Is A Hamster A Rat? Hamster vs Rat Differences

Is A Hamster A Rat?

If you are not very familiar with rodents, you may wonder what the difference is between a hamster and a rat. Are they of the same species? Was the hamster derived from the rat? Or are they two different species? The answer may surprise you.

Is a hamster a rat? Hamsters and rats are two very different animals with different taxonomy, different physical appearances, and different behavior patterns. While they are both rodents, one was not derived from the other, and in fact, there are several species of both the hamster and the rat around the globe.  

Read on for more information on the classification of both of these animals and how they differ from one another. 

Hamster vs. Rat: Taxonomy

To say that hamsters and rats are different species would not be incorrect but would not tell the whole story, as there are actually multiple species of both rats and hamsters. You’ve likely heard the terms “species”, “genus”, and/or “family” when referring to the classification of an animal. If you are unsure what the differences are between these terms, we have a mini taxonomy lesson for you.

All animals are classified by their taxonomy. There are eight main taxonomic rates with which animals are listed, with “species” being the last and most specific. In order, these classifications are domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. 

All plants and animals belong to the domain eukarya, and all animals belong to the kingdom animal (from which is derived the term “animal kingdom”). Both rats and hamsters (and humans, for that matter) belong to the phylum chordate, as well as the class mammals.

The last classification rats and hamsters share is the order, which is rodentia. Hence, both rats and hamsters are rodents, and that is where the taxonomic similarities end. 

Hamsters are from the family cricetidae. From there are several genus classifications a hamster may fall under, including cricetulus, mesocricetus, and phodopus, depending on the species. There are 19 different species of hamster. Rats are from the family muroidea and the genus rattus. Under rattus, there are 56 different species of rat. 

Genuscricetulus, mesocricetus, or phodopusrattus
Species19 different species of hamster56 different species of rat

Hamster vs. Rat: Physical Appearance

Because there are several different species of both hamsters and rats, it is difficult to narrow down specific physical characteristics among them. However, rats will tend to share a few similar traits, as will hamsters.

Hamsters tend to have short legs, round bodies, and thick or silky fur. They have small, furry ears, and almost all species of hamsters have very short tails (many appearing to have no tail). Most species of hamster will be 2-7 inches in body length, though the largest, the European hamster, reaches a body length of 13.5 inches. 

On the other hand, rats usually have longer and slimmer bodies, longer legs, and shorter fur. They have larger, often hairless ears, and very long tails relative to their body length.

Most rat species are around 7-8 inches in body length, with tails just as long. Some larger rat species can reach up to 11 inches in length with tails that are at least that long, if not longer. 

Hamster vs. Rat: Intelligence

Rats are more intelligent than hamsters. Hamsters exhibit a basic level of intelligence and their cognitive abilities are directly tied to their survival needs.

For example, hamsters have been found to memorize the location of food in a maze for up to two weeks. You can train a hamster to do basic tricks and tasks, but it takes patience and significantly more repetition than with rats. 

Rats are highly intelligent. They have been said to have the intelligence of a dog and the memory of an elephant. Rats have metacognition skills, which means that they are able to make decisions based on their knowledge and experiences in a given situation.

They are easy to train and develop quick bonds with both humans and other animals. Rats have even been proven to feel empathy toward one another – one study rigged a device to shock one rat (yes, it is hard to hear about these experiments) across the enclosure whenever its partner rat accepted a treat. The unaffected rat quickly tied the two events together and ignored the treat so as to avoid causing pain to the other. 

Hamster vs Rat: Life Stages

The life stages and procreation schedules are remarkably similar between the hamster and the rat. Both hamsters and rats are rapid growers, sexually mature, and able to reproduce at around 6 weeks of age.

Hamsters are considered adults at between 5 and 12 weeks, depending on the species, and rats are considered adults at 2 months of age. Both rats and hamsters live for an average of 2-3 years.

Hamsters and rats are both exceptionally successful breeders. Once the females of both hamsters and rats reach sexual maturity they will go into estrus every 4-5 days (no wonder they produce so many offspring in such a short period of time). Both have a gestation period of less than 30 days, and both female rats and female hamsters make excellent mothers. 

Hamster vs. Rat: Social Behavior

There is a stark difference between the social life of a rat and the social life of a hamster. In this respect, they are really complete opposites.

Most Hamsters are solitary animals; in fact, they are one of the only rodent families that prefer to keep to themselves, only coming together for purposes of procreation. In the wild, they prefer to live alone, and in captivity, they prefer to live alone. If you keep more than one hamster together, they may fight and cause serious injury to one another. If they do not fight, they will likely be highly stressed. 

Rats are on the other side of the spectrum – they are highly social animals both in captivity and in the wild. In captivity, it is advised that you keep a minimum of two rats of the same gender together, though three or more is often recommended to avoid one becoming lonely when the other passes away.

They can be found sleeping together, grooming one another, playing together, and even protecting one another. In the wild, rats live in cooperative colonies of 150 or more individuals. Within these colonies are sub-groups of pairs, bachelors, or families. Rats display impressive communication and cooperative skills with one another. 

Hamster vs. Rat: Care Requirements

If you are considering adding a hamster or a rat to your family, you will want to know how they differ in maintenance. One of the biggest differences is that you must keep multiple rats, while you can keep just one hamster.

This means that you will require a larger enclosure if keeping rats. You will also probably find yourself cleaning the cage more often with rats – not only because you will have more of them, but frankly, rats tend to be smellier than hamsters. Of course, they are also easier to train, so this point may be moot if you decide to litter train your rats.

Rats will also require more interaction from you, which means a bigger time commitment. Rats require socialization and mental stimulation, both of which are challenging to provide when enclosed in a cage.

You should expect to take your rats out daily and play with them. You can certainly do this with your hamster too, but it is not necessary which can be convenient if you are in a particularly busy stage of life (or, if you are sensitive to pet dander).

Hamsters are relatively healthy animals, while rats (especially females) can suffer from tumors. This can lead to expensive veterinary bills or a shortened lifespan. As is true with any animal, take care in choosing a responsible breeder if you decide to adopt a rat – this can drastically reduce the chances of health problems.

Speaking of breeders, rats can be more of a challenge to find in pet stores. In some areas, you can find both hamsters and rats in the larger chain pet stores. In others, you must adopt a rat from a private breeder, as only hamsters are available in pet stores. If you are in one of these locations, it can be more costly to purchase a rat (or two, or three) initially. 

Hamster Or Rat – Which Is Best For Your Family?

There are both advantages and disadvantages to keeping hamsters and rats. If you would like a social and trainable animal that will bond with you and show affection, you may want to consider adopting a pet rat (well, two or three pet rats, more accurately).

If you would like a low-maintenance pet who can live in contentment regardless of your level of time commitment, you may want to consider a hamster. Both pocket pets make excellent companions and are a joy to have in the home.

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