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The best and simplest answer for anyone contemplating a hamster as either a first pet or first hamster is to start with the most common or popular breed. Mesocricetus auratus is the scientific name for the Syrian hamster and the one you're most likely to find at your pet store. They are readily available, affordable and comprise the majority of pet hamsters.

Much of the information available on hamster care refers to this species. However if you're more adventuresome, there are four other hamster species to consider. Within these five species are different coat colors, patterns and types (i.e., short-haired and satin coated).

From species to species, hamster size and behavior can vary substantially. They have different socialization needs, and their care requirements as well as activity levels and aggression patterns can vary. Not all are appropriate for children, so consider your options before you head for the pet store.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you want a small hamster or large hamster? Hamster species range from the size of you hand to the size of a mouse. The large Syrian hamsters are easier and more fun to handle but require a larger cage, more food and bedding.
  • Do you want a single hamster or more than one? Syrians cannot tolerate other hamsters and must be housed alone. Other breeds can share their quarters comfortably.
  • Do you want a hamster that will be affectionate with you or do you intend to handle him very little? Do you have the time and patience required to tame your hamster, or are you content to observe his behavior from a distance?
  • Do you have the patience and determination to tame your pet so he can easily be removed from his cage? Nipping is instinctive to hamsters, and to keep him tame, you will need to make the time to handle your hamster on a regular basis. How much you will want to interact with your pet may help you decide between the common and exotic breeds.

Your answers to these questions will be purely subjective. Unfortunately, how you answer may not necessarily help you at the pet store, since many kinds of hamsters are still rare. Phone ahead and ask pet stores what they carry or seek the name of breeders of the more unusual varieties. Some of the possibilities are listed below:

Syrian Hamsters

The Mesocricetus auratus is by far the most common and popular breed - and for good reason. They live up to 3 years, are naturally healthy, easy to care for, independent and amusing. Their size (4 to 6 inches long) makes them easily held by an adult and large enough for the more awkward lifting and holding by children. For a responsible child they make an ideal first pet. This species is also called Golden, Teddy Bear, European "Black Bear," Standard and Fancy.

Dwarf Russian Hamsters

Phodopus campbelli Phodopus sungoris are dwarf hamsters known as Dwarf Campbell Russian (or Djungarian) and Dwarf Winter Russian (or Siberian). As you might guess, they are nearly half the size of Syrian or Goldens (3 to 4 inches) with a usual lifespan of up to 3 years. Unlike their Mesocricetus auratus cousins, who must be housed separately, dwarf varieties may be kept in pairs or groups as long as they are introduced young and are the same age and size. They are most social with one another and make good pets but unlike the Syrian variety, because of their small size, they are more difficult for small children to handle. Also, they can be less tolerant of clumsy handling which may lead to nipping. The diminutive size of these species makes them apt to escape the confines of standard hamster cages. Djungarian and Siberian breeds are safer housed in glass or plastic escape-proof habitats with a solid bottom.

Dwarf Chinese Hamsters

Cricetus griseus or Chinese and Phodopus roborovski or Roborovski round out the five most common species. Both are mouse-sized with a life span of 2-3 years. Chinese hamsters are social and may also live with each other as long as they are roughly the same age, size and sex. They may fight however and if it becomes necessary to separate groups, re-introducing them successfully is often impossible. Roborovski hamsters are rare, primarily available through specialist breeders. These, too, are from China. Although they have pleasant temperaments and rarely nip, they are extremely lively, fast and not easy to handle. Chinese hamsters can be quite active for short periods of time during the day. Both Roborovski and Chinese hamsters may be an ideal pet for someone who wants simply to observe behavior rather than handle and tame his hamsters. Both should also be housed in mouse habitats or glass aquariums.

Once you have decided on the type of hamster that meets your needs, don't hesitate to ask pet store employees what types are available - particularly if your don't see the kind you are interested in. Make sure you get the right one for you and your family. Although it goes by many names, the choice will most often be the Syrian hamster. Sometimes it's the most common animal that makes the most uncommon pet!