If you’re wondering whether cute little hamsters share ancestry with rats, you’re not alone. At first glance, these popular pocket pets may look similar to the rodents which often carry a negative stigma. However, the answer isn’t quite so simple.

Let’s take a detailed look at the evolutionary history and characteristics of hamsters and rats to uncover if they truly belong to the same family.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: While hamsters and rats share some common traits as rodents, they belong to different taxonomic families and suborders. Hamsters are not closely related to rats.

Taxonomy and Evolutionary History

Rodent Origins and Suborders

When exploring the taxonomic classification and evolutionary history of hamsters and rats, it is important to first understand their origins and suborders. Both hamsters and rats belong to the order Rodentia, which encompasses a diverse group of small mammals characterized by their continuously growing incisors.

This order is further divided into multiple suborders, including Myomorpha and Cricetomorpha.

The suborder Myomorpha consists of rats, mice, and gerbils, while the suborder Cricetomorpha includes hamsters, voles, and lemmings. Despite belonging to different suborders, hamsters and rats share a common ancestry and are both part of the larger Rodentia family tree.

Cricetidae vs. Muridae Families

Hamsters are classified under the family Cricetidae, which includes over 600 species of rodents. This family is known for its diverse range of species, with hamsters being one of the most popular pets among rodent enthusiasts.

On the other hand, rats belong to the family Muridae, which is one of the largest families within the order Rodentia.

While hamsters and rats share certain similarities due to their classification as rodents, there are notable differences between the two families. For example, hamsters are typically smaller in size compared to rats, with an average length ranging from 5 to 7 inches.

Rats, on the other hand, can grow much larger, with some species reaching lengths of up to 11 inches or more.

In terms of behavior, hamsters are known for their solitary nature and preference for burrowing underground. They are primarily nocturnal creatures, spending most of their waking hours during the night.

Rats, on the other hand, are highly social animals that thrive in groups and exhibit complex social behaviors.

It’s important to note that while hamsters and rats share a common ancestry and belong to the same order, they have evolved distinct characteristics and behaviors that make them unique within their respective families.

Understanding these differences can help us appreciate the diversity and complexity of the rodent world.

For more information on the taxonomy and evolutionary history of rodents, you can visit reputable sources such as the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s website (https://naturalhistory.si.edu/) or the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species (https://www.iucnredlist.org/).

Anatomy and Physical Characteristics

When it comes to the anatomy and physical characteristics, hamsters and rats do share some similarities, but they also have distinct features that set them apart.

Size Differences

One of the most noticeable differences between hamsters and rats is their size. Hamsters are generally smaller, measuring around 4 to 7 inches in length, while rats can grow much larger, ranging from 9 to 11 inches.

However, it’s important to note that there are different species of hamsters and rats, so sizes may vary within each species.

Tail Length

The length of the tail is another distinguishing feature between hamsters and rats. Hamsters have shorter tails that measure about 1 to 2 inches in length. On the other hand, rats have longer tails that can reach up to 8 inches.

The tails of both animals serve different purposes – while hamsters use their tails for balance, rats use theirs for communication and temperature regulation.

Cheek Pouches

One fascinating characteristic that hamsters possess is their expandable cheek pouches. These pouches extend from their cheeks to their shoulders, allowing them to store and carry food. Rats, on the other hand, do not have such pouches.

This unique feature makes hamsters efficient gatherers and hoarders of food.

Coat Colors

Hamsters and rats come in a variety of coat colors, but there are differences in the patterns and shades. Hamsters can have solid colors, such as golden, white, or brown, as well as patterns like tortoiseshell or roan.

Rats, on the other hand, have a wider range of coat colors and patterns, including hooded, Berkshire, and Siamese. These variations add to the aesthetic appeal of both animals.


Understanding the behavior of hamsters and rats can shed light on their similarities and differences. While both hamsters and rats belong to the same family, they exhibit distinct behavioral patterns.

Social Structures

Hamsters are solitary animals and prefer to live alone. They are territorial and tend to be more aggressive towards other hamsters. On the other hand, rats are highly social creatures that thrive in groups.

They establish complex hierarchies within their colonies and rely on social interactions for their well-being. This fundamental difference in social structures is one of the key distinctions between hamsters and rats.

Activity Patterns

When it comes to activity patterns, hamsters are known to be nocturnal. They are most active during the night and tend to sleep during the day. Rats, on the other hand, are more active during the day but can also be active at night.

This difference in activity patterns is attributed to their natural habitats. Hamsters are native to arid regions where they find relief from the scorching heat by being nocturnal. Rats, on the other hand, have adapted to a variety of habitats and have a more flexible activity pattern.


Hamsters and rats have different dietary preferences. Hamsters are primarily herbivores and prefer a diet consisting of grains, fruits, and vegetables. They have specific nutritional needs, and a well-balanced diet is crucial for their overall health.

Rats, on the other hand, are omnivores and have a more varied diet. They can eat both plant-based foods and animal proteins. Rats have a remarkable ability to adapt to different food sources, making them highly versatile when it comes to their diet.

Habitats and Geographical Distribution

When it comes to the habitats and geographical distribution of hamsters and rats, there are some similarities and differences to consider. Both hamsters and rats are known for their adaptability and ability to thrive in various environments.

However, there are some distinct characteristics that set them apart.

Native Environments

Hamsters are native to several regions around the world, including Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Different species of hamsters have different native habitats. For example, the Syrian hamster, also known as the golden hamster, is native to the arid regions of Syria and parts of Turkey.

On the other hand, the Djungarian hamster is native to the grasslands and deserts of Mongolia and China.

Rats, on the other hand, have a wider native range, spanning across all continents except Antarctica. They are highly adaptable and can be found in a variety of habitats such as forests, grasslands, urban areas, and even sewers.

Brown rats, also known as Norway rats, are particularly common and can be found in urban areas all over the world.

It’s worth noting that both hamsters and rats have been introduced to various regions outside their native habitats, often as pets or unintentionally through human activities.

Shared Habitats

Hamsters and rats can sometimes share habitats, especially in urban areas where they may come into contact with each other. While hamsters are typically burrowers and prefer to live in underground tunnels, rats are known for their ability to climb and inhabit higher areas such as attics and roofs.

However, both species can adapt to a wide range of environments and may overlap in their choice of habitats.

It’s important to mention that while hamsters and rats may coexist in some environments, they have different dietary preferences and behaviors. Hamsters are primarily herbivorous and feed on seeds, fruits, and vegetables.

Rats, on the other hand, are omnivorous and will eat a variety of foods including grains, fruits, vegetables, and even meat. This difference in diet often leads to different ecological roles and interactions within shared habitats.

For more information on hamster and rat habitats, you can visit National Geographic and ThoughtCo.

Perception and Cultural Significance

Pets vs. Pests

When it comes to perception, hamsters and rats are often viewed quite differently. Hamsters are commonly seen as adorable and cuddly pets, while rats are often associated with pests and filth. This perception can be attributed to a variety of factors, including their physical appearance and behavior.

Hamsters: With their fluffy fur and small size, hamsters are often considered cute and appealing to many people. They are popular pets for both children and adults, and their playful nature and ability to be trained make them great companions.

Hamsters are typically kept in cages and are known for their love of running on wheels and burrowing in bedding.

Rats: On the other hand, rats have long been associated with negative connotations. Their hairless tails and reputation for carrying diseases have led to their portrayal as pests. However, it’s important to note that not all rats are wild or carry diseases.

Domesticated rats, also known as fancy rats, can make wonderful pets. They are intelligent, social, and can be easily trained.

Despite these differences in perception, both hamsters and rats have their own unique qualities that make them interesting and valuable creatures.

Pop Culture Appearances

Both hamsters and rats have made appearances in popular culture, albeit in different ways.

Hamsters: Hamsters have had their fair share of fame in the entertainment industry. From the famous “Hamster Dance” internet phenomenon to characters like Hamtaro from the anime series, these small rodents have captured the hearts of many.

They have also been featured in movies, such as the lovable character “Mr. Jingles” from the film “The Green Mile.”

Rats: Rats, on the other hand, have often been portrayed as villains in literature, movies, and folklore. They are commonly associated with dark and eerie settings, adding a sense of fear and mystery to the narrative.

One of the most iconic rat characters is Remy from Disney’s animated film “Ratatouille,” who defies the stereotype by showcasing his culinary talents.

These pop culture appearances have further shaped the perception of hamsters and rats in society, solidifying their place in our cultural consciousness.


While hamsters and rats may look alike to the untrained eye, a closer examination reveals key differences in their evolution, biology, ecology, and human perceptions. Hamsters are solitary, docile pets while rats have complex social structures and are often seen as unwelcome pests.

Hopefully this overview gave you a comprehensive understanding of how hamsters measure up compared to their distant rodent relatives.

Similar Posts