There are currently five hamster species that were first popular as laboratory animals and now are popular in the pet trade. Unfortunately, these same hamsters often wind up surrendered to animal shelters because people either are going through hard times or did not realize that taking care of a hamster was harder than they first thought. If you think you are up to the challenge of keeping a hamster, please consider adopting rather than buying.
Syrian or Golden (Mesocricetus auratus)
This was the first species of hamster to be domesticated and is the hamster people are most familiar with. They average four to seven inches in length and come in a wide variety of colors and patterns. There is even a bald type. The long-haired variety is usually called “teddy bear”. Syrians prefer to live alone. Females are larger than males.
This is a highly intelligent species. Because of their intelligence, they get bored quickly and then are prone to developing annoying habits such as biting the bars of their cage for hours. Since they are nocturnal, this can mean that this noise can go on all night. Syrian hamsters need a variety of toys, tunnels and opportunities to play in order to keep them from getting bored and fat.
Chinese Hamster (Cricetulus griseus)
Sometimes called “rat-faced hamsters”, these are almost as long as the Syrian and also prefer to live alone. Chinese hamsters have been known to kill each other – even right after mating, the male and female may go after each other’s throats. This makes breeding incredibly difficult, which is probably a good thing. However, Chinese hamsters can be incredibly affectinate with people.
However, they are a few ounces lighter than a Syrian, so they need careful handling. They are more fearful than the Syrian or Russian dwarf hamster. They are more active in warmer weather because they go into semi-hibernation during winter.
Russian Dwarf (Phodopus campbelli)
Also known as Djungarian or Campbell’s dwarf hamster, these are cheeky, lively little pets that tend to get along with others of their own kind, provided they have been introduced to each other before they are two months of age. Even then, they may suddenly attack each other for no reason. But both female and male Russian dwarf hamsters rear the young.
Unfortunately, they only live to be about 2 years old. Since their metabolism is so high, they like a tasty bit of protein like a mealworm or cooked chicken every now and then. Many commercially cages made for hamsters are far too large for Russian dwarf hamsters. They can easily slip between the bars. They also need to use toys made for their small size.
Winter White (Phodopus sungorus)
Also called the Siberian or striped hairy-footed hamster, they are very similar to the Russian dwarf except that they are slightly smaller and are mostly white in the winter, although they may turn a silvery-grey in summer. They were once thought to be another color of Russian dwarf hamster before it was discovered that they were a separate species entirely. However, they can sometiems breed with Russian dwarfs, but the offspring are sterile.
Roborovski (Phodopus roborovskii)
The smallest species of pet hamster available, “Robos” weigh less than one ounce. They are very fast and very fragile, so they are not recommended as a children’s pet. They are sociable with their own species, but will fight with or be killed by other species of hamsters or other pet rodents like rats or gerbils. This is one hamster that is best observed rather than played with.
“Dwarf Hamsters: The Complete Pet Owner’s Manual.” Sharon Vanderlip, DVM. Barron’s; 1999.
“Training Your Pet Hamster.” Gerry Bucsis and Barbara Somerville. Barron’s; 2002.
“Hamsters.” Nancy Ferris, et al. Bow Tie Press; 2008.