Hamsters are popular small pets that belong to the rodent family, which also includes mice, rats, gerbils, squirrels and guinea pigs. You can choose from several different breeds and sizes of hamsters. The standard-sized Syrian hamster comes in three main varieties: the classic golden, the long-haired teddy bear and the short-haired fancy hamster, which comes in a wide range of colors and patterns. Dwarf hamsters can also be referred to as fancy if their coats are different colors than the natural agouti pattern.
Fancy Hamster History
The Syrian hamster originated in Syria, and several wild-caught animals were bred and domesticated in Jerusalem before being brought to England in 1931 and the U.S. in 1938. All pet Syrian hamsters are descendants of those first ones -- a male and two females.
While originally only the golden color pattern was available, selective breeding has produced a number of fancy hamster colors, including black, cream, grey, cinnamon and more. Some fancy hamsters are named for their color patterns, such as the black spotted Dalmatian hamster, the black-and-white panda bear hamster, the white polar bear hamster, the tan honey bear hamster and more.
All Syrian hamsters, including the fancy ones, have a short, roundish, stout body that's 4 to 7 inches long. Females are larger than males, who only grow to a maximum of 6 inches long. A fancy hamster has short, soft fur covering most of his body, except for his stubby tail and his hairless paws.
Habits and Personality
Fancy hamsters are quite docile, friendly and tame, as long as they're regularly handled -- otherwise they may nip when you do decide to hold them. Gently scooping up your hamster from beneath is the best way to pick him up, but be sure not to corner him from the front or he might get scared and defensive. Hold him against your body to prevent a fall.
The hamster's social skills are reserved for people, however -- this is definitely a solo pet. They are solitary animals and will fight viciously over territory if more than one hamster is kept in the same cage after 8 to 10 weeks of age.
Hamsters are nocturnal, so they're most active in the evening and at night. The average lifespan of a fancy hamster is 2 to 3 years.
Feed your fancy hamster a specially formulated hamster seed mix along with hamster pellets, and offer the occasional fresh fruit, vegetable, cheese or sugarless breakfast cereal as a treat. Wash his food dish and water bottle daily to keep your pet healthy.
The word "hamster" comes the German word "hoard," which describes the hamster's habit of stuffing food in his cheek pouches and creating a stockpile. So when you change his bedding and clean his cage weekly, save some of his stash -- as long as it's still clean and unspoiled.
Hamsters need a large cage that offers enough space for running, exploring and playing. Add a sleeping house and some small boxes and cardboard tubes where he can hide. A hamster wheel gives the opportunity for additional exercise, and chew toys satisfy his need to chomp so he doesn't destroy everything he can get his teeth on. If any of his cage components or tunnels are plastic, keep an eye out for excessive chewing, which can eventually turn into an escape hatch. Wire, metal or glass cages reduce the possibility that your hamster will play Houdini and disappear.
Heather Vale is a writer, interviewer and seasoned journalist. She has authored news, entertainment and informational programming in TV, radio, print and online media. She is also a certified childhood fitness and nutrition specialist with a background in mind-body-spirit health, self-help, business, technology and pet breeding. Vale holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in visual arts from York University.