There are five species of hamster commonly kept as pets in the UK: Syrian, Chinese, Winter White, Campbell's and Roborovski.
The Syrian hamster (Mesocricetus auratus) is what most people recognise as a hamster. They are also known as 'Golden' hamsters. They are the largest of the common pet species and so are easier for younger pet owners to handle. They are friendly and inquisitive, but must live alone.
Syrian hamsters are 15-20cm long and weigh 150-200g when fully grown. Pet shop bought hamsters tend to be smaller than those from breeders. Syrians have a broad body and head with large ears which are held erect when the hamster is awake. They have short tails which can be hard to see.
There is a variety of fur lengths, types and patterns to choose from with Syrians:
- long or short hair
- rex (curly) and satin (shiny)
- banded, dominant spot, recessive dappled or roan (different amounts of white)
There are also many colour varieties: golden, black-eyed cream, red-eyed cream, sable, black, yellow, mink, dove, dark-eared white, cinnamon, chocolate, rust....
For further information on colour and coat types please visit www.midlandshamsterclub.co.uk.
The Chinese hamster (Cricetulus griseus) is not a true dwarf hamster, but is often referred to as one due to its similar size. Life expectancy is 2-2.5 years. Chinese hamsters have a mouse-like appearance with a 2-2.5cm tail. Fully grown, they measure 10-12 cm long and weigh 20-40g for a female and 30-50g for a male. They can be shy in their cages, but enjoy climbing and tunnelling. They are lovely to handle and will cling to fingers and clothing.
There are two varieties which have National Hamster Council standards. Normal is a brown-grey animal with a black dorsal stripe and a pale underneath. Dominant spot is a white animal with a dark stripe and brown patches. The black-eyed white Chinese hamster is less common in the UK and is a completely white animal with black eyes.
Male Chinese hamsters are kept in pairs by experienced owners, but many find that they are better kept singly due to fighting. Chinese hamsters are known for the severe wounds they can inflict on each other especially when mating. Females are best kept alone. The genitals of mature male Chinese hamsters are prominent and some people find this offensive (though it does make them easy to sex from the age of 4-5 weeks!).
The Campbell hamster (Phodopus campbelli) is one of the Russian Dwarf hamster species. They are also know as 'Djungarian' hamsters. They are more curious than Chinese hamsters and can be kept in pairs. They can be fast and have a reputation of being nippy, although this is less of a problem if acquired from a reputable breeder.
Campbells grow to about 10cm in length and weigh 30-60g. The natural colouring is brownish-grey with a pale underneath and a darker stripe running down the back. The border of the paler colour on the underside of the animal takes the form of three arches on each side.
There are many colour variations of the Campbells: albino, argente, black, opal and dove. Like Syrian hamsters, Campbells can also have rex or satin coats, and patterned coats such as mottled and platinum.
Winter White Hamsters
The Winter White hamster (Phodopus sungorus sungorus) is one of the Russian Dwarf hamster species. They are also known as 'Siberian' hamsters. Like Campbells they are usually kept in pairs. Winter Whites are one of the more vocal species of hamster.
Winter Whites grow to about 8cm in length. They are a greyish colour with black ticking and a black dorsal stripe. Three paler colour arches along the side of the animal merge into the paler colour on the underside.
In its natural habitat, the fur of the Winter White changes colour to blend in with the snow. In captivity this change tends to be less marked. There are several colour variations: sapphire, normal pearl, sapphire pearl and marble.
Hybrid "Russian" Hamsters
Many pet shops sell "Russian" hamsters which are a hybrid, or mix, of Campbells and Winter Whites. These two species of hamster have significant differences and should not be bred together. The offspring of such mixes suffer from a variety of health problems, particularly diabetes or neurological ones such as a head tilt, twirling or flipping. These are compulsive actions which the animal is unable to stop itself from carrying out, and in the most severe cases can prevent it from normal activites like eating or grooming.
Bart came to Vectis as a rescue hamster when a mis-sexed pet shop pair had litters. Even at 4 weeks old his head tilt and wobbly walk from neurological problems were obvious. He developed diabetes at 6 weeks old and had several vet trips, including when he developed obsessive licking behaviours. He died at just over 1 year old.
To avoid the problems associated with hybrids, Campbells and Winter Whites should be kept separately and should be bought from reputable breeders, such as those registered with the National Hamster Council.
The Roborovski hamster (Phodopus roborovskii) is one of the short-tailed Dwarf hamster species. They are also known as 'robos'. They are the smallest of the pet hamsters and can be kept in groups. They are extremely fast and are unequalled for the entertainment they give watching them in their homes. They can be tamed with patience, but are not a hamster for cuddles. They are more suited to older children and adults. It is rare for robos to bite or nip.
Robos grow to 5cm in length. The natural colour of robos is a sandy topcoat which tends to be open, showing the darker undercoat. The underside of the robo is pure white, and there is no dorsal stripe.
Robos are known for their endearing white muzzle and "eyebrows" . Several pattern mutations have arisen over recent years, with the more common ones being husky (white face) and pied (white spots). There is also a colour mutation referred to as rust, cream or caramel.