Hamsters

Hamsters belong to the rodent family, with their name deriving from the German word hamstern, meaning “to hoard”. This reflects the way in which they collect food in their cheek pouches, carrying this back to their underground burrows where it is stored, to be eaten later.

There are some 24 different species of hamster, ranging from Europe across the Middle East to parts of eastern Russia and China. In the wild, they are shy creatures, hiding underground during the day and then emerging under cover of darkness. Most are solitary by nature, and they must generally not be housed together, because they will fight each other ferociously, in spite of their small size.

Housing

Hamsters can be housed in a variety of ways in the home. Hamster cages, with a plastic base and a mesh top represent a popular option. A tall cage of this type provides adequate space so the hamster can climb around easily, especially if there is a shelf here. The detachable base means that the cage can be thoroughly cleaned, with special wood shavings normally being used as the floor covering.

Another possibility is to choose a tubular housing system, which reflects the way that hamsters live in underground burrows. The plastic sections which provide this type of accommodation can be assembled to create a variety of shapes. There are wider inset chambers which the hamster can use for sleeping and eating. This type of housing system can be expanded easily, by the addition of extra sections, and there is a suitable hole allowing a corresponding water bottle to be securely attached here from the outside.

The sections must be firmly assembled however, to ensure that there are no loose joins which would enable the hamster to gnaw at the exposed edges of plastic. If undetected, this could result in the hamster escaping into the room. As far as cages are concerned, the door fitting must be secure, because hamsters are quite adept at clambering around the bars, and could otherwise squeeze through this opening. 

Being nocturnal by nature, hamsters need an area for sleeping in their quarters, lined with special hamster bedding. This will be safe for them if swallowed, whereas other material may result in a blockage of the intestines. A hamster wheel should also be provided, as a means of exercise. It needs to be fully enclosed, so there is no risk of the hamster becoming trapped by its feet.        

When cleaning out the hamster’s quarters, you may want to transfer your pet to a ball, which he can peddle along with his feet, and where he will be secure. Only keep a hamster in a toy of this type for a five minutes or so however, to prevent your pet suffering from exhaustion.

Feeding

In the wild, hamsters feed on a variety of seeds and nuts which they collect and carry back underground in their cheek pouches. These enable hamsters to pick up food quickly, causing the sides of their face to appear swollen at this stage, and carry it back to their burrows. A range of pre-packed hamster foods are now available, comprised largely of cereal seeds which consist mainly of carbohydrate, rather than sunflower seed which is full of oil (fat). Only offer the recommended amount each day to a hamster, because otherwise, it is likely to be wasteful feeding your pet.  

The food bowl is likely to be empty in the morning, with the hamster having transferred the seeds to its sleeping quarters in its cheek pouches. Small amounts of fresh food such as sweet apple and carrot should also be provided, but it is especially important not to leave any uneaten pieces in the hamster’s bed, because they will soon turn mouldy here. 

Hamsters originate from arid parts of the world, but they will drink regularly and should be provided with a small bottle which attaches to the side of their quarters for this purpose. The tip of the spout needs to hang at a suitable angle so that it is easily accessible.

Although not of nutritional value, hamsters must be given wooden chews or pieces of branches cut from trees such as apple, which have not been sprayed with chemicals. This allows them to keep their sharp incisor teeth in trim at the front of the mouth, preventing them from becoming overgrown, so they can continue eating without difficulty. Otherwise, you can buy wooden chews for this purpose.  

Varieties

Three different species of hamsters are commonly-available. The best-known is the Syrian hamster (Mesocricetus auratus), which is also known as the golden, thanks to its natural coloration, although it is now being bred in a wide range of other colours. There are three different forms of the golden, ranging in their depth of coloration which depends on the relative amount of dark melanin pigment in their bodies.

A similar situation exists in the case of the white varieties. The palest of these, with no melanin pigment is the albino, with pink ears and eyes. There is also the dark-eared white, which also has red eyes, and the black-eyed white, with pink ears.

Cream-coloured hamsters are also popular, with red, ruby and black-eyed varieties recognised. Grey hamsters have become more popular over recent years, with light and dark shades being recognised for show purposes. Black Syrian hamsters are also being seen more commonly.  Coloured and white combinations, such as black and white are also often available, and there are variations in coat type too, with long-coated Angoras, shiny satins and curly-coated rex variants all possible.

Dwarf Russian and Chinese hamsters

Dwarf Russian hamsters (Phodopus species) are slightly smaller than the Syrian, and may be better-suited to being housed in from where they are less likely to be able to escape.  The Campbell’s subspecies (P. sungorus campbelli)  is the most popular, now being bred in an increasing range of colour forms. They naturally display a dark stripe running down the centre of their backs, which stands out from the brownish-grey fur, with the underside of the body being white.

A sandy shade, called the argente is now quite widely-available. Paler varieties include the platinum, whose fur is similar in colour to that of the metal, and an albino variety.  There are also dark varieties such as the opal and black, and those with areas of white on their upperparts, described as mottled.  

Less common is the winter white dwarf Russian hamster (P.s. sungorus).  As its name suggests, this hamster is transformed by becoming pure winter in the winter, which would naturally help to conceal its presence from predators in a snowy landscape. The best-known varieties now established in this case are the blue-grey variety, called the sapphire and the pearl, with black tipping on a white coat.

Occasionally also available are Roborovski’s dwarf Russian hamsters (P. roborovskii). These can be easily recognised as they lack the stripe running down the central area of the back, being golden-brown above, with white underparts. The coat in this case is slightly longer and so is not as sleek as in the preceding species.

There are a few other species of hamster being bred by enthusiasts, of which the Chinese (Cricetulus griseus) is most likely to be seen.  These hamsters are slightly larger than the Russian dwarf species, and brown in colour, again with a darker stripe running down their backs. Occasionally, they may have white spots in amongst their brown fur.    

Health problems

Digestive disturbances are not uncommon in hamsters, particularly young individuals, and to minimise this risk, do not vary the hamster’s diet suddenly, especially when you first acquire your pet. Otherwise, this might be a contributing factor to the serious illness known as “wet tail”, so-called because of the staining in the vicinity of the tail caused by diarrhoea. Stress is believed to play a significant role in the development of this bacterial infection, and treatment is difficult, although antibiotics and fluid therapy may sometimes prove successful. 

Young hamsters may also be at risk from constipation, if they are not drinking properly.  Always encourage a young hamster to appreciate where its water bottle is, by gently squeezing the bottle to release a drop of water into your pet’s mouth.  Increasing the amount of fruit or greenstuff, both of which have a relatively high water content, will also help with resolving this condition.

On occasions, food can become stuck in a hamster’s cheek pouch. Oats are particularly dangerous, and should never be fed to hamsters for this reason. Typical signs of a blockage of these pouches are dribbling and loss of appetite. Prompt veterinary treatment can often free the blockage successfully.