I talk about hamster species here because the size of the hamster you choose will affect many of the decisions you make after, such as cage size. There are individual characteristics of each species and I will be sure to mention them under the specific hamster species. Please note that even though I have mentioned that some species can be kept in mixed sex groups, I do not recommend you to do so. I have placed that information there for informative reasons only. Due to the fast rate of birth, if not controlled, you will end up with overcrowding hamsters that might fight for space. You cannot neuter hamsters as they are so small and mixed sex groups should only occur for breeding purposes. Only ever breed your hamsters if you are 100% confident that you know what you are doing, you understand the consequences, breeding occurs in a controlled environment and you are able to be fully responsible for all of the offspring. There is enough hamsters without homes out there.
After all the species are explained, I will mention some of the points that you need to be aware of when you go to buy your hamster.
Basic common characteristics between all hamster species
Hamsters stand out among other rodent pets because they have very short tails and the ability to store food in a cheek pouch. Whether you get a dwarf or a Syrian variety, they all have these two features. Due to their small tails, they do not have the agile balance that a rat or mouse may have. The cheek pouches allow them to carry a considerable amount of food and bedding in their mouths. Hamsters have poor eye sight but an excellent sense of smell.
All hamsters are nocturnal. They are most active after sun down. This makes them ideal pets for those who are out during the day but at home in the evening.
Syrian hamster / Golden Hamster Species
Other nicknames: Teddy bear
Size: up to 18cm
Average life span: 2 – 2 ½ years
This species of hamster is possibly the most common one. You will find them in most pet shops and they come in a variety of different coat lengths and colours. They are usually displayed in groups of several hamsters in pet shops and when you do see them in groups, they are probably under 8 weeks old. Syrian hamsters develop strong territorial instincts when they grow older than 8 weeks old and will fight to the death with any other hamster sharing their territory. Even though you might see them in groups at the pet shop, you must only put one in a cage.
Due to their size, they are the easiest species to handle and will not run as fast as dwarf species. This is the most ideal type of hamster for children and also for someone who is slightly more nervous. However, Syrian hamsters require bigger cages.
Chinese Hamster Species
Size: up to 12cm
Average lifespan: 2 ½ – 3 years
Chinese hamsters are not dwarf hamsters but as they are small, they are usually regarded as a dwarf species. They are not as readily available as other hamster species are but can still be found in the UK. Their tails are more noticeable. There are two main coats available. One is a dark stripe down the centre of the back on a brown coat with a paler stomach. The second coat is called dominant spot and has a white base coat with speckled spots of brown across the body. Dominant spot also has a dark stripe down the centre. Unlike Syrians and some dwarf species, keeping Chinese hamsters in groups or in single sets is not so clear cut. They can be very territorial yet they can also thrive in colonies or pairs. Whether keeping them on their own or in a pair really depends on the individual hamster’s personality. Due to the possibility of aggression, you will need to watch out for any changes in behaviour if you house more than one hamster in a cage. If you see any hamster fighting or find any wounds on a hamster, you must separate them. It is a good idea to have a back up cage for that purpose. Male hamsters are less aggressive than females when it comes to territory.
Chinese hamsters have better balancing skills and can be quite fast. Due to their size and quicker speed, they are not very suitable for young children. However, they are considered friendly towards people and if handled from young age, rarely bite. They can be active for short periods during day time but is fully awake at night. As they are good climbers and have lots of energy, they require big cages with many toys. Buying cages for small hamsters requires special attention to the bar spacing as they can squeeze through small gaps and escape.
Winter White Dwarf Hamster Species
Alternative names: Siberian hamster
Size: up to 10cm
Average lifespan: 2 years
They are named winter white because their fur can change colours in winter. When it is not winter, their coat is a grey brown with a darker stripe down the middle of the back. Their belly is a paler white colour. In winter, they changed their coat to a white colour and do not usually breed when they have this colour. Other possible coat colours are sapphire which is a softer blue grey colour with a dark grey centre stripe. The other possible coat colour is pearl, white coat with ticks of colour at the end of the hairs. Winter White hamsters can be kept in pairs or in groups of same or mixed sex provided they are introduced at a young age otherwise they may fight. As winter white species are quite sociable and live in colonies in the wild, it is a good idea to keep at least two together.
Winter white hamsters are very friendly and rarely bite if handled from a young age. They are less suited to young children due to their size. These hamsters are also really fast. Always check bar spacing of cages before placing a winter white in a cage as smaller ones or juvenile hamsters can escape between bars if the spacing is too wide. It is a good idea to have a spare one in case a fight occurs.
Dwarf Campbell’s Russian Hamster Species
Size: up to 10-12 cm depending on gender
Average lifespan: up to 2 years
Campbell’s hamster species is similar looking to the winter white and is often confused with one another but they are two different hamster species. This hamster is slightly rounded and comes in a large variety of coats and patterns. Like the winter white, Campbell’s hamsters can live in same or mixed sex pairs and groups. However they will need to be introduced at a young age and even then, may fight later on in life. As they live in colonies in the wild, I would recommend having at least a pair to keep each other company. Campbell’s hamsters will establish hierarchy when there is more than one in a cage. Although when establishing it would appear that they might start to fight, things are usually resolved without physical contact as one hamster will usually choose to be submissive. Do watch out just in case things are not resolved peacefully.
They are more prone to nipping if handled poorly so are not very suitable for kids. Even though they are mainly nocturnal, they still wake up for short periods during the day so they are ideal if you work during the evening or are at home during the day. Campbell’s hamsters are prone to diabetes so they may not live as long as 2 years. This problem is hereditary and there is no cure. Like other dwarf hamster species’, watch out for bar spacing on cages as smaller hamsters can escape between bars.
Roborovski Dwarf Hamster Species
Size: up to 5cm
Average Lifespan: 3-3 ½ years
This is the smallest species of hamster available as pets. They are not as widespread as Russian dwarf species or Syrian species and may require tracking down a breeder. Despite being smaller, they also have the longest lifespan. There are two colours. The normal Roborovski hamster is a brown colour with a white belly and white ‘eyebrows’. The other colour is called White Face for obvious reasons. This type of hamster is best kept with another one or in a group as they are very sociable and become agitated alone. Fighting can still occur so keep an eye out for any hamsters that are being bullied.
As these hamsters are very tiny, they are difficult to handle. They are also extremely fast so many people suggest that you provide them with a really big cage full of toys and observe them rather than handle them all the time. However, they are pleasant to handle as they have very good temperaments and hardly ever bite. Commercial cages are not very suitable for these hamsters as their size means they can easily escape between bars. Aquarium or plastic cages work better for Roborovski hamsters.
When Buying a Hamster
Buying any pet is an important process and you really need to take care when choosing a pet. It should never be an impulse buy and you should always have all the necessary housing and equipment set up at home. It is important to choose a healthy animal as you do not want to be faced with vet bills within the first week. It is also important not to choose an animal because you feel sorry for it for reasons such as the animal being ill or being the runt of the pack. This may lead to heartbreak, possible behavioural problems and increased vet bills. Never be afraid to ask questions and always make sure you understand the answers. Research is really important, pet shops will not know a lot about the animal they are selling you. So make it a point to know your animal before you buy it. Some of the steps below will help you in the process of choosing the right hamster.
· Before you decide to buy a hamster, check if you have caught a cold. Hamsters can catch human colds (which can be fatal) so there is no point buying a hamster on the same day you feel like you are coming down with cold or flu. Wait a week or two until you are recovered before you go and buy one.
· You will most likely be looking in a pet shop unless you are after some of the rarer breeds. When you enter the pet shop, check whether the place looks clean. An unhygienic environment can lead to unhealthy animals. Do not settle for the first shop you enter if you are not satisfied with their standards. The hamster cage should be clean. Hamster droppings should be brown or black coloured grains that are dry. If they are soft, the hamster might have wet tail and the staff should be notified.
If you feel that the shop standards are low, don’t be afraid of pointing it out. If enough pet owners inform a shop that their standards are not good enough, they are likely to change how they treat their animals.
· As they are still young, hamsters (even Syrians) will usually be placed in groups. They should not fight and there should not be any signs of the hamster having fought (e.g. scratches). Do not choose an injured hamster out of pity, instead, kindly let the staff know.
· Hamsters will be a bit less active during the day, however, when woken up, they should be curious and inquisitive. If a hamster is not responsive, even after being roused from their home, there might be an underlying health problem. Active hamsters tend to be healthier. Some hamsters will already be awake and tend to respond to your presence by coming closer to you. Responsive hamsters make good choices. Take this opportunity to see if the hamster walks without problems like limping.
· Once you see one you like, you should ask the staff if you can handle the hamster. Hamsters that have been handled from a young age will be less aggressive. If the staff do not advise you to handle their pets, be wary as they may not have been handled before. By handling a hamster you are interested in, you can check for any health problems and also have a closer look at that hamster’s personality.
When handling a hamster, check the following:
o Are the eyes, nose, ears and mouth clean? Eyes should be bright and alert. The nose should not be wet or runny. Ears should be clean and clear. If you are able to, check the teeth are not overly long.
o Check the body for any injuries. Fur should be soft and not greasy or sticky. Long haired hamsters should not have any matted or knotty fur. There should not be any soft faeces stuck to the hamster’s fur.
o Hamsters may be slightly nervous at being held by a stranger but should not be extremely frightened or panicky. Hamsters are generally quite friendly so should not bite aggressively. Do not choose a hamster that is aggressive towards you as you may find yourself not handling them in the future.
There is a checklist of points to keep in mind here. You can copy/print that list to take with you as a reminder.