Although discovered in the early 1800's, today's Syrian hamster was brought into captivity in 1930 when a litter was discovered in the Syrian desert. All of today's Syrian hamsters are descendents of the surviving two females and one male siblings of that litter.
Today, while there are several types of domesticated hamsters, the Syrian Golden is the most common. Two dwarf varieties are gaining in popularity -- the Chinese Dwarf, and the Dwarf Russian (either Winter White or Campbell's Russian), but the overall favorite remains the Syrian.
This article is to acquaint the owner, or prospective owner, with the hamster as a pet. Our piece is centered around the Syrian with the assumption that the hamster will be a pet, and not a part of a breeding program, or for the "show ring."
Hamster's are great pets. Properly trained they can be handled outside their cages, and they will provide hours of enjoyment as they perform their daily routines and follow their natural inquisitiveness. They are good companions for the young, and can help teach the need to be responsible. But, they are alive beings. And, as such, deserve the respect and care to which all living things are entitled. Their entire welfare is totally in the hands of its owner. So, before you get a hamster, read this article, and the article found at I Died Today. (It's about a dog, but the meaning applies to all animals.)
The Syrian hamster is a small rodent weighing between 3 to 5 ounces; growing to 6 or 7 inches in length. Because of its high metabolic rate its life span is usually no longer that 2 1/2 to 4 years. It reaches maturity in 4 to 6 weeks.
Its fur is dense and sleek with bands of different colored fur. Eyes are bold and bright, ears large and alert, and a short stump of a tail. A hamster's front feet are more like hands (and they use them as such), while rear legs and feet help to propel it, support it when it sits up, and give it the ability to move backwards (very handy when scooting back down into a burrow).
A hamster has no odor. It is a very clean animal, easily tamed, and naturally inquisitive. It may hibernate if exposed to cold conditions below 50°, or "semi-hibernate" at temperatures between 70-80° (usually for periods of less than a few minutes). So, don't assume its left this life because it hasn't moved around for awhile!!
Hamsters are very prolific. They have short gestation periods (16 to 18 days), have litters up to 15, and the doe (female) is ready to breed again after 4 to 5 weeks.
Some believe that males make the most user-friendly pet, but its a close call. Females will be less friendly while pregnant or caring for her litter. Other than that their temperament is about the same.
Hamsters are normally active during the evening hours, but are usually eager to play at any time.
Getting a Hamster
Care and Feeding
If you are positive you want to get a hamster, double-check the following items before buying:
Where Do I get One?
The most common place to get a hamster is a pet store. Exotic breeds, breeding and show stock are available through breeders, but they may be hard to find. Check your local papers, pet magazines and the Internet if you are interested in a breeder.
Animal shelters may have hamsters, but generally not. If you find one at a shelter, and it appears healthy, give it a home. You won't regret it. But, make sure you check it thoroughly to determine the status of its health and its age.
Check out the following items when evaluating your place of purchase:
How do I Determine a "Good" Hamster?
Here are several things to do and look for when evaluating a hamster for a pet:
How Many Should I Get?
Hamsters, by nature, are solitary creatures, and should be kept in separate cages. So getting a second hamster as company for the first one is not a good thing.
Two hamsters can quickly lead to many, many more hamsters. Make sure you know the sex:
More than one hamster in the same cage may work out, especially if they are siblings who have been together all the time. But you need to keep a close watch and separate them if things get out of control.
Housing Your Hamster
Today's pet stores have a wide variety of cages suitable for hamsters. The cage should be:
Place the cage on a raised platform, out of harm's way. It must be free from draft, the humidity should be low, and NO SMOKING!. Do not place it in direct sunlight or near a direct heating source. TV's, radios and stereo speakers will only add to a hamster's stress level -- as will surprise visits from a cat, dog or iguana.
Cover the floor of the cage with soft hay, wood shavings, dry sawdust (not too dusty), or other such materials. Do not use soil. Provide additional material for bedding (shredded tissue or toilet paper). A hamster will become creative with bedding, as many a curtain too close to the cage has proved.
Provide playthings and exercise devices. Twigs for gnawing. Small cardboard boxes that the hamster can turn into "safe" places. Swings, ladders and wheels.
The cage must have the ability to water and feed the hamster. Water bottles and bowls are available, as well as food dishes.
Your hamster, itself, will not need to be bathed. They are very clean animals, and spend a great deal of their time grooming themselves. Their cage is what will need your attention.
The cage must be thoroughly cleaned once every week. That means changing the litter, washing, disinfecting the floor, and placing new litter.
Keep your hamster inquisitive and active. Change its playthings to keep it from becoming bored. Set up games like hiding food in clumps of paper or in small, cardboard containers. Encourage use of the swings and exercise wheels. Provide it with an ability to climb.
Handle with care!
Ya, they can bite. But, once trained and frequently handled these occurences should be rare. Here's some things that will help:
Freedom from the Cage
It is good to remove the hamster from the cage and handle it. When tamed it can be allowed to climb up (sometimes in) your clothing. If it disappears in your clothing make no sudden movements or you may be rewarded with a "nip" from the frightened pet.
When the hamster is out of its cage it must be closely watched. If it escapes from your custody your are in for a "situation"! Hamsters are very curious, hard to find and regain custody of, they can hide in the most un-seemingly places (in tight places, dark places, and high places).
An escaped hamster's safety is at high risk. It is exposed to:
How the #*%#@ do I Find It?
Try to isolate it to a single room
Isolate all other pets from the scene of the escape, or the suspected hideout locations!!!
Set out the hamster's food at a set time each day. Watch its eating habits until you can determine what is the right amount for each feeding. Hamsters will store food in a pouch on the sides of their face, and then deposit it in a safe place for later consumption. Over stocking by the hamster is a clue that your are overfeeding. The hamster will only eat what it needs at the time.
Pet stores carry food that is suitable for hamsters, and pellets may be the best choice. It provides consistent levels of nourishment as well as a hard substance that is good for its teeth.
However, other foods can be used, and are highly recommended to maintain a varied, yet balanced diet.
Hamsters are normally very rugged and hardy animals, but they can have health problems. The best way to treat these ailments is to limit the hamster's ability to contract illness:
Signs of Old Age
Between the age of 2 and 3 years a hamster will start to show signs of old age. It will start losing its fur, sometimes leaving bald spots. It will become more apathetic. sleep more, eat less, and may find it more difficult to move around.
At this stage in its life you should leave it in familiar surroundings, greatly reduce risks of stress, and handle less frequently.
When your hamster finally crosses the Rainbow Bridge set aside time to grieve; to remember the pet's life, good and bad; the comfort and joy given and received; and the special warmth you experienced with your furry friend.
Written by Ron Lueth, Pet Guardian Angels of America
Hamster Care A United Kingdom site.