Anyone who has experienced the joy of owning a dwarf hamster knows that they make wonderful pets. But if you aren’t familiar with them and are just now starting to research the possibility of adopting one of your very own, you’ll probably want some basic background information on dwarf hamsters, where they came from, how they came to be domesticated, and what you can expect from these friendly and furry little critters sometimes referred to as “pocket pets.”
Hamsters in the Wild
Contrary to what you might expect, dwarf hamsters are not a product of selective breeding of the more common Syrian or Golden hamster. They were once free-roaming wild creatures in their own right. There are no dwarf hamsters left in the wild today, but they do have wild cousins that are a nuisance to farmers on several continents.
These wild rodents – actually all hamsters wild or domestic – are members of the much maligned rodent family. But while the wild hamster and dwarf hamsters share a common scientific classification, they both belong to the subfamily of rodents, Cricetinae, they don’t look very much alike.
Generally referred to as Common hamster, these wild rodents usually have a heavily flecked coat of black and brown, somewhat reminiscent of a raccoon’s. They were once very prevalent in Russia and Central Europe. However, because they were viewed as pests by farmers (and rightfully so due to their love of vegetables, seeds, and grains) – their numbers are dwindling.
Varieties of wild hamster can be found in other parts of the world, too. There are hamsters in Asia, Africa, and regions of Western Europe. Most live in arid or desert regions and live the majority of their lives underground in a network of tunnels and burrows.
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From Reviled to Revered
So how did an animal once detested as vermin become such a popular pet? The hamster was first brought to the attention of the “modern” world by George Waterhouse, a British zoologist, in 1829. He discovered the curious little rodent which he named, Cricetus auratus – the now familiar Golden or Syrian hamster – in Aleppo, a city in Syria.
He introduced them to the United Kingdom where they quickly become a popular pet. But the craze was short-lived and the hamster quickly faded back into obscurity. Then, in 1930, zoologist Israel Aharoni from Hebrew University in Jerusalem discovered one in the Syrian Desert – a female with a litter of twelve. His discovery dispelled the common belief among the scientific community that hamsters were extinct.
But the hamster didn’t immediately regain its status as a trendy novelty pet. They were bred for use as laboratory animals. And so it remained for many years.
The Four Species of “Dwarfs”
There are four species of hamster commonly referred to as dwarf hamsters: the Chinese hamster (although toxonomically speaking, he’s not a dwarf), the Siberian or Winter White Russian, the Campbell’s, and the Roborovski. Of course, there is a very good reason why they are called dwarfs. With the exception of the Roborovski, which averages a diminutive two inches, they are only about four inches long when fully grown. Contrast that with their Syrian cousins which are generally eight inches in length. While dwarf hamsters are relatively new to the pet store scene – their popularity spiked in the 1990’s – they have been known to zoologists for more than a hundred years.
Physical Characteristics of the Dwarf Hamster
Unfortunately, animal behaviorists don’t know as much as they would like about the dwarf hamster’s wild relatives. Naturally a burrower, the untamed hamster spends much of his time underground hiding in the cool recesses of tunnels, far removed from the scorching sun.
However, you can tell a lot about an animal’s habits and natural environment just by studying its physical characteristics; the dwarf hamster is no exception. Large eyes indicate that he needs to see in the dark. Since these creatures originally dwelled in arid regions, they were most active at night when it was cooler.
The hamster doesn’t have very good eyesight so he relies quite heavily on his whiskers, called vibrissae, as “feelers” to aid in navigation. The ears are positioned high on the head, indicating a keen sense of hearing. His sense of smell is quite well developed as well.
Believe it or not, a hamster’s very survival depends on its sense of smell. He relies on it to lead him to food and water. His nose also warns him of impending danger, helps him identify other animals, aids him in finding his way back to his burrow, and tells him when it is time to breed.
He also creates smells. Hamsters have scent glands that produce a musk-like fluid, which is primarily used to attract the opposite sex. It’s also used to mark and identify his territory.
The Need for Speed
Dwarf hamsters are quite swift and agile. The scarcity of food in his natural habitat required it. In the wild, he needed to travel vast distances, amazingly, as much as five miles nightly, in order to find enough food which he then stored in underground chambers. In the desert, where food can be hard to come by, storing what you do find is tantamount to survival.
Like squirrels, the dwarf hamster stores food in his mouth. He does this through the use of pouches in his cheeks. He stuffs these pouches with an enormous quantity of food – sometimes in an amount almost the equivalent of half his body weight. It’s how he collects and delivers, not only food, but also nesting material from one location to another.
Although this trait is of little use in a caged environment, it was of extreme importance and safety to the feral hamster. It allowed him to gather and keep food through the winter months when the supplies were hard to find. In fact, the word hamster comes from the German word, “hamstern”, which means to hoard.
If you’ve never owned a dwarf hamster before, you’ll want to consider some well-established hamster behaviors that you will have to accommodate in order to ensure that your new pet lives a long, healthy life.
Saying that hamsters love to chew would be an understatement. However, it’s not just a nervous habit; his physical health depends on it because his teeth never stop growing. In order to keep them trimmed, he must gnaw constantly. You’ll need to ensure he has plenty of safe chew toys or he’ll find something on his own. This could prove to be quite destructive or actually dangerous for the hamster.
Hamsters also love to run – a lot. An average hamster, in fact, will run as much as two to five miles a day. It’s part of their genetic make-up. But some hamsters have been known to become obsessive about this habit. They’ll run themselves to the point of exhaustion. Generally this happens if the hamster is not getting enough stimulation. In other words, he’s bored.
This is a fact that you will have to take into consideration when deciding whether to purchase a hamster. Will you be able to provide your pet with enough entertainment to keep him from becoming addicted to his exercise wheel?
Most pet hamsters are confined to their cages at least twenty-three hours a day. In order to prevent him from running obsessively, you will need to give him a variety of toys to play with and explore. Additionally, and most importantly, you’ll want to be sure that your furry friend gets at least one hour of out-of-cage play time once a day. Not only does this keep him physically fit, but it also stimulates him mentally.
Of course, there is a lot more to keeping a dwarf hamster than just understanding its history, habitat and habits, and there are some key points that you should mull over carefully before deciding to take on the responsibility of any pet. Even though you may have decided that you can live with the habits of a hamster, does everyone in your household agree? More importantly, is each member of your family committed to assuming the responsibilities of pet ownership?
Don’t assume that small, fuzzy and cute is equivalent to low maintenance. Along with the hours of pleasure and amusement that you will undoubtedly experience with your dwarf hamster, you – and preferably your whole family – will have daily obligations to this pocket-sized pet.
Nancianne Beetleman is an author, avid animal lover and dwarf hamster enthusiast. Over the past 37 years she has owned and cared for everything from hamsters to boa constrictors to cockatiels. Nancianne is passionate about teaching pet owners how to foster fulfilling relationships with their pets through understanding their instinctive behaviors and providing proper care.
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