By Samantha Drake
With their furry, cuddly bodies and bright, beady eyes, hamsters can be a fun and relatively low-maintenance pet. Where you purchase your hamster from and how well you care for it, however, goes a long way towards having a happy, healthy member of the family. Learn more about where the domestic hamster hails from, how to find a pet hamster and tips for providing it with the right home, below.
A History of the Hamster
Where do hamsters come from? It might surprise even the most-savvy animal lover to know that hamsters have been domesticated as pets only relatively recently and that there are 26 species of hamsters living in the wild in parts of Europe, Asia and the Middle East, according to National Geographic.
Hamsters kept as pets today are likely to be the following three breeds: Syrian hamster, Campbell’s Dwarf hamster or Roborovski Dwarf hamster, each of which has its own personality and history, as detailed by Lauren Paul, technical director of California-based North Star Rescue (which takes in all species of pet rodents and rabbits, including hamsters):
- Syrian Hamsters: also known as the teddy bear or golden hamster, Syrian hamsters are what people usually picture when they think of hamsters—plump, with soft fair, a nub of a tail and chubby, spacious cheeks for storing food. Syrian hamsters were discovered near Aleppo, Syria, in the mid-1700s by a physician cataloging plants and animals in the area. The London Zoological Society recognized the hamster as a new species in 1839. It wasn’t until 1930 that humans began keeping hamsters, when a zoologist brought back a litter of Syrian hamsters to Jerusalem to breed them as lab animals. Descendants of those hamsters were later brought to Europe and the United States, where they became pets in addition to research subjects. Syrian hamsters live an average two to three years, and can be black, black and white, or golden. They are very territorial and prefer to be housed alone.
- Campbell’s Dwarf Hamsters: discovered in Russia in 1902 by W.C. Campbell, this type of hamster is the most common on the market, according to North Star Rescue. This type of hamster is also native to parts of China. The Campbell’s Russian dwarf is less docile than the Syrian hamster and has a reputation for biting, requiring more attention and handling. The Campbell’s Russian dwarf took a similar route to domesticity in Europe and the U.S. as its Syrian counterpart, first being bred for lab research and later as a pet. It generally lives up to two years and comes in a variety of colors, including brown, gray and fawn. The Campbell’s Russian dwarf may or may not tolerate living with others of its kind.
- Roborovski Dwarf Hamsters: the smallest of the three types, the Roborovski dwarf hamster was discovered in Northern China by Lt. Vsevolod Roborovski in 1894. Successful breeding in captivity wasn’t achieved until the 1980s, and the first Roborovski dwarf didn’t arrive in the U.S. until 1998. The Roborovski dwarf is less likely to bite but is very quick, making it a less desirable pet for small children who can easily lose the hamster if it gets away from them. A recent newcomer to the small pet market, the Roborovski dwarf is sandy-colored with white markings. Its lives an average three to four years and will get along with other hamsters if they are littermates.
Two additional types of hamsters kept as pets in the United States include the Chinese hamster and the winter white Russian dwarf hamster.
How to Find a Hamster
Most pet stores carry hamsters, which are likely obtained from breeders or pet mills, Paul said. Instead of starting your pet hamster search at a pet store, Paul advises prospective owners to go to a small animal rescue for a healthy hamster that needs a home. Too often, hamsters purchased at a pet store working with a pet mill turn out to be pregnant or sick and their owners, unable to care for them as a result, will bring them to a small animal rescue. A common ailment pet-store hamsters have is diarrhea, known as “wet tail,” which can be fatal to hamsters and must be treated immediately, Paul said.
Because hamsters are small and have a short life span, they are sometimes seen as “disposable” or as “starter pets” for children to teach them responsibility, Paul said, adding that hamsters are frequently given up when they become too much responsibility or starts biting because they aren’t being handled correctly. If you do decide to bring a hamster into your home, consider these factors before purchasing one and make sure you’re informed about the type of hamster you’ll be getting and where it originated.
Where Do Hamsters Live at Home?
Prospective hamster owners must take each variety of hamster’s personality into account when deciding what kind to bring home, which includes answering such questions as, “will children be caring for the hamsters?” or “how much time can be devoted caring and playing with the animals?” Selecting the right cage is also a key decision to ensure the hamster has a safe and appropriate environment.
Syrian hamsters have different housing needs than the two dwarf varieties because of their larger size and require a cage that provides at least two cubic feet of space. In general, more space is better with every type of hamster because the cage will not get dirty as quickly and will help reduce the chance the hamster will become bored and develop a compulsive behavior like chewing on the bars of the cage, Paul said. Additionally, the bars of the cage should be spaced close enough together that your hamster cannot accidentally escape and the flooring of the hamster’s cage should be solid, as their nails can get stuck or be damaged by a screen floor. When in doubt, opt for an aquarium to house the hamster.
Providing hamsters with more horizontal space than vertical space is better because, while hamsters are good at climbing up, they aren’t ask skilled in climbing back down and can fall, Paul said. Cages with connecting tubes can be a fun habitat for hamsters as long as a growing hamster can fit comfortably in the tube.
Providing the right bedding, food, water dispenser, exercise toys and room temperature will also help keep your hamster healthy and happy. The Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at the University of California in Davis, CA recommends the following supplies for a hamster habitat:
- Bedding: use recycled paper products and avoid cedar or pine shavings because they can contribute to health issues in hamsters.
- Food: provide your pet with a pellet-based diet along with plus fresh vegetables including carrots, squash, broccoli, cucumber and spinach. Stay away from fruit, which has too much sugar for hamsters to digest, and seeds, which have little nutritional value.
- Water: a water bottle should be fastened to the outside of the cage or placed inside the cage. Water should be changed every day and the bottle or bowl washed once a week.
- Exercise toys: an exercise wheel is a must to let a hamster run, to prevent boredom and to keep them busy at night (hamsters are nocturnal). Plastic balls that allow the hamster run around the house must be supervised and kept away from stairwells, direct sunlight and other pets.
Because hamsters don’t have sweat glands, they are prone to heat stress. Therefore, the room their cage is in should be kept cool, between 75 and 80 degrees, particularly during the summer.