By Martha Boden
There are five species of hamster commonly kept as pets. They have more in common than not, but there are a few important distinctions between the hamster species.
Syrian hamsters are solitary by nature and must not come into contact with other hamsters of any species after being separated from their littermates at about 6 weeks of age. The results of such an encounter would be gruesome if not deadly.
Adult Syrian hamsters are about 5 to 7 inches long and weigh 4 to 7 ounces. Males are a bit smaller than females, on average, and generally live a bit longer. Their tails are almost bare and their feet have fine, white fur on the top, but none on the bottom — just fleshy pink pads. These characteristics can help identify the species, which is important because pet shops sometimes use names like “teddy bears,” “fancy hamsters,” “Dalmatians” or “panda bears” to describe the Syrian’s many colors, patterns and long or short fur.
Syrian hamsters are the easiest of the hamster species to handle, popular among first-time owners. They are bright and persistent, eager for focused attention and playtime outside the cage. Male Syrian hamsters generally become sillier and less finicky rather quickly, while young female Syrian hamsters grow into wonderfully bossy, busy little beings.
The Other Four Pet Hamster Species
The smaller four hamster species can live in pairs or small groups if they’re same-sex siblings from the same litter or if they were introduced carefully when young. Their temperaments and habits are different enough that they must live only one species to a cage. Pairs or groups may have to be separated if fights ensue, so it’s good to have an extra cage on hand. The three dwarf species have shorter, more frequent sleep/wake cycles, and may be more engaging for older children who would like to spend more time with their pets before bedtime.
Campbell’s hamsters are 3 to 4 inches long and weigh 2 to 3 ounces. They have stubby, furry tails and white fur on both the tops and bottoms of their feet. There are many different colors and patterns, which have led to nicknames like “blueberry” and “blackberry hamsters.” Campbell’s hamsters are clever and friendly, determined and sweet. Once they’re comfortable, they’re eager to be handled, and then even more eager to be off to explore. Campbell’s hamsters are inventive about amusing themselves and less demanding of time outside the cage, although they thoroughly enjoy it.
Winter White Hamsters
Winter White hamsters are sometimes hard to distinguish from Campbell’s hamsters. A key difference was once the narrower range of colors and patterns. However, Campbell’s and Winter White hamsters can interbreed, and the unfortunate hybridization of the species has meant that some lovely individual characteristics may have been lost. As a rule, Winter White hamsters in the United States are a little more timid than Campbell’s hamsters, but enjoy much the same kind of play.
The Roborovski hamster is the smallest pet hamster species. These little sprites are fast and charming. They’re only 2 to 2 1/2 inches long and weigh about an ounce. They live best in same-sex pairs or small groups, and are the hamsters suited a bit more to watching than handling. They can be far too timid and speedy for young children to handle outside their enclosure, but they are still a joy to watch and care for, and to interact with in safe ways.
The Chinese hamster is longer, thinner, lighter and has a bit longer tail than the three Russian dwarf hamster species mentioned above. The Chinese hamster may be best suited to more experienced owners, and are unusual finds in pet shops. They can live in closely monitored pairs or small groups, but the balance of dominance is delicate, and separations are more common than with the dwarf species. The Chinese hamster is illegal to own in some U.S. states.
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