If you're not quite ready to take the plunge into pet ownership with a dog or cat, a smaller companion, such as a hamster can often be a good first step. These tiny rodents are considered to be low-maintenance pets, although as with any animal, it's important to know how to properly care for your new pet, from the supplies you'll need to how to feed them. Hamsters are very popular pets for kids and with good reason—they live for a couple of years, are often happy to be housed alone, and their food/supplies are readily available at pet stores. (Not to mention, they take up minimal space in your home and don't make a whole lot of noise or mess).
But what may first-time hamster owners don't realize is that hamsters actually come in a wide array of colors and breeds, which all have their own distinctive traits. Here are five of the most popular hamster breeds to help you choose which is the right fit for your family.
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The Chinese hamster is a small, more rare hamster breed that isn't as likely to be found at your neighborhood pet store as some of the other hamster breeds. They grow to only about four inches long, and are often mistaken for dwarf hamsters due to their miniature size.
Often referred to as Chinese striped hamsters or Chinese dwarf hamsters, they are native to the deserts of China and Mongolia and often have a longer tail than other hamster breeds. The Chinese hamster is typically docile and easy to tame, although like other hamster breeds they can be skittish and will bite when startled.
LENGTH: 4 inches
WEIGHT: 1-2 ounces
PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS: Brown with a black stripe on their back, stomach is a lighter color
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There are actually several varieties of dwarf hamsters, and they are easy to find in pet stores. Also known as the Russian Dwarf hamster (or the "Robo"), the tiny Roborovski hamsters are native to the desert areas of both Northern China and Mongolia. They are named for Lieutenant Vsevolod Roborovski, who popularized the breed back in the late 1890s.
These hamsters are so popular in part due to their tiny size; they won't take up a lot of room in your home. They can start off a bit shy and nervous, but generally warm up once they're comfortable with you—and that's when their energetic, friendly nature will start to shine through.
Among one of several tiny species of hamsters, the Roborovski hamster is social and easy to handle. They can differ from their larger (and often more territorial) relatives because they actually thrive when caged in pairs or groups. These docile pets are also quite entertaining. They like to tunnel and romp around their cage more than other hamster breeds, and they're easy to care for because their diet is readily available and they only require routine cage cleaning.
LENGTH: 3-4 inches
WEIGHT: 1 ounce
PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS: Distinctive white eyebrows and no dorsal stripe, fur is lighter behind the ears
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Most commonly referred to as either golden or teddy bear hamsters, the Syrian hamster is quite possibly the most popular breed of pet hamster. Thanks to selective breeding, you'll be able to find the golden/teddy bear hamster in an array of colors and coat lengths, and they can typically live between two to four years.
Along with its cuteness, the Syrian hamster makes one of the best pet hamsters because it's one of the easiest breeds to tame and handle. It's on the larger (and slower!) side, and it's generally quite friendly (and doesn't bite as often as some of the other breeds). The only downside is that they are nocturnal, and therefore rarely active in the day...so if you want to play or interact with your Syrian hamster, it's best to do it early in the morning or late in the evening. Though they are docile, they can be territorial, so they are best housed alone to avoid fighting.
LENGTH: 5-9 inches
WEIGHT: Around 5 ounces
PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS: Usually found in golden brown and white but available in many other colors/coat lengths.
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The Campbell's hamster is technically another variety of Russian Dwarf hamster, and they are native to China, Central Asia, and Northern Russia. They are somewhat less popular as pets because they can startle easily and tend to bite when they are scared.
Named for the biologist Charles William Campbell (he collected the first specimen in 1902), they also tend to have a shorter life span, most likely because they are susceptible to developing diabetes.
LENGTH: 3 inches
WEIGHT: Around 1 ounce
PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS: Gray-brown color with a white belly, furred feet, and dark dorsal stripe on their backContinue to 5 of 5 below.
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Winter White Hamster
Yet another breed of Russian Dwarf hamster, the winter white hamster is a beautiful snow-white variety that are found in Southwest Siberia and Eastern Kazakhstan. These make great pets because they are mellow, friendly, and sweet. Although they can be somewhat timid, they crave socialization and when given some time and patience they make affectionate and lovable pets.
LENGTH: 3.5-4 inches
WEIGHT: .75-1.75 ounces
PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS: White fur, round/oval body shape, furred feet and legs
Hamsters to Avoid
Although they're pretty low-maintenance, a hamster isn't going to be the right fit for every family. Homes that have dogs or cats that might be interested in munching on your hamster as an afternoon snack are probably not the best fit for these pint-size rodents.
Hamsters will also fare better in homes without very small children because they can be quite fragile. Families with kids may want to opt out of the dwarf species just because they are less likely to be able to tolerate a lot of handling. Another reason to avoid: They are also faster, more agile, and likely to escape or be injured if they manage to get loose in your home.