There are about two dozen hamster breeds worldwide, and five of them have become popular household pets. Elementary school students often get opportunities to take classroom hamsters home for a few days because caring for these docile rodents is relatively easy. Hamsters are pretty diminutive—they don't exceed 9 inches long and are soft and furry. They have barely-there tails and cheek pouches they fill with food. The different breeds vary in small but significant ways, but they're all crepuscular and sleep a lot during the day.
Many rodents have teeth that never stop growing, and gnawing is the only way to wear them down. Chewing on hard fruits and veggies in addition to a biting cube keeps hamsters' relentless incisors from growing long enough to pierce their jaws. Hamsters are born with 16 teeth, including the four incisors at the front and 12 molars or cheek teeth. Hamster teeth are naturally yellow so don't let the color concern you.
Syrian or teddy bear hamsters are the most popular breed in the U.S. These hamsters usually have golden coats and white bellies, but there are piebald varieties, and some are bred to have longer coats. Slow-moving Syrians can live as long as four years, longer than their smaller dwarf counterparts. They're also much more receptive to being handled than dwarf hamsters. Don't be tempted to group this breed—they're territorial and will fight to the death.
Hamsters sometimes eat their babies, which can happen if they're overcrowded or under stress, which is more common among younger hamsters. Alternatively, it can also occur if there's a food shortage. The mother may eat all or some of the babies to give the others a better chance of survival. Hamster owners and breeders can prevent this disturbing phenomenon by providing a tranquil nest space. Covering the cage with a towel can reduce maternal fears. Don't touch the babies because the scent of humans can confuse the mother, and offer your hamster more grub than usual.
This breed can fit in your pocket at just two to four inches long. Campbell's Russian dwarf hamsters are grayish and generally live for about two years. They shouldn't be confused with the Winter White Russian dwarfs, who also have a distinct stripe on their backs. When you first get a Campbell dwarf, there may be a few nips, but familiarity will make you appear less of a threat, and your hamster will stop biting. You can group two males or females for company, provided you do so early on. Ensure the hamsters are the same sex to prevent reproducing, and monitor their interactions for potential hostility. Although it's nocturnal, your Campbell dwarf will adorably wake during parts of the day and be happy to play for a bit. Handle it close to the floor to prevent falls and use a hamster ball because this breed is fleet of foot and will dart across your apartment or house before you can say, Jack Robinson.
How did hamsters become pets? Many species of wild hamsters are hardened by the quest for survival and too aggressive for domestic life. Among the rarest of the bunch, young Syrian hamsters were the first to leap human homes. In 1930, a biologist named Israel Aharoni searched for wild Syrian hamsters in Aleppo. The litter he found went on to spawn an industry. European hamsters, a different breed, were often captured for fur coats. These days, you can see them running around in urban parks in cities like Vienna. But many hamsters in the wild are struggling with habitat loss. France is currently on a mission to save the Great Hamster of Alsace from extinction.
Roborovski dwarf hamsters are, if you can believe it, almost half the length of a Campbell Russian dwarf, so pick a hamster cage with narrower spaces between bars, or your robo might squeeze through. These sand-colored, fun-size hamsters hail from Central Asia and live for up to four years when they're content. Robos are also super fast; you'll need to handle them with care, if at all, and provide lots of enrichment.
Pet hamsters are often sold with wheels for exercise. And if you've ever pulled an all-nighter for work or school or made the mistake of keeping your hamster in your bedroom, you'll hear a constant whir coming from your hamster's cage—they can run for hours on end. There are many theories why this occurs, from boredom to stress. A 2014 study found that even rodents in the wild will hop on a wheel for the runner's high it imparts.
Chinese hamsters have brownish fur with a stripe on their back and longer tails than other domestic hamsters. This breed has a friendly disposition and is considered medium-sized, weighing an ounce or two. Chinese hamsters won't normally oppose a roommate if you introduce the second hamster early on.
Pet Syrian hamsters imported from the Netherlands sparked a coronavirus outbreak in Hong Kong in lit's2021. Hamsters are often used in scientific research and can contract the virus in lab settings. The hamster-related Hong Kong delta variant outbreak was sourced to a pet shop and warehouse and led to the culling of thousands of these critters in the city.
The Snow Whites of the hamster world, these dwarfs are gray, but their fur can go white when it's cold. In the wild, winter, white Russian dwarfs could be prey for the beautiful Siberian husky. This breed is rounder than Campbell dwarfs and has a shorter face too. Meek winter whites are also known as Djungarian hamsters.
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