Small, furry and oh-so cute, the Syrian (or Golden) hamster is a species of rodent that has become an immensely popular pet in the space of a few short decades. Whether packing his little pouches with sunflower seeds, running a marathon on his wheel, or charging around the front room in an exercise ball, the Syrian hamster is an adorable companion and a rewarding pet.
All Syrian hamsters kept as pets in the West today are descended from one female of the species. She was found in a burrow in a field in Aleppo in northern Syria in April, 1930, by zoologist Dr Israel Aharoni. This female was subsequently used to establish a captive breeding programme in Jerusalem from which the first hamsters were exported to the UK in 1931, and in 1938 to the USA. Unfortunately, the fate of these first hamsters was to be used as subjects for laboratory experiments, and it was not until 1945 that the species was first marketed as a domestic pet. The first hamster breeders club was formed in the same year.
Despite this rather short history of domesticity, the Syrian hamster has become a commonplace household pet in less than fifty years. Larger and more personable than mice, gerbils and other more timid varieties of hamster, and yet smaller, and thus more economical, than larger rodents, such as rats, guinea pigs and rabbits, the Syrian hamster offers the appealing combination of a little furry animal that won't have a heart attack every time you tap on the bars of its cage.
The Syrian hamster is naturally a nocturnal creature that in its natural habitat roams over a territory of about three miles in search of food. Being a herbivorous species, this typically consists of fruit, vegetation and seeds. In the wild the species makes its home in a burrow filled with winding tunnels and small chambers through which it is capable of scurrying with a great deal of speed and dexterity. These characteristics translate into important considerations that must be taken into account when attempting to care for a domestic hamster.
First and foremost is the fact that the Syrian hamster is a solitary and territorial animal that only comes into contact with other members of its species to mate and otherwise will not tolerate the presence of another hamster in what it considers to be its own territory. Although they have no problem with human beings, two mature Syrians should under no circumstances be kept in the same cage as one another. If they are they will each promptly decide that the other is a trespasser on their turf and the resulting bout of rodent fisticuffs is simply too traumatic to describe.
As a nocturnal creature, the Syrian hamster is most likely to be up and about when the hapless humans with whom he shares his home are trying to get some sleep. It is easy to make the mistake of assuming that such a small animal is quite quiet, but, as any hamster owner will tell you, the little blighters are noisy as hell. Covering such large distances in the wild means that a domestic hamster wakes up each night full of energy and shoots around like a little dynamo. As a result of this only a callous owner would deny them such things as an exercise wheel to run off the excess energy. Think seriously about where you put the hamster's cage - it should preferably be somewhere that his manic nightly activities won't disturb your sleep.
A hamster should always have access to a supply of fresh water and a regular supply of suitable food. Dried foods bought from a pet store, and consisting of such things as sunflower seeds and corn kernels, form a good staple for a Syrian's diet. Fresh vegetables, fruit and even a small amount of mild cheese are also good for the occasional treat to supplement this diet. However, when feeding fresh food it is always worth remembering its tendency to go off in relation to the universal hamster instinct to hoard large supplies of food. A watchful eye should be kept on the hamster's store and perishable foodstuff should be carefully removed, and ideally replaced with dried foods.
In the wild this makes perfect sense as their desert habitat may yield up little food at certain times of the year. Hoarding food under these circumstances may be the hamster's only hope of survival and the strength of this instinct is best illustrated by the case of the wild Syrian that was found to have hoarded around 2.5 tons of food in its burrow. So, because your hamster is likely to hoard a large deposit of food, you should stop feeding it when it has. Most hamsters will only eat what they need and are quite able to sit on a pile of food until Doomsday without any danger of becoming overweight. Allowing even a very small amount of food on a regular basis allows the hamster to indulge its foraging instincts.
While hamsters are generally hardy pets, illness can occasionally occur even in the best of homes. A sickening hamster will generally become listless, with a loss of appetite and deterioration in the condition of its coat. It is important to handle illness quickly, as the loss of appetite can be life-threatening because hamsters have very little fat reserves and cannot manage without food for long. Common illness include colds, diarrhoea and wet-tail - a particularly severe form of diarrhoea that is highly infectious and generally fatal.
A sick hamster should be kept away from other pets and kept warm. It should be provided with plenty of bedding, and if moved from its normal cage - and if practical - its nest should be moved to its new temporary home. It may also be appropriate to consult a vet.
The Hamster Home
As mentioned earlier, a wild hamster dwells in a burrow of intricate tunnels and chambers, and there are many habitats available on the market that are designed to simulate this environment. Perhaps the most common are the 'traditional' habitats consisting of an upper metal cage atop a sturdy plastic tray. These cages are fairly cheap and very easy to come by offering the hamster a large open space in which to live. This allows for easy access for cleaning and interaction betwixt hamster and human.
The second most common hamster habitat is that of the modular plastic variety. These usually take the form of tubes and chambers moulded from transparent plastic that can be fitted together in a variety of ways and expanded over time. The logic behind these is that the tubes and chambers simulate the burrows that the hamster digs in the wild and thus makes them feel more secure. In comparison to the more traditional cages, the modular systems are far harder to clean and there are times when one will have to search hard to locate the resident rodent. However, on the plus side, they are far more versatile and can be added to as the needs of the hamster demand. Anyone who has kept a hamster in such a habitat will tell you that there are many hours of fun to be had watching the little chap charge up and down the tubes with his pouches stuffed full of food.
The essential dos and don'ts of a hamster's habitat are for the main part a matter of common sense. The floors should be kept covered with about two centimetres of clean sawdust that should be changed approximately every two weeks. The hamster should always have a place where they can make a bed and sleep out of sight (with proper bedding intended for that purpose, not newspaper), as while a sleeping hamster is a very cute sight they need to feel safe and secure in their slumber.
Apart from this the two main things that a hamster requires are an exercise wheel and something to gnaw on. As already mentioned, hamsters have a lot of energy and their teeth never cease to grow throughout their lives. Even the term 'rodent' has its root in the Latin term for 'to gnaw', and if your hamster isn't sleeping, eating, or running on his wheel then you can guarantee that he'll be chewing frantically on whatever might be available.
A Final Word
As far as rodentia go, the Syrian hamster is a good choice for someone looking for a pet that won't take up too much space and will reward the relatively small amount of time that needs to be devoted to it. As anyone who has ever owned a Syrian hamster will tell you, they are all characters and no two are alike.