The golden hamster, Mesocrietus auratus, is a small, short-tailed, stocky rodent which was first captured in Syria in 1930. All hamsters sold as pets are descended from the one male and two female siblings that survived that capture and domestication. Wild hamsters still live in a very limited range in the Middle East. Hamsters are nocturnal but do have short periods of activity in the day. They are known for their cheek pouches where they store food for transport for storage in their burrows. These cheek pouches are quite large and can extend to their shoulders. They use their front legs to move food out of the pouches by using a forward pushing motion. There are several color variations and a long-haired hamster known as “teddy bears.”
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Hamsters as Pets
Hamsters have poor vision and depend on their large funnel shaped ears for information about their surroundings. This may contribute to their tendency to bite if startled, injured, awakened or roughly handled. This trait plus their nocturnal nature makes them less than ideal pets for young children. Why are they so popular for young children? Perhaps their very short life span. They can be gentle if handled gently and with care not to startle them.
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Many types of housing are available for hamsters, including ones with wheels, tunnels, and small houses. Hamsters do enjoy lots of wood shaving on the bottom of their cages and even nonpregnant females will build nests, so nesting material should be supplied. Hamsters chew plastic, wood, and soft metal, and will escape easily from poorly secured cages. Escaped hamsters will not return to their cages (rats and gerbils will), so the use of a live trap or a ramp leading to a bucket placed along a wall may need to be used to capture the escapee. Hamsters really enjoy their wheels for exercise and some females have been clocked at up to 8 km per hour!
Hamsters are most comfortable at temperatures between 65° F and 80°F. If the temperature drops below 41°F, they will go into a type of hibernation where the body temperature drops to almost room temperature, respiration drops to about 1/minute and the heart rate drops to 5-15/minute. If this happens, warm them up slowly over an hour long period.
Hamsters should be kept solitary unless you have a group of same sex siblings who have never been separated from birth. There is a tendency toward fighting and a female hamster can kill a strange male in her cage if she in not sexually receptive.
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Food and Water
Hamsters have a relatively short nose/snout and can not easily eat out of wire troughs. They are omnivores but should be fed a good pelleted rodent diet containing 16% protein and only 4-5% fat. If the protein is too low, they will loose their hair. If the fat is too high (over 7-9%), they will die. They should eat about 2 tsp. of food a day and only drink about 2 tsp. of water (but please supply them with lots of clean water daily). Because of their low food and water intake, they produce little waste or urine.
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Hamsters rarely live longer than 18-24 months. Some people have suggested that this alone makes them good pets for children since the parent is usually the primary caretaker (smile here).
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Handling, Medical Care and Hibernation (again)
Care must be taken when picking up the hamster that you do not hurt it or startle it. If you need to move the hamster and it is not tame, then scooping it up into a small plastic container is okay, but generally just picking it up with both hands and supporting its hind end will allow the hamster to feel secure. The skin on the back of the neck is loose and may be used to aid handling. Do not use the tail.
Hamsters are very healthy animals. Problems can arise when injured in a fight, from illnesses due to dirty cages (skin and respiratory), “wet tail” which is diarrhea, and malocclusion due to improper teeth alignment which can lead to malnutrition and death.
Hibernation (or pseudohibernation) can occur when the temperature goes below 41°F, but can also occur at higher temperatures if there is only about 2 hours of light. They may hibernate for other reasons not understood. They appear comatose or dead (curled up in a ball) and may appear that way for days. Before you toss that hamster, gradually warm up the hamster (take an hour or more) to normal temperature (no higher than 80°F) and supply at least 12 hours of continuous light.
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