Hamsters are such run-of-the-mill members of the rodent family that the phrase "fancy hamsters" sounds like an oxymoron, like "jumbo shrimp." However, just as there are those who fancy cats and dogs, hamsters have their fanciers too. More than simply musophiles, hamster enthusiasts enjoy several types of fancy hamsters.
A Word About a Word
The word "fancy" when describing hamsters is somewhat misleading since the most common hamster breed purchased as a family pet is one of several Syrian hamster types, also known as "fancy hamsters." But although there is nothing truly fancy about them, they are still precious little pets with personalities and needs and hopes and dreams of their own. Well, maybe not so many hopes, but certainly hamsters dream. Maybe they dream of being fancy.
The Syrian hamster is also called the "golden" or "teddy bear" hamster. These are the hamsters you are most likely to see in pet stores. They are tolerant of gentle children, but will bite if they feel threatened. Syrian hamsters are the largest of all the hamsters, reaching anywhere from 4 to 7 inches long when fully grown. The males are at the higher end of the range in length. They come in a variety of colors and patterns, from monochromatic to agouti, with long or short fur. Syrian hamsters are loners and prefer the company of their human to that of other hamsters, except for at mating time when a breeding pair can tolerate each other's company briefly. Males will fight each other for territory. The Syrian hamster's average life expectancy is about 24 to 30 months.
Chinese hamsters are more gregarious than their Syrian cousins. They do best when living as a pair but are popular as pets because of their tendency to cling to their handler's fingers when held. They are smaller, with adults growing only to about 4 inches, and look more like mice with short tails than hamsters. They come in two colors, with a third color, black-eyed white, appearing occasionally as a mutation. The normal color is deep brown with black ticking (color on the tips of the fur). The second color, called the dominant spot, is a sort of calico pattern with the body being mostly white with patches of normal color. Both have a black stripe down their backs. These hamsters are sometimes referred to as dwarf hamsters, but they are not true dwarf hamsters, a species apart. The Chinese hamster is restricted in California, where you must have a license to have one, because they are considered a threat to indigenous flora and fauna should they be released or escape. The Chinese hamster's average life span is 18 months to two years.
Fancy Russian dwarf hamsters come in two varieties: Campbell and Winter White. They grow to only 3 to 4 inches in length and come in a variety of colors and coat patterns. The Campbell comes in a variety of colors: agouti, cinnamon, burnt orange, albino (white with red eyes), gray and all black. Their coats can be normal, satin, rex or wavy. Normal is short and flat. Satin is also short and flat but with a sheen, making it almost appear wet. Rex is curly and wavy is, well, wavy. The Winter White, also called the Siberian dwarf, has a gray back with a white belly and a thick black stripe on his back. Both types can live in same-sex pairs, breeding pairs or a group, but keep an eye out for any dominance issues that may result in fighting. Both varieties of Russian dwarf hamsters live about two years.
Roborovski Dwarf Hamsters
Roborovski dwarf hamsters originated in Mongolia and parts of eastern China and Manchuria, and were named for the exploration team that discovered them. They are the smallest species of dwarf hamster and are known for their high energy and alertness. Sometimes referred to as "Robos," these little guys are only about an inch or two in length. They are sans tails, come in one color— golden brown—and appear as if they have eyebrows, giving their tiny faces lots of personality. They are OK as pets, but it's best to restrict yourself to observation rather than handling, as they are fragile and great at escaping. They ordinarily live in colonies, so get more than one. Their life expectancy is a little longer that that of other hamsters, sometimes as long as three to three and a half years.
- Drs. Foster and Smith: Hamster Breeds: Which Is Right for Me?
- American Fancy Rat and Mouse Association: Syrian & Russian Dwarf Hamsters
- National Hamster Council, United Kingdom: Hamsters As Pets
- Southern Hamster Club, UK: Chinese Hamster
- Chinese Hamsters: Legal or Illegal in California?
- Hamsterific: About Roborovskis
hamster image by Fotocie from Fotolia.com
Michelle A. Rivera is the author of many books and articles. She attended the University of Missouri Animal Cruelty School and is certified with the Florida Animal Control Association. She is the executive director of her own nonprofit, Animals 101, Inc. Rivera is an animal-assisted therapist, humane educator, former shelter manager, rescue volunteer coordinator, dog trainer and veterinary technician.