The Golden hamster - also known as Syrian, Standard, Fancy and Teddy Bear - and its cousins, the Chinese and Dwarf hamsters, constitute one of the most popular pet families in the Western world. In American homes, one of these hand-sized, playful creatures is often the first pet introduced to children - and for good reason. Hamsters are by nature clean and easy to care for. They eat little, are readily available through pet stores, and are inexpensive. More importantly, they're playful, fun to watch, active, and, with an average life span of two and a half years, a short-term commitment.

Out of the Desert and Into Your Heart

It's a fascinating fact that your Golden hamster is a descendant of a single mother and three surviving offspring found in the Syrian desert in 1940. Originally bred for laboratory research, hamsters were easily domesticated. These playful rodents bear little resemblance to their mice and gerbil relatives. In fact, hamsters look and act more like miniature bears.

Hamsters function on instinct, and their inborn patterns of behavior come directly from habits crucial to survival in a Middle Eastern environment of temperature extremes, sparse food, and roaming enemies. The digging, climbing, exploring, hoarding, and burrowing critical to survival translate into endearing behavior in your home. Throughout America, hamsters have snuggled their way into millions of hearts.

Your hamster is solitary by nature. After three or four weeks, mothers will drive their children to independence with tiny nips. Hamsters don't need, want and should not have fellow hamster companionship. Your hamster much prefers your company.

Watch Those Whiskers

First and foremost, your hamster wants to be safe. His heightened sense of smell tells him where he belongs - and who or what belongs with him. Exploring the environment is second nature. To compensate for weak eyesight, your hamster's whiskers are in constant motion, which helps your pet detect obstacles and define space. And does he love to fill that space! As a hoarder, a hamster spends hours burrowing, tunneling, and then moving bits of food, bedding, and toys into these "safe" places by way of the cheek pouches that double the size of his head. In the wild, researchers have found as much as 38 pounds of grain stored in a single burrow. Your hamster also must chew. As a rodent, your hamster uses chewing to constantly sharpen and shorten his chisel-shaped front incisors, which grow continuously.

In addition to your hamster's solitary nature, your pet is nocturnal. Perhaps because of cooler night temperatures in the natural environment, your pet wakes, eats and plays in the early evening and well into the night. He is comfortable hoarding, burrowing, and exploring in the dark. During the day your pet curls into a ball for sleep. In the wild (or in your house, should the temperature drop), he will hibernate at temperatures below 50-60 degrees F (10 degrees C).

Enemies Are Abundant Out There

Just as in nature, your hamster's behavior will change abruptly if he senses danger or feels threatened. His acute sense of smell alerts him to strangers-even to the fact that a different human hand is reaching for him. Your hamster will rise up on his haunches and sniff the air, whiskers twitching. What he wants is a safe, out-of-the way place to hide. Instinct sends him into his burrow, but if that's not available, he'll puff out his cheeks and-when desperate-flop over and play dead. This instinctive behavior may appear "cute"-another endearing quality of these docile creatures. But just as in humans, fear causes stress, anxiety, related diseases, and may shorten his already brief life.

Check Me Out

Hamsters are clean and odor free by nature. They leave a minor scent when first "marking" fresh territory, and females exude hormones when in heat, but both genders are meticulous and spend inordinate amounts of time grooming. The rubbing, brushing, and licking can be misinterpreted as illness or parasite infestation but is most often part of your pet's daily ritual of keeping himself spotless. In the wild this behavior guarantees a disease-free and warm pelt. Clean habits apply to his environment as well. Many hamsters maintain separate food, sleep, and elimination areas. Your pet will need your help with these needs when he's in a cage. When you provide fresh material, nutritious food, and space for exercise, your hamster will stay clean, safe, and healthy. He'll thrive and reward you with hours of entertainment.

Instinctive Hamster Behavior

  • Solitary: Does not mingle with other hamsters.
  • Nocturnal: Sleeps all day; wakes, eats, plays and works at night.
  • Hoarder: Natural need to store, hoard, and move food and bedding.
  • Chewer: Necessary to shape and shorten continually growing incisors.
  • Groomer: Maintains a clean body and environment.