Hamsters are small, mouse-like rodents native to many regions of the world, but were initially discovered in Syria, reportedly by British zoologist George Waterhouse in 1839. Given the name “Golden hamster”, this species was first bred in captivity around 1930 in Jerusalem. They arrived in the United Kingdom the following year and reached the United States in 1938.
Since that time they have become quite popular as pets, as they are easy to tame and require minimal space and maintenance.
Although Golden hamsters are the most common, there are four smaller varieties available, referred to as “dwarf” hamsters: the Chinese hamster, Roborovsky hamster, Dwarf Winter White Russian hamster, and Dwarf Campbell’s Russian hamster. Each type has its own physical and behavioral characteristics to consider when choosing one as a pet.
Golden hamsters are 12-16 centimeters long, practically tailless, and females are larger than males. They are still found in their original brownish-golden hue, but captive breeding has now led to many other available colors. There is also a long-haired variety commonly called the “Teddy Bear” hamster.
Chinese hamsters are among the least common types, and reach a length of 10 centimeters. They have a hairless tail about 2.5 centimeters long and a brownish-gray coat, with a dark stripe along the spine and light gray bellies.
The Roborovski hamster has a distinctive yellow-brown color and white marks above its eyes. It is the smallest dwarf hamster, averaging only 5 centimeters long, so an aquarium may be more adequate housing than a cage.
Dwarf Winter White Russian hamsters may reach 8-10 centimeters in length. They will develop a white coat in colder temperatures while remaining dark gray during warmer seasons, and they also have furry feet.
Dwarf Russian Campbell’s hamsters are a yellowish brown with a dark stripe along the back, and grow to 10 centimeters long. Their coats are usually thicker compared to the other dwarf hamsters, and may become grayish during the winter months.
All hamsters are nocturnal, being active mostly at night, and normally live 2-3 years. They usually become quite tame if frequently and gently handled, especially from a young age. They are gnawing creatures who may nibble at a person’s hand, but rarely bite unless frightened. Most have an easygoing nature, however, both Chinese and Golden hamsters will become territorial after 8-10 weeks of age and must then be kept alone. The other dwarf hamster varieties may be kept together in same-sex groups, preferably if introduced when they are young.
Pet hamsters may be kept in an aquarium or a wire mouse cage that is cleaned weekly, and an exercise wheel is a must. Shredded tissue or toilet paper makes an ideal bedding, while wood chips, especially cedar or pine, should never be used as they can cause an allergic skin reaction.
Food mixes for hamsters containing grains, seeds, and corn will suit their dietary needs. The occasional fresh fruit or vegetable supplement is acceptable, but junk food and candy must be strictly avoided.