There are 5 species of hamster that are kept as pets – Syrian, Chinese, and three Dwarf Russians: Winter White, Campbell’s and Roborovski. All five have slightly varying care requirements.
Most species are available in at least a few different colour variations, the Syrian hamster having the most variations of them all. The National Hamster Council has an extensive amount of information on varieties and also additional information on hamster care.
Where to get your hamster
Although many people get their hamsters from pet shops remember that there are often hamsters looking for homes at rescue centres. Also, hamsters may be obtained directly from breeders, this is ideal as it allows you to meet the parents to assess their health and temperament and also to get as much information on their care as you possibly can. Sourcing a breeder or rescue can also allow you greater choice over variety.
Syrians need to be kept on their own, as they will fight viciously. Ideally they should be kept in cages rather than plastic or glass tanks (as ventilation is poor) and they should be given as much space as possible. ‘Starter’ hamster homes are always too small.
Any high drops in a cage should be removed by adding extra shelves as Syrians are clumsy and often fall. Syrians enjoy a selection of tubes and toys in their homes as well as an exercise wheel.
Syrian hamsters learn to enjoy being handled and like being brought out for exercise. Hamster ‘exercise balls’ are not ideal and often Syrians will be more comfortable being exercised through handling.
They may be picked up by gently cupping them in open hands: grabbing at a hamster will usually scare him and result in the handler being bitten.
Roborovski hamsters are best kept in groups in large tank-style homes. Cages are rarely suitable as they allow escape, although there are come cages specifically designed for these hamsters with narrower bars.
They need a lot of floor space (as they are very, very active) and plenty of tubes, toys, wheels and houses for all the occupants of the tank.
Great care must be taken to ensure that groups are single-sex as confirming whether these hamsters are male or female is often difficult. Roborovski do not tend to enjoy being handled and they move very quickly so are easily dropped.
Winter White and Campbell’s
Winter White and Campbell’s hamsters look very similar but the more common one found in pet shops is the Campbell’s.
Both these species are variable in whether they can be kept in pairs – some seem to prefer it and others will fight.
Both learn to accept food from their owner’s hand and some learn to like handling but most would rather not be picked up.
Campbell’s hamsters often develop a habit of biting whereas Winter Whites are more placid (although they can be very vocal when they are cross!)
Dwarf hamsters should be kept in mouse cages or in tanks as they can escape from normal hamster cages.
Chinese hamsters have longer tails than most hamsters and are slimmer in shape than the other hamster species.
They are generally timid initially but they can become very tame with time. They need to be kept in mouse cages or in tanks and as for the other hamster species they enjoy having toys, tubes and wheels to play in.
They are often best kept on their own due to fighting.