Hamsters: a history

Hamsters are small, virtually tailless, velvet-furred rodents with enormous cheek pouches. They originated in the Middle East and south eastern Europe. The most common and popular breeds, both as pets and laboratory animals, is the golden or Syrian hamster.

Color and hair-type varieties of the golden hamster include cinnamon, cream, white, and “teddy bear” (the long-haired variety). Most of the hamsters sold as pets or used in research are the descendants of 3 litter mates domesticated in 1930.

  • Scientific name: Mesocricetus auratus.
  • Potential life span: 2-3 years.
  • Adult body weight: 100-150 grams (adult females are slightly larger than adult males).
  • Desirable environmental temperature range: 18-24°C/65-75°F.
  • Desirable relative humidity range: 30-70%.
  • Recommended age at 1st breeding: male: 10-14 weeks; female: 6-10 weeks.
  • Length of oestrous (heat) cycle: 94 hours.
  • Gestation (pregnancy) period: 15.5-16 days.
  • Average litter size: 5-10 young.
  • Age at weaning: 3 weeks.

The cheek pouches are a relatively unique anatomic feature of hamsters. They are actually a cavernous outpouching of the oral (mouth) cavity on both sides, extending alongside the head and neck to the shoulders. These pouches are used to store food and allow the hamster to transport food from where it is gathered to the hamster’s den or nest. The food is then eaten later, at the hamster’s leisure.

Hamster owners not familiar with these cheek pouches often panic when seeing them fully distended for the first time, thinking they represent tumours or abscesses. Another relatively unique anatomic feature of hamsters is the paired glands in the skin over the flanks. These appear as dark spots within the hair coat and are much more obvious in males than females. These glands are used to mark a hamster’s territory and also have a role in sexual behaviour.

Hamsters are very popular pets today because of their availability, affordability, small size, cuddly appearance, often docile temperament and relatively clean habits. They are not very long-lived, which can be disconcerting to owners, especially children.

Many parents, however, believe that having their children experience the relatively short period of companionship and subsequent death is a meaningful way to expose children to the “ups and downs” of life. For many years hamsters have been used in biomedical research laboratories. Consequently, their medical problems have been traditionally approached on a group basis, rather than on an individual basis.

As a result, very little practical information exists on the medical care of individual hamsters.