Unlike many of the other hamster species, Syrian hamsters must be caged individually. They should never be put together, not even during playtime. It’s common to see Syrian hamsters housed in groups in pet stores because the stores typically receive hamsters in litters while they are young. Once Syrians reach 5 weeks of age, they become quite territorial. If not separated, fighting usually occurs and can be brutal; it’s not uncommon for a Syrian hamster fight to lead to the death of at least one hamster. Fight wounds can be life threatening for a hamster, so make sure that each Syrian has its own cage to eat, sleep and play.
If you own more than one Syrian hamster, don’t place their cages side by side, especially if they are wire cages. This increases their stress. Ideally, separate the hamster homes by at least a few feet, preferably more.
If two of your Syrian hamsters end up nose to nose and a fight begins, separate them immediately. Do not, however, put your hands in the midst of fighting hamsters — you could be bitten! Throw a washcloth or hand towel on them, or make a loud noise nearby. Their surprise often makes them pause, so you can scoop up one of the hamsters with a cup or exercise ball. Something thin but rigid, such as a ruler, can also be used carefully to separate the fighting hamsters.
After a fight, return the hamsters to their cages and let them settle down before attempting to hold one in your hand. You will undoubtedly hear stories about someone who kept two Syrian hamster sisters (or some other Syrian pair) in the same cage with “no problems.” Just because both survived doesn’t mean there weren’t problems.
In the book Comfortable Quarters For Laboratory Animals, Dr. Gernot Kunen of the Physiological Institute of the University of Giessen, Germany, addresses single housing versus social housing for Syrian hamsters. “Unlike all other animals commonly found in research facilities, Golden (or Syrian) hamsters are a strictly solitary species. Living in groups is artificial for mature hamsters. Enforced group housing will result in severe and chronic social stress (Meisel et al., 1990; Zimmer and Gattermann, 1996) and a higher rate of wounding (Arnold and Estep, 1990).”
Fighting between Syrian hamsters often occurs at night when the average owner is asleep, meaning the fights might not be seen or heard. A careful examination of adult Syrian hamsters in group housing usually reveals scabs from bite wounds on the belly, back and legs. The hamster homes of Syrians in the wild are large burrows that keep them far apart from one another. Respect their natural instincts by caging them individually and you will have a happier, healthier hamster.
The Hamster Cage
A Syrian hamster does best in as large a cage as you can comfortably keep in your home and easily clean. The smallest possible hamster cage would be a 10-gallon fish tank (10 inches by 20 inches), although aquariums are not usually the easiest to clean. A wire hamster cage has several advantages: good airflow, natural climbing opportunities for your hamster, typically lightweight and easy to clean. However, some wire cages are very tall and narrow, allowing an enterprising hamster to climb so high that a fall could cause a broken limb or back. Hamster cages made up of separate units and climbing tubes can be fun to look at but are often difficult to keep clean. And, very large hamsters occasionally get stuck in the tubes.
If you decide to purchase a multi-level hamster cage, make sure the levels aren’t more than 6 inches apart. You don’t want your Syrian hamster falling off one of the upper levels and becoming injured.
One final note about separate hamster cages: If, after careful consideration, you decide to pursue hamster breeding, remember that you need a cage for each hamster — you cannot house them together, even for a few days. Every Syrian hamster pup you can’t find a home for will need its own cage after 5 weeks of age. The average hamster litter is eight pups, and eight hamster cages take up a lot of space.
Excerpt from the Popular Critters Series magabook Hamsters with permission from its publisher, BowTie magazines, a division of BowTie Inc. Purchase Hamsters here.