What Are Hamsters Anyway?

One of the most common family pets is a hamster, which may leave you asking, what exactly is a hamster? I am happy to help you get to know this cute little animal better.

What Are Hamsters Anyway?

Hamsters are rodents with furry little stocky bodies, small stubby tails, and short furry ears, legs, and wide feet. A few more facts that will help you understand what hamsters are –

  • They have large cheek pouches that they can stuff full of food.
  • Hamsters also have poor eyesight and are nearsighted and colorblind.
  • These little critters are sensitive to high-pitched noise and are solitary creatures.
  • The average hamster weighs about 3.5 ounces and is around 7 inches long, although the females can be a bit larger than the males.
  • Hamsters have thick, silky fur and can be a variety of colors or length, depending on the species.
  • They can be aggressive towards other hamsters, so do best with one animal to a cage.

Below I explore the variety of species in more detail, as well as how they compare to other small pet options.

Hamsters Taxonomy

There are five species of hamsters: Syrian or golden hamster, Campbell’s Dwarf Hamsters, Siberian or Winter White, Roborovski, and Chinese hamsters.

  • Syrian or Golden Hamster originate from Syria and was first described and named in 1839. The majority of pet hamsters are golden hamsters and can be found in a variety of colors, including brown, black, gold, cream, white, and tortoiseshell. Golden hamsters with long hair are called “Teddy Bear Hamsters”. They have an average lifespan of between two and three years.
  • Campbell’s Dwarf Hamster is very closely related to the Djungarian hamster (see below). It originates from Mongolia. It differs in that it has smaller ears and no dark fur on its head. They typically have a narrow dorsal stripe and gray fur on its stomach. The lips and cheeks have white fur with the rest of the face being brown or gray, and the hands and feet are white. Campbell’s dwarf hamster’s cheek pouches run from the mouth all the way to its back legs. The average lifespan for this type of hamster is between one and two and a half years.
  • The Djungarian, or Russian Winter White Hamster, is ball-shaped and half the size of the Golden Hamster, so it is called a dwarf hamster. They typically have a thick, dark gray dorsal stripe and furry feet. Their fur usually thickens and turns white in winter, although this does not always happen in captivity. In summer they are light to dark brown, and the outer ears and eyes have black rims. They weigh between .5 oz. and 1.5 oz., and they typically live one to three years.
  • Roborovski hamsters, also known as the desert hamster, as they are originally from the desert regions near Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and China. They are the smallest of the hamsters, being around 2inches long and weighing less than an ounce. They need more activity, which causes them more stress, so they are not well suited to an environment where they are going to be handled a lot. They are best suited to just being observed, and are not recommended as pets for small children. They usually live a little over two years.
What Are Hamsters Anyway?
Photo by Pixabay

Variations of Roborovski hamsters

There are ten variations of Roborovski hamsters, each primarily determined by the animal’s color:

  • Agouti: grayish-brown with white underside and white ‘eyebrows’
  • White face: agouti colored with a white face
  • Husky: White face and pale, orangey coat
  • Mottled or Pied: Agouti coloring with irregular white patches
  • Platinum: White faced as a young hamster that fades with age.
  • Head spot: Pure white, with one patch of color on its head
  • White- from-white-faced, or dark eared white: White with grayish undercoat and ears
  • White from pied or pure white: Pure white
  • Red-eyed: caramel colored with chocolate undercoat, dark brown eyes and pale ears.

The Chinese Hamster

The Chinese Hamster originates from the deserts of northern China and Mongolia. They are usually longer and thinner and have a longish tail.

Chinese hamsters are brown with a black stripe, with a white belly, and are more mouse-like in appearance. They are considered pests in some states, and require a special permit to own, breed or sell them.

These are also dwarf hamsters and so only grow to 1 -2 oz. in weight, and 3-5 inches long. Chinese hamsters are primarily nocturnal, but are known to be good-natured and don’t usually bite. Since they are so small, they can escape easily and may need to be kept in an aquarium instead of a cage. These cute little critters tend to live about 2-3 years.

Domestication of the Syrian Hamster

This first hamster to be domesticated was the Syrian, or Golden Hamster. In the late 1700’s it was discovered and cataloged by naturalists. The earliest were captured in the 1930’s by scientists who were looking for subjects for medical research.

By that time, Chinese hamsters were already being captured and used for medical studies, but they were difficult to obtain, so Israel Aharoni, a researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was contacted by parasitologist, Saul Adler for suggestions.

This led to Israel Aharoni’s capture of a nest with a mother and her 11 young. After the mother hamster killed one of the young, and several of them chewed through their box to escape, they were ultimately left with just three, a male and two females.

These three hamsters soon multiplied, and as they were raised in captivity, they were tame and it became apparent that they would make cute and adorable pets, with proper care.

Use of hamsters in laboratories

The use of Syrian hamsters for medical research grew and spread throughout the United Kingdom, and eventually into the United States in the 1940’s.

Albert Marsh established the commercial hamster industry in the United States, and promoted the Syrian hamsters as pets, even taking out advertising. He published a book, called The Hamster Manual.

Marsh was also instrumental in convincing the California Department of Agriculture to classify the Syrian hamster as “normally domesticated animals”. The popularity of the hamster as a pet took off in the early 1950’s and has been well established ever since.

How do hamsters compare to other small house pets?

There are several other popular house pets that are similar to hamsters that a family might consider.

Rabbits vs. hamsters as pets

Rabbits are known to be wonderful house pets. They are clean and good natured and can be litter trained. Like a hamster, a rabbit likes to chew on things, so need to be caged when they are not under direct supervision or during playtime.

Pet rabbits are larger than hamsters. Depending on the breed, rabbits can weigh from three pounds to fifteen pounds. They have a longer lifespan as well, living as long as ten years. Rabbits can be very delicate and easily injured, and usually, do not like to be held or cuddled.

Rats vs. hamsters as pets

Despite their image, domesticated rats can make great pets. Rats are usually larger than hamsters and also less fluffy and cuddly. Their bodies are usually around five to six inches long, with tails the same length as their bodies.

Pet rats are very active at night. These rodents are super smart and require a lot of exercise and attention outside of their cages. Unlike hamsters, they are very social and do best in multiples.

Gerbils vs. hamsters

Gerbils are small rodents, about four inches long with a tail the same length. They usually live two to three years and are available in a variety of colors, the most prominent being an agouti color, which is gray, yellow and black striped hairs. They are very social and do best as a same-sex pair, preferably sharing a cage with a sibling. They are not nocturnal, so are livelier for play during the day. They are easy to train and unlikely to bite unless threatened.

Guinea Pigs vs. hamsters as pets

Guinea pigs make another great option. Slightly larger than an average hamster, there are both long and short haired varieties which need to be groomed weekly. Guinea Pigs are known for the distinctive whistling sound that they make, and they are very vocal creatures.

These are social animals and do best with another guinea pig for company. They require a lot of floor space to run and play, so it is important that this is taken into consideration before choosing one (or two) as a pet. They are very easy going and easy to bond with and train.

However, like a rabbit, guinea pigs have a longer lifespan than hamsters, rats and gerbils so are a greater commitment. They can live for five to seven years.

Choosing the Best Pet for Your Family- Think it Through, and Have Fun!

As you can see, there are a lot of great options when it comes to choosing a small family pet. It is important to take your family’s lifestyle as well as the animal’s needs into consideration when making this choice. For example, if you are a large noisy family living in a small space, a hamster might not be for you, as they prefer peace and quiet. Or, if you are certain that you only want to get one animal, then you would not want to get a rat or guinea pig. There is a lot to consider, but adding a new member to the family should also be enjoyable and fun.

Looking for a new pet for your family? This is a very important decision as your new pet will become a valued member of your family.

You want to make sure that you have all of the information on each kind of animal so you find the pet that best suits your family’s lifestyle. From cats and dogs, goldfish and hamsters, there are so many family-friendly options. Hopefully, this post helped you get to know hamsters better so you can make the best decision when choosing your next pet.

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