Scientific name: Mesocricetus auratus
Also known as: Teddy bear hamster, golden hamster
Size: Six inches long
Color: Usually golden, but they can also have patches and bands and blotches of white, yellow, orange or gray.
Lifespan: Two to three years
The most common pet hamster is the Syrian hamster. If you have one of these hammies, you should know that he's a descendant of the first hamsters captured from the wild in 1930. Syrians are sometimes called golden hamsters, because of their honey-colored fur, which can be long or short, silky or fluffy. Syrian hamsters must live alone and need some turf to call their own. If you put two in one cage, very soon they will begin to chatter their teeth at each other and start to fight. Battles can be fierce!
Dwarf Campbell's Russian Hamster
Scientific name: Phodopus campbelli
Size: Three inches long
Lifespan: One to two years
This little guy is the most common dwarf hamster available in pet stores. Dwarf hamsters look pleasantly plump and like to live in pairs—but you must introduce them when they're young. As a general rule, don't put a new hammy in with a group who've been living together, or with an adult hamster who's used to living alone.
Another dwarf species is the Winter White Russian hamster (Phodopus sungorus), also known as the Siberian hamster. He's gray, but sometimes turns completely snowy white during the winter. Roborovsky's hamster (Phodopus roborovski) is the smallest dwarf hamster kept as a pet. This little guy is about two inches long but can live three to four years. Even smaller is the Chinese hamster, who's only about the size of a mouse.
Wild hamsters scarf down seeds, fruit and an occasional insect or two. Your furball will do just fine if he dines on hamster mix, available at pet supply stores. This food contains seeds, grains, cracked corn and special pellets made for rodents. (Yes, your hamster is a rodent, just like rats, mice and gerbils are!)
Every day you should also give your pet some fresh veggies and fruits, like carrots, broccoli, bananas and apples. Be sure to chop them up very small, because hamsters have tiny tummies.
If your hamster ever looks like he's literally stuffing his face, don't freak. This is perfectly normal! Hamsters love to carry food in their cheeks, which are actually big, roomy pouches. Then they store it in the corners of their cage for a late-night snack. Just make sure to remove any stale food when cleaning the cage.
Don't forget to fill 'er up! Fresh, clean water should be available to your hamster at all times. Use an upside-down bottle with a drip tube, and change it every day.
Home, Sweet Home
There are lots of hamster houses to choose from. A wire cage with a plastic bottom doubles as a jungle gym for your pet to climb on. Plus, it's easy to clean the plastic. Make sure the wire is small enough to prevent your hamster from escaping. You can keep dwarf hamsters in a cage made for mice.
A ten-gallon aquarium with a wire cover makes a cozy home for hamsters of all kinds.
The fancier cages with tubes, tunnels and hideaways are good, too, but they usually cost more and are harder to clean. And dwarf hamsters may have trouble climbing up and down the tubes. Help your little guys out by putting a special hamster ladder—also known as a thin tree branch!—in the tube for them to climb.
Hamster home decor
Now comes the fun part—decorating your new pet's home. You don't have to break out the miniature coffee table or chintz curtains, but there are some things you can do to make your hamster's home his castle.
Fill the bottom of the cage with bedding so your pet can engage in the all-time favorite hamster sports of digging and tunneling. Use aspen or hardwood shavings, or recycled paper pellets available at pet supply stores. DO NOT use cedar or pine shavings, because they can make your hamster sick.
All hamsters need a cave for sleeping and resting. You can use a small flower pot or a wooden box with an entrance hole—or buy one from a pet supply store.
Don't throw away those empty cardboard tubes from paper towels and toilet paper. They make great hamster tunnels.
Your hamster will need his own personal gym, of course—an exercise wheel! Hamsters love to run. In the wild they travel as much as five miles a night in search of food.
Hamsters are big on being comfy, so always provide small pieces of paper towel for your pet to shred and make a nest with.
Remember, you've got a new job as a hamster housekeeper now, so you'll need to clean his cage weekly. Remove and replace the bedding, scrub the bottom of the cage with hot, soapy water, and throw out any leftover, stale food your pet has stored.
Fun and Games
What's one of the most important things you need to know about your hamster? He's nocturnal by nature. That means he will usually be active during the evening and at night. He'll spend most of the day sleeping, but here are some things you can do to make his play time the best time:
Pretend there's a hamster-sized "Do Not Disturb" sign hanging up when he's snoozing. You may even see him snack on seeds in his burrow with his sleepy eyes still shut! Hamsters may nip or bite if they are awoken or handled roughly.
To get your new pet used to you—and used to being handled—start by hand feeding him small treats. When he's comfortable with that, carefully pick him up, holding him securely. Hold him for a short time at first, and then gradually increase your time with him.
When you're a pro at handling your hammy, allow him to play outside his cage, in a secure area, while you supervise. Think of it as gym class! Watch him closely and make sure he can't escape or get lost or hurt himself. Now's a good time to give him some new tubes to crawl through or see if he wants to run on his exercise wheel.
A hamster's teeth grow continuously, so your pet will need to chew—a lot—to keep his teeth sharp and to wear them down as they grow. Make sure he has a piece of wood that has not been painted or treated with chemicals to chew on. Pieces of dog biscuit are good hammy chew toys, too.