Popular in many countries as family pets, hamster domestication is relatively recent: only since 1930, when a zoologist found a mother and her young in the desert outside Aleppo, Syria, were hamsters household companions. The pocket-sized rodents are friendly and require easy care.
Native to the deserts of Asia, Golden hamsters originated in Syria, while Djungarian hamsters---also known as Campbell’s Dwarfs---originate from the Russian steppes. Other hamster species come from China and Mongolia. According to biologist Gernot Kuhnen, nearly all domesticated hamsters in the United States descend from survivors of the Aleppo litter.
Hamsters carry food in their cheek pouches, leading to their name from the German word “hamstern,” (to hoard). Male hamsters are referred to as bucks, females are called does, while hamster babies are known as puppies.
A normal hamster’s stocky body has strong legs and broad feet. Their cheek pouches fall to their shoulders on either side of their heads. Small pointy ears and small tails are typical, although these differ slightly among species. The Common hamster is the largest, measuring over a foot long, while the Dwarf desert hamster is smallest at three to four inches. Hamsters are color blind and so have poor eyesight and depth perception. They see only about six inches in front, so to compensate for their poor eyesight, they have scent glands on either their flanks or abdomen (depending on specie), and leave a scent trail to follow back to the den. Hamsters’ teeth continue to grow throughout their lifetime.
Like other domesticated animals, hamsters reacts to their given name, if taught. They remember their own littermates and mothers. If trained, they locate food and water and play with toys.
Some hamsters give birth by as young as five weeks and with litters from four to 12 at one time. Males are able to breed by about 10 to 14 weeks. Spaying or neutering is not an option, so to avoid pregnancy, separate males and females. Hamster gestation is 15 to 16 days and puppies wean by 21 to 25 days. Temperature regulation helps determines puppy gender: Keeping the doe warmer results in more males, while keeping her cooler produces more females.
Relatively disease-free, the rapidly breeding rodent species lends itself to scientific research. Their friendly demeanor and easy care make them popular with researchers. With a cardiovascular system remarkably similar to that of humans, researchers often use hamsters for heart-related research.
Hamsters live for two to three years and prefer cage temperatures from 65 to 80 degrees F, in a relative humidity rage of 40 to 70 percent. The small rodents are most active during twilight (crepuscular), so play well during this time. Hamsters like mazes and wheels for exercise.