Syrian Hamster (Golden Hamster): Species Profile

Characteristics, Housing, Diet, and Other Information

Syrian hamster (Mesocricetus auratus) in pot with a plant

MASH / Photodisc / Getty Images

The Syrian hamster, also known as the golden hamster, is among the most popular choices for small pets. It's generally easy to tame, fun to watch, and fairly low-maintenance, making it a good pet for beginners. These hamsters come from arid regions of northern Syria and southern Turkey. The natural color of most Syrian hamsters is golden brown with a lighter belly. But selective breeding has given rise to several variations in color, pattern, and hair length.

In the wild, their population is considered vulnerable due to habitat loss. But captive-breeding programs have existed since the 1930s, both for science and the pet trade. Thanks to their popularity as pets, diets specially formulated for Syrian hamsters can be found in most pet stores, making that a straightforward component of their care. Plus, their housing doesn't take up that much space and is pretty simple to set up and maintain.

Species Overview

Common Names: Syrian hamster, golden hamster

Scientific Name: Mesocricetus auratus

Adult Size: 5 to 9 inches long, weighing roughly 5 ounces

Life Expectancy: 2 to 4 years

Syrian Hamster Behavior and Temperament

Syrian hamsters have a reputation for being somewhat nippy pets. However, this trait is usually due to infrequent or improper handling. As long as you don't squeeze or jostle your hamster as you hold it, it should learn to be content with people handling it.

These hamsters are one of the most solitary animals in the wild, making them equally as territorial. That means they should always be housed alone as pets. Sometimes young hamsters tolerate cage mates for a little while. But as they mature, there's a good chance they'll become aggressive, even fighting to the death. It's also best to keep any other pets in the household away from your hamster, as they could hurt each other.

Syrian hamsters sleep during the day and are active at night. And while they are generally quiet pets, their nighttime activity might keep you awake if you have their enclosure in your bedroom. Certain hamsters can somewhat adapt to their humans’ schedule, but you should never try to pick up a sleeping hamster. Odds are it will bite you. Instead, the early morning or evening hours are a good time to interact with your hamster. 

As pets, Syrian hamsters don't necessarily form a close bond with their owners. But they often will come up to the side of their enclosure if you're there, and many will enjoy lounging in your hands or on your shoulder. Expect to spend a few hours per week on feedings and maintaining your hamster's habitat. After that, just make sure you're allotting some time each day to handle your hamster to keep it tame.

Housing the Syrian Hamster

As large of an enclosure as you can accommodate for a Syrian hamster is best, as this will be its primary space for exercise. At minimum, the cage should be 1 foot by 2 feet and at least a foot tall. In general, you’ll have your choice of a cage that is wire on the top with a plastic base or a standard glass or plastic aquarium with a tightly fitting mesh top. The wire cages allow for better airflow, though they offer less protection against drafts. 

In the enclosure, include plenty of hamster toys for enrichment. An exercise wheel that has a solid surface (not bars) is ideal, as this minimizes the risk of injuries. Other options include tunnels and bridges for hiding and climbing, as well as wooden chew blocks for dental hygiene. Also, add a nest or sleeping hut (pet shops typically have several options) in a corner of the enclosure.

Line the bottom of the enclosure with a couple inches of bedding. Paper or aspen products are recommended. Don’t use cedar bedding, as the strong smell can be harmful to a hamster. Scoop out any wet spots in the bedding daily. And change all the bedding weekly as you scrub down the entire enclosure with soap and water.

Food and Water

Feed your Syrian hamster a diet of nuts, grains, and seeds (this is typically what's in the commercial food blends) supplemented with fruits and vegetables, such as apples, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, and pears. And because Syrian hamsters are omnivores (they eat plants and animals), offer the occasional hardboiled egg or feeder insect for an extra protein shot. If you use a commercial food blend, the supplemental foods generally shouldn't make up more than 10% of the hamster's overall diet. But consult your veterinarian for the best quantity and variety to feed, as this can vary based on age and size.

Always keep a bowl of food in the enclosure, and discard uneaten food after 24 hours. Hamsters typically like to graze, storing food in their cheek pouches and stashing it somewhere for later. Your hamster might even wake up a few times a day to eat and then go back to sleep. Whenever you're feeding fresh foods, it's often best to offer them in the evening when your hamster is waking up from its slumber and ready to eat.

Moreover, always provide a clean source of water for your hamster that you refresh daily. Many people prefer to use water bottles because they are easy to keep sanitary. But you also can use a shallow dish for water until your hamster learns to drink from the bottle.

Common Health Problems

Syrian hamsters are generally hardy animals. However, there are a few conditions to watch out for. Wet tail—a gastrointestinal infection usually associated with stress and bacteria proliferation—is the most common health issue affecting this hamster. Symptoms include lethargy, diarrhea, a lack of appetite, and wetness around the tail area. If you suspect an infection, take your hamster to the vet immediately. This issue can have a fatal outcome if allowed to fester, but antibiotics can effectively treat it.

Hamsters can also contract fur and ear mites, especially from unsanitary conditions. If your hamster has mites, you might notice itching and loss of fur in patches. If so, contact your vet as soon as possible for treatment.

Furthermore, some hamsters can develop overgrown teeth that make eating difficult. You might notice your hamster's teeth look a little longer than normal and that it's losing weight. A vet can trim the teeth and then recommend ways to maintain the hamster's dental health, such as adding more chewable materials to the enclosure.

Purchasing Your Syrian Hamster

Hamsters are legal in most places, though some landlords might have restrictions about them. Always make sure you know your local regulations before committing to an animal. You can buy a Syrian hamster from a pet shop, but a reputable breeder or rescue group is the preferred option. Good breeders and rescues tend to provide superior care for their animals, and they should be able to give you thorough information on an animal's origin and health history. Expect to pay around $20.

When choosing a hamster, it's ideal to observe the seller's animals while they're awake. So ask the seller when the best time to visit with them would be. The seller also might be able to wake their hamsters for you to pick one by offering a desirable treat. A healthy hamster will be active and curious. Its fur should look clean, its droppings should be well-formed, and its eyes should be clear and bright. Red flags include labored breathing and a dirty bottom.

Similar Pets to the Syrian Hamster

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