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What Are the Characteristics of a Hamster?

| Updated September 26, 2017

Hamsters are one of the most commonly owned household pets. These balls of fur are small and generally friendly with people. Hamsters also work as pets for young children, who learn to clean cages and take care of a smaller responsibility before a dog or cat. There are 24 different types of hamsters, but most hamsters have a few defining characteristics.

Physical Characteristics

Hamsters are four to seven inches long, with short tails, small eyes and fur in a variety of coat colors, like black, brown, grey, white, yellow or red. Hamsters have large cheek pouches where they collect food to transport from one place to another. Their feet are wide and hairless, with four toes on their front feet and five toes on their back feet. Hamsters have large, chisel-shaped front teeth, or incisors, that grow throughout their lives.

Hamster Habitats

Hamsters like to live alone and should occupy a secured home, like a tight wired cage, as they like to squeeze through spaces and escape for new ground. A hamster cage should be kept in a well-lit place with a moderate temperature (64 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit) and out of the reach of strong sunlight or cold drafts. The floor of a hamster cage should be at least 2 square feet and covered in a thick layer of hamster bedding or litter, available in pet stores. The bedding in a hamster cage should be changed at least weekly, and the cage should be cleaned regularly with warm soapy water.

Personality and Habits

Hamsters are solitary creatures that prefer to be alone. When adult male hamsters are kept together, they will become violent and attempt to kill each other. With humans, however, hamsters are usually friendly and docile. They react well to being handled and they rarely bite. Hamsters are naturally nocturnal, so they sleep during the day and they're active at night.

Diet and Exercise

Hamsters' appetites are easily satisfied, so they're not hard to feed. Standard pet store hamster food provides for their nutritional needs. Fresh food is also important to a hamster's diet. Hamsters eat fresh vegetables like cucumbers, spinach and broccoli, as well as fruits like apples, pears and bananas. Certain foods, however, upset hamsters' digestive systems. Avoid feeding them foods like cabbage, raw potatoes and excessive amounts of sweet fruits. Hamster food should be replaced fresh every day. Hamsters also need plenty of clean water, changed daily as well. In addition, hamsters need plenty of exercise, such as running on an exercise wheel, to stay healthy and happy.

Hamster Differences

Hamster breeds are sorted into giant, medium and dwarf hamsters. The most popular type of pet hamster is a medium hamster, called the Syrian hamster. It has a golden color and is usually 6 or 7 inches in length. Another popular hamster breed is the dwarf hamster. These hamsters are unusual in that they'll peacefully live with other hamsters of the same sex. In addition, some hamsters are long-haired while others are short-haired. Long-haired hamsters have thick, fluffy fur, while short-haired hamsters' fur is short and velvety.


Hamsters have a relatively short lifespan, about 2-3 years. Domestic hamsters, raised in captivity, generally live shorter lives than hamsters in the wild. In addition, a hamster's lifespan will vary depending on its breed, genetics and upbringing. To ensure a longer life for your hamster, keep it in a larger cage, feed it fresh fruits and vegetables and make sure it gets plenty of exercise.