Syrian Hamsters as Pets

Syrian hamster (Mesocricetus auratus) in pot with plant, studio shot
MASH/Photodisc/Getty Images

The Syrian, golden, teddy bear, or fancy hamster (yes, this species has a lot of names) is among the most popular choice for small pets. It is easy to tame and quite comfortable being handled, even by fidgety children. This hamster originates from the arid regions of northern Syria and southern Turkey where wild populations are deemed "vulnerable." Yet, in the 1930s, a successful breeding process was spearheaded by European doctors who used the small mammals as animal test subjects. Today, successful pet breeding operations in the States make this hamster one of the most available breeds in pet stores.

Breed Overview

Common Name: Syrian Hamster

Scientific Name: Mesocricetus auratus

Adult Size: Adults grow 5 to 7 inches long and weigh 5 to 7 ounces

Life Expectancy: 3 to 4 years old

Difficulty of Care: Beginner

Syrian Hamster Behavior and Temperament

Syrian hamsters have a reputation for being nippy pets. However, this trait is usually due to infrequent handling, as this pet is coveted for its docile temperament. The Syrian hamster is a curious breed that requires a great deal of mental stimulation to keep it happy. If left alone for too long, it will search out an escape route.

Syrian hamsters are one of the most solitary animals in the wild, making them equally as territorial. That means, they should always be housed alone, even when a young golden hamster appears to tolerate other cage mates. By the time it reaches 8 to 10 weeks old, it may fight to the death.

Housing the Syrian Hamster

Syrian hamsters prefer large cages for running and playing (a minimum of 24 inches by 12 inches, and at least 12-inches tall). A traditional wire-mesh cage works well, as does a plastic modular variety or a standard glass aquarium with a tightly-fitting mesh lid. And you'll need plenty of room for your pet's toys, too, including an exercise wheel, tunnel toys for hiding, a bridge, and wooden chew blocks for dental hygiene and maintenance.

Hamsters love hideouts so they can snuggle in a corner and sleep. Pet stores provide a wide variety of attractive enclosures, or you can make your own out of wood or a ceramic pot. For bedding, use materials like aspen shavings, hay, or shredded paper. Your hamster will enjoy piling up its bedding to make a safe place to snuggle. Don't use cotton bedding—this is a choking hazard for small animals.

Food and Water

Feed your Syrian hamster a diet of nuts, grains, and seeds (often included as staples in store-bought hamster foods) with fruit and vegetable supplementation in the form of apples, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, and pears. Since Syrian hamsters are omnivores, throwing an occasional insect or hard-boiled egg into its enclosure provides an extra protein shot. And watch your pet as it eats. Syrians have a funny little eating habit. They stow their food in their cheeks and often continue eating this stored food stash until their cheeks are empty.

Always provide a clean source of water for your hamster and make sure to change it out daily. Vacuum-action water bottles, complete with a drinking tube, are the favorite choice. Still, some hamster keepers like to provide both a water bowl and a bottle until drinking from the water bottle's spout becomes second nature.

Common Health Problems

Syrian hamsters are hardy critters, making them less prone to disease than other hamster varieties. However, there are a few conditions to watch out for. Wet tail—a stomach infection usually associated with stress and bacteria proliferation—is the most common health issue affecting this breed. Look for a wet bum and tail and a droopy and lethargic demeanor. If wet tail is suspected, take your hamster to the vet to be treated with antibiotics. A quick course of medicine should clear up the infection and bring your pet back to normal.

Hamsters can also contract fur and ear mites, a common cold, or grow a tumor. Mites can be prevented by using sterile bedding (as opposed to hay) and cleaning the enclosure regularly. A common cold yields symptoms similar to those in humans and needs to be treated by a vet. And tumors usually pop up in older hamsters and can be either benign or malignant. Make an appointment with your vet to determine the type of lump and discuss further treatment.

Purchasing Your Syrian Hamster

You can buy a Syrian hamster from a pet shop, or, if you can find one nearby, a breeder. Buying from a breeder is the preferred option, as a breeder's care is far superior to that of your local shop.

When selecting your hamster, don't just pick the cutest one (they are all cute, after all). Wake a few up (since they're nocturnal) and note their demeanor. Healthy hamsters should have bright eyes, clean bums, and should be very active and eager to take in your scent. Have the pet shop clerk or breeder assist you in picking one up. If the hamster is curious and alert, it might be a good candidate for a pet.

A Syrian Hamster's Coat

The natural color of most Syrian hamsters is golden brown (with a light belly). Due to an agouti gene, the hairs of Syrians are banded with both dark and light hues. They also have dark markings on their cheeks, extending from their jaw up toward their ears. Through selective breeding, different hamsters may display a number of variations in color, patterns, and hair length.

Long-haired hamsters can have long, flowing coats or just a few tufts of long hair scattered throughout their body. Due to testosterone, male long-haired Syrians have the most beautiful coats of all, complete with a pale colored "skirt" around their behind.

Similar Pets to the Syrian Hamster

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