Q: I have two teddy bear (Syrian) hamsters that live together in the same cage. They’re male and female. I know that isn’t supposed to happen, but we’ve done that in the past when I was younger and we had no problems (they’re littermates so they tend to be friendly toward each other). Now, however, the situation is different. The female, Cherie, usually follows the male wherever he goes whether it’s to get a drink of water or even run on the wheel. They usually sleep together on the lookout extension we have placed and sometimes they cuddle together with Cherie’s head on Houdini. Sometimes, though, they have problems. One of them (it switches) attacks the other. I’m not so sure if it’s attacking, though, because after they’re done there is NO blood or any marks whatsoever that could have indicated there was a fight. It lasts for a couple of seconds and then they continue sleeping or whatever they were doing previously. It only happens when they’re up in the lookout. What happens is that one hamster pushes the other onto its back and they kind of just lay there and sometimes they make small squeaking noises. Are my hamsters play fighting or serious fighting?
A: The short answer, and really the only legitimate answer, is the one you’ve already given yourself. Syrian hamsters are solitary. They should never, ever be placed together in a dwelling. This isn’t just a matter of habit, but hundreds of thousands of years of hamster species adaptation.
As much as we love them, hamsters are not equipped with the ability to imagine or emote. Their internal world is quite black and white. Hamsters are, for better or worse, captives of their genes. We hamster lovers are lucky that this still leaves them marvelously complex and fascinating. But there are certain aspects of the hamster world view that are hardwired and simply cannot be changed. In the wild, hamsters are fiercely territorial and maintain single dwellings, both males and females. If hamsters are forced into contact with one another they will generally try to avoid conflict. But you must understand that every fiber of their being is telling them that the condition of being in constant proximity to another creature is wrong.
We humans hold a unique position, because we are naturally fearsome to hamsters, owing to our size and strength, and yet we choose not to attack, so they quickly yield because they are generally recessive in nature, lacking most aggression and predation characteristics. Hamsters run well, despite their ungainly shape, because that’s the one really good tool that nature gave them to stay alive in a fight. But with another creature of its own type, if the hamster cannot run away it must find some means to deal with the unnaturalness of being housed with another hamster, and the result is, at its most benign, intense stress that leads to sickness and shortens life.
It may start with what seems like play fighting, but hamsters don’t think of it as playing. For the hamsters it is an issue of survival. I have written about hamsters for more than a few years and heard about so many, literally countless, stories that begin with an occasional nip or confrontation between hamsters and end with an instantaneous and, frankly, grisly death. It can happen in a single, unguarded moment, and this kind of hamster death is one hundred percent preventable.
Therefore the rule is that Syrian hamsters, even of the same litter, must be segregated by sex at 4 to 5 weeks of age, and completely isolated from one another at no later than 7 to 7.5 weeks of age.
You say that you kept Syrian hamsters together in the past without incident, as far as you know. Over the years I have heard many such claims from hamster owners, but when just a bit of probing is done, those who make this claim will recall that, yes, there were patches of fur mysteriously missing from one once; or yes, one was indeed surprisingly skinny while the other was plump despite the fact that they “ate the same food.” One hamster was skinny because Syrian hamsters are territorial; one hamster assumed the dominant role, while the skinny, submissive hamster endured constant, debilitating stress and fear, and wouldn’t eat. Sometimes the effects of living together are more subtle. Sometimes it’s just an unusually foreshortened life span.
Sadly, hamsters can’t express themselves clearly, and we tend to project our own feelings of kindliness and affection upon them. So this is not meant to criticize your choice, but to ask that you try not to put the burden of defying nature and instinct on your hamsters; separate them right away, for good. Obviously, you’ll love them each no less, and I’m sure they’ll both be doubly grateful for that.