehogs also make excellent pets. Unlike active breeds of canines and felines that require a great deal of space, small pets can live in practically any home with a suitable cage. Hamsters and hedgehogs are ideal for pet owners who prefer quiet animals with fewer costs related to food, vet care, or supplies. Both creatures have brief lifespans, but they enjoy interacting with human caretakers when they’re introduced to them shortly after birth. Although they have similarities, the hamster and hedgehog are not related to each other.
Hamsters are related to rodents (mice, rats) in the Rodentia order, and hedgehogs are close relatives of shrews and moles in the Eulipotphla order. Whether you’re looking for a small pet suitable for a family or need an animal with minimal care requirements, we’ll examine the characteristics of each creature to assist your decision-making process.
At a Glance
Although hamsters are standard fixtures of school classrooms and children’s bedrooms, the mammal was not available as a pet in North America until the 1940s. In 1930, the biologist Israel Aharoni traveled to Syria to find a rare Golden rodent that previous explorers had mentioned. After taking a colony of 11 hamsters back to his lab in Jeruselum, Aharoni was surprised when 2 of the hamsters mated, and their offspring became the foundation of the pet hamster industry.
Characteristics & Appearance
Although some types of hamsters can be aggressive and unsuitable as pets, the golden hamster, also known as the Syrian hamster, is a docile creature that acts tame around humans. They usually do not grow more than 6 inches long, and their light-brown coat fades to white or grey on their undersides. They have large ears, a short tail, a blunt snout, and small eyes. Hamsters are nocturnal mammals that are most active at night. When they’re kept as pets, they often spend several hours running on their exercise wheels. During the day, pet hamsters sleep most of the time, but they often wake up to run on the wheel for a few minutes or drink from the water bottle.
Hamsters rarely live more than 2 or 3 years, but the rodent’s short lifespan contrasts its impressive fertility rates. Females can birth two to three liters in their lifetimes with 4 to 10 babies per litter. Females only give birth during the first year of their lives, but their offspring become sexually active when they’re only a month old. When preyed on by hawks, snakes, and other predators in the wild, hamsters can quickly increase their population numbers after mating.
Females have brief gestation periods that only last 16 days, but some of their offspring are unlikely to survive. In the wild and in captivity, mothers consume some of their babies. In the wild, mothers may have an instinct to reduce the litter when food isn’t plentiful, but it’s unclear why pet hamsters or laboratory specimens cannibalize their offspring. Because of this behavior, pet parents planning on giving their children a hamster couple may want to consider only getting one as a pet.
Hamsters are popular pets, but they’re also used extensively in laboratory experiments. They’re susceptible to some of the same medical conditions like obesity and cancer as humans. After Dr. Aharoni and his team studied the original Syrian hamster litter, they recognized the benefits of using the animal to study human disease, and they exported the offspring to countries around the world. Hamsters are elusive in the wild, but their population is sustained by breeders who sell them as pets and lab animals.
Of the 23 species of hedgehogs, the African pygmy hedgehog, or four-toed hedgehog, is the smallest breed and the one most commonly sold as pets. They survive in the wilds of Europe, Africa, and Asia, but they became available as pets in North America in the 1990s. However, Pennsylvania, Hawaii, Georgia, and California residents cannot legally own a hedgehog as a pet. Before purchasing an African pygmy, check your state’s exotic animal laws.
Characteristics & Appearance
Although they typically have hooded faces like raccoons, some pygmies have white faces. They have tiny black eyes and a small nose that’s constantly twitching and investigating odors. Perhaps the animal’s most recognizable feature is its quills. They are much shorter than a porcupine’s quills, and they’re not barbed. When the hedgehog is scared, it rolls into a ball with its quills pointing in all directions. Pet owners should always avoid handling a frightened hedgehog to prevent injuries. Even when the creature is relaxed, you have to be careful not to stroke the quills in the opposite direction of the growth. Hedgehogs are not cuddly pets that enjoy being petted, but they warm up to humans when they’re properly fed and exercised.
In a natural environment, hedgehogs travel for up to 2 kilometers a night looking for food. Its name comes from the animal’s fondness for making snorting noises when it digs into the roots of small plants and hedges to find food. As pets, they can be fed commercial pet food designed for hedgehogs, mealworms, and crickets. Feral hedgehogs mostly survive on insects, but they also eat small reptiles and eggs. In Britain, the much larger European hedgehog is a nightly visitor to many backyard gardens.
Although their populations have suffered from overdevelopment and the conversion of pastureland to commercial farms, the British wild hedgehogs are now a protected species that have become adopted wild pets of concerned homeowners. Gardeners construct small huts for the hedgehogs to build habitats in the winter. However, since they’re solitary animals, more than one hut is needed for multiple animals to avoid conflicts.
Hedgehogs are bred as exotic pets, but they’re also used as a source of meat in some regions of the Middle East. In Morocco, you can find hedgehogs sold by herbalists in open markets. The animals are used in traditional medicines that claim to fight hemorrhoids, tuberculosis, and scrofula.
What Are the Differences Between Hamsters & Hedgehogs?
Hamsters and hedgehogs are ideal pets for those who prefer nocturnal animals who do not crave constant interaction with humans. Although they share a few similarities, their differences can help you decide which pet is best for you.
If you’re looking for a pet that requires minimal care, you’ll probably be happier with a hamster. Their lifespan is half as long as a hedgehog, but feeding, cleaning the cage, and playing with the little rodent is all you need to do to keep a hamster healthy. Hedgehogs require a more varied diet that includes live insects, and their cage and supplies cost more than a hamster’s equipment.
Hedgehogs can learn to be friendly to children, but they take time to warm up to adults and kids. Hamsters are more kid-friendly, and your child will not have to worry about injuries from sharp quills from a hamster.
Which Breed Is Right For You?
Hamsters and hedgehogs are amazing animals, but which pet is right for you? Hedgehogs require more patience and care when handling the creatures, but they’re more exotic and entertaining than hamsters. Hamsters are more suitable for young children, but older kids will appreciate the unique behavior and longer lifespan of the hedgehog. Both animals are excellent for families, and at night, a family can spend hours watching their pet’s nocturnal hijinks.
Featured Image Credit: Top: Hamster: Sandra Cheng, Pixabay | Buttom: Hedgehog: byapryl, Pixabay