gerbils vs rats

Gerbils vs Rats: Unraveling the Differences and Similarities

Choosing a small rodent as a pet is an exciting decision. They’re adorable and intelligent and can bring joy to your life. Gerbils vs rats are two popular options in small rodent pets, each with unique characteristics and quirks. You’re in the right place if you’re at a crossroads when deciding between these furry companions. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll delve into the world of gerbils and rats, exploring their physical attributes, behavior, care requirements, and more. By the end, you’ll be better equipped to make an informed decision and provide the best care for your new pet.

Quick Tips for Prospective Pet Owners:

Before we dive into the details, here are some quick tips for those considering gerbils or rats as pets:

  1. Research Thoroughly: Take your time to learn about the unique characteristics of gerbils and rats. This knowledge will help you make an informed choice that suits your lifestyle.
  2. Consider Your Space: Consider the available space for a cage or enclosure. Rats generally require more space than gerbils due to their larger size.
  3. Social or Solitary: Gerbils are social animals and thrive in pairs or small groups, while rats are highly social and do best with companions of their kind.
  4. Budget for Care: Factor in food, bedding, and veterinary care costs when planning for a new pet. Both gerbils and rats have specific dietary and health needs.

gerbils vs rats

Table: Gerbils vs Rats – A Quick Comparison

Aspect Gerbils Rats
Physical Characteristics – Small and slender – Larger and more robust
– Long, furry tail – Long, hairless tail
– Various fur colors – Diverse fur colors
Behavior and Temperament     – Social, thrive in pairs – Highly social, need companionship   
– Active and curious – Intelligent and playful
– Tend to be skittish – Often more confident
Housing and Care – Smaller cage size – Larger cage or enclosure
– Minimal scent glands – May have a more pungent odor
– Basic care requirements    – More complex care needs
Health and Lifespan – Fewer health concerns – Prone to respiratory issues
– Lifespan of 2-4 years – Lifespan of 2-3 years
Popularity as Pets – Growing popularity – Long-standing popularity
– Suitable for beginners – Require experienced owners
– Gentle disposition – Bond closely with owners


The table above compares gerbils and rats, highlighting key differences and similarities in their physical characteristics, behavior, housing, care, health, and popularity as pets. In the following sections, we’ll delve into each aspect in more detail to help you decide when choosing your new furry friend.


Physical Characteristics

Gerbils: Gerbils are known for their small and slender bodies. Gerbils usually have a length of about 4 to 6 inches, and their tails, which are long and covered in fur, add another 3 to 4 inches to their overall size. What makes gerbils stand out is their diverse array of fur colors, which can include variations of agouti, black, white, and various other shades.

This diversity in fur color makes them visually appealing and attractive as pets.

Rats: Rats, on the other hand, are larger and more robust than gerbils. Adult rats can range from 9 to 11 inches long, with tails approximately the same length as their bodies. Rats have diverse fur colors, unlike gerbils; some even have striking patterns. Interestingly, rats can come in standard and hairless varieties, depending on your preference.


Behavior and Temperament

Gerbils: Gerbils are known for their social nature. They thrive in pairs or small groups and enjoy the company of fellow gerbils. Their active and curious personalities make them fun to watch, and they often engage in playful activities such as digging and tunneling. However, gerbils can be skittish, mainly when unfamiliar with human interaction. They can become more comfortable around their owners with patience and gentle handling.

Rats: Rats are highly social animals and need companionship to thrive. They are brilliant and playful, making them interactive and engaging pets. Rats are often more confident than gerbils and readily form strong bonds with their human owners. Many rat owners report that their pets enjoy being held, cuddled, and even trained to perform tricks.

gerbils vs rats

Housing and Care

Gerbils: Gerbils are relatively low-maintenance when it comes to housing and care. They do well in smaller cages with a solid bottom, as they love to burrow and dig. Providing bedding material like aspen shavings or paper-based bedding allows them to exhibit natural behaviors. Gerbils have minimal scent glands, so they are not prone to strong odors.

In terms of diet, gerbils have straightforward dietary requirements. A diet of high-quality gerbil pellets, fresh vegetables, and occasional treats is usually sufficient. Fresh water should always be available.

Rats: Gerbils and rats have different space requirements primarily because they are larger and tend to be more active, necessitating roomier enclosures for their well-being. A multi-level wire cage or a sizeable rat-friendly section provides them with room to explore and climb. Rats are known for their intelligence and need mental stimulation, so consider providing toys, hammocks, and climbing structures.

Rats can produce a more pungent odor than gerbils due to their scent glands. Regular cage cleaning and proper ventilation can help manage this issue. Regarding diet, rats have specific dietary needs, including a balanced rat pellet diet supplemented with fresh fruits, vegetables, and occasional protein sources.


Health and Lifespan

Gerbils: Gerbils are generally hardy pets with few health concerns. However, they can be prone to dental problems, so providing them with appropriate chew toys and monitoring their dental health is essential. With proper care, gerbils can live for about 2 to 4 years.

Rats: Rats, while intelligent and affectionate, are susceptible to respiratory issues, which are common in their species. Proper cage ventilation and avoiding exposure to irritants like cigarette smoke can help reduce the risk. Rats typically have a lifespan of 2 to 3 years, slightly shorter than gerbils.


Popularity as Pets

Gerbils: In recent years, gerbils have been gaining popularity as pets, especially among beginners. Their gentle disposition, relatively low care requirements, and appealing appearance make them attractive for those new to rodent ownership. Gerbils are suitable for families and individuals alike.

Rats: Rats have enjoyed long-standing popularity as pets and have a dedicated fan base among experienced rodent owners. Their intelligence, sociability, and ability to form strong bonds with humans have endeared them to many. However, rats may not be the best choice for those new to pet ownership, as they require more specialized care.

gerbils vs rats

More Comparisons:

Gerbils (Meriones unguiculatus)


Social Structure:

Gerbils are social animals that naturally live in family groups in the wild. They have a strong instinct for social interaction and thrive when housed with at least one companion. Keeping gerbils alone can lead to stress and loneliness, so adopting them in pairs or small groups is recommended.


Activity Level:

Gerbils are known for their high activity level. They are active during both day and night, which means they can be great pets for people with varying schedules. Their activities include digging tunnels, grooming, playing, and exploring their environment.


Digging Behavior:

Gerbils have a strong instinct to dig and burrow. In captivity, they’ll appreciate a deep layer of bedding in their enclosure to satisfy this natural behavior. Materials like paper-based bedding, hay, or sand can stimulate them mentally and physically.



Gerbils are prolific breeders, and they can reproduce quickly. If you decide to keep a male and female together, be prepared for potential pregnancies and the responsibility of caring for offspring. Keeping same-sex pairs or groups is advisable unless you intend to breed gerbils responsibly.



Gerbils typically have a lifespan of 2 to 4 years. Proper care, a balanced diet, and a clean environment can contribute to your gerbil companions’ longer and healthier lives.

gerbils vs rats

Rats (Rattus norvegicus)


Rats are renowned for their high intelligence and problem-solving abilities. They possess a knack for fast learning and can be taught to execute various tricks and react to instructions effectively. Their intelligence makes them highly interactive pets.


Affectionate Nature:

Rats are known for forming strong bonds with their human owners. They often enjoy being held, cuddled, and petted. Many rat owners describe their pets as affectionate and loyal companions.



Rats are skilled communicators who express themselves using vocalizations, body language, and scent markings. They can squeak, brux (grind their teeth when content), and boggle their eyes to convey their emotions and well-being.


Grooming Behavior:

Rats are meticulous groomers who spend significant time cleaning themselves and their cage mates. They also enjoy receiving gentle grooming from their owners.



Rats are agile climbers who love exploring their environment horizontally and vertically. Providing them with climbing structures, hammocks, and ropes in their cage can fulfill their mental and physical stimulation needs.



Rats are highly social animals that thrive when kept with other rats. Adopting rats in same-sex pairs or groups is generally recommended to prevent loneliness and provide companionship.



Rats have a slightly shorter lifespan than gerbils, typically 2 to 3 years. However, their strong bond with owners and interactive nature make them cherished pets during their relatively more straightforward lives.


In summary, while gerbils and rats share some commonalities as small rodent pets, they have distinct characteristics and care requirements. Gerbils are active and social animals that thrive in pairs or groups, whereas rats are highly intelligent, affectionate, and known for forming deep bonds with their owners. Both species can be wonderful companions, and choosing between them should align with your preferences and ability to meet their unique needs.


Choosing between gerbils and rats as your new pet is a decision that should be made carefully, considering your lifestyle, preferences, and the level of commitment you can provide. Both gerbils and rats have their charms and quirks, and aligning your choice with your capabilities and desires is essential.

In summary, gerbils can be an excellent choice if you’re looking for a smaller, less demanding pet with relatively straightforward care requirements. They are ideal for beginners and those with limited space but still want a charming and entertaining companion.

On the other hand, if you’re seeking an incredibly intelligent, interactive, and social pet and are willing to invest more time and effort into their care, rats may be the perfect fit. Rats can form deep bonds with their owners and thrive in an enriched environment that stimulates their active minds.

Whether you choose gerbils or rats, providing love, attention, and proper care is essential for their well-being. Regular veterinary check-ups, a balanced diet, a clean and safe living environment, and interaction with their owners are keys to ensuring a happy and healthy life for these beloved pets.

Ultimately, the choice between gerbils and rats comes from your preferences and circumstances. Whichever path you choose, you’re sure to find joy and companionship in these remarkable small rodents.

Additional Resources

In your journey to becoming a responsible small rodent pet owner, you must continue learning and seeking resources to assist you in providing the best care for your chosen pet. Here are some additional resources that you may find helpful:

  1. Pet Stores and Breeders: When you’re ready to adopt gerbils or rats, consider visiting reputable pet stores or contacting responsible breeders who can provide healthy and well-socialized animals. They can also offer guidance on initial setup and care.
  2. Online Communities: Joining online forums and communities dedicated to gerbil or rat enthusiasts can be an excellent way to connect with experienced pet owners. These communities often share valuable insights, tips, and personal stories that can enhance your pet ownership experience.
  3. Books and Guides: Explore books and guides tailored explicitly to gerbil or rat care. These resources delve deep into various aspects of pet ownership, including health, behavior, and training. Some recommended books can become valuable reference materials.
  4. Veterinary Services: Establish a relationship with a veterinarian with experience with small rodents. Regular check-ups and access to professional advice are essential for maintaining your pet’s health and well-being.
  5. Rescue Organizations: Consider adopting gerbils or rats from rescue organizations or shelters. Many animals needing loving homes are available for adoption, and you may find an excellent companion while giving a pet a second chance.
  6. Pet Insurance: Investigate pet insurance options to ensure you can provide your gerbil or rat with the best possible medical care in case of unexpected health issues. Insurance can offer protection and financial assistance during times of need.
  7. Educational Websites: Explore websites dedicated to gerbil and rat care, such as those operated by rodent enthusiasts and experts. These sites often offer comprehensive information on diet, housing, and behavior.



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