All About the Hamster: The Pouch-Cheeked Rodent

Leave a comment / / Updated on: 11th November 2023

Scientific nameCricetinaeWeight19–150 grams (0.6–5.2 ounces)
PronunciationHAM-stur.Length5–34 centimeters (2–13.5 inches) 
ClassificationMammalia, Rodentia, CricetidaeLocationWorldwide

The Hamster

Syrian Short Hair Gold Hamster | 4kodiak via iStock

The hamster is famous as the soft golden-furred rodent that has a habit of running endlessly on wheels. 

But this isn’t all there is to know about them. 

In fact, beyond their fame as cuddly household pets, there are several wild hamster species, many of which are too aggressive to be kept in the home. 

In addition to being popular pets, hamsters are also famous laboratory animals like other rodents. 

In the wild, hamsters mainly live in warm, dry areas, but domestic species can adapt to a wide range of conditions. 

The name “hamsters” is derived from the German word “hamster,” which means to hoard, referring to the hamsters’ tendency to hide food in their cheek pouches. 

Hamsters have many other interesting habits and attributes. 

In this article, we’ll explore all of the fascinating facts about hamsters, detailing various aspects of their life both in the wild and as domestic pets.  

Gage Beasley's In-Demand Plush Toys
Gage Beasley’s In-Demand Plush Toys

Taxonomy and Classification

Yes? You have called me? Highkey photo of a Djungarian dwarf hamster | Kerrick via iStock

Hamster is the common name for any of the small rat-like animals within the Cricetinae subfamily.

This subfamily is divided into seven genera, with at least 19 species documented so far. 

As members of the order Rodentia (commonly referred to as rodents), hamsters are distantly related to rats and mice. 

Their closest relatives are the voles, muskrats, and lemming, all members of the Cricetidae family. 

The Syrian hamster (Mesocricetus auratus) is the hamster species that is most commonly kept as pets. 

Other types of hamsters that make great pets include the European hamster, the three species of dwarf hamsters, and the Chinese hamster. 

Hamsters have been around since the Miocene Epoch. 

They first evolved in Europe and North Africa between 16.4 and 11.2 million years ago. 

In Asia, the oldest hamster species are about six to 11 million years old. 

Although they have been known since the 1800s, the domestication of the Syrian hamster began in the 1930s, when biologist Israel Aharoni captured a litter of wild Syrian hamsters. 

It is believed that most populations of Syrian hamsters in labs and homes worldwide were bred from this litter. 

Gage Beasley's Hamster Plush Toy
Gage Beasley’s Hamster Plush Toy

Physical Characteristics

Hamsters vary slightly in sizes depending on the breed | huronphoto via iStock

Although the appearance and size may vary slightly for different species, hamsters are generally small to medium-sized stout-bodied rodents. 

Their bodies have a rounded tube-like profile. 

Hamsters have short, stocky limbs, but their feet are wide. 

Unlike other rodents that tend to have long tails, hamsters have tails shorter than the rest of their body. 

In fact, the tails are so short (about one-sixth of their body length) that they’re barely visible in some species. 

The only exception to this is the Chinese hamster, whose tail can be as long as its entire body. 

Hamsters also have a small head with a slightly puffed face. 

This is due to expandable cheek pouches on both sides of their heads, which they use to carry and store food. 

These small rodents have long, sensitive whiskers around their mouth, and their ears are small and furry. 

Hamsters come in a wide range of sizes.

The European hamster | katanski via Wikipedia CC BY 3.0

The biggest hamster species is the European hamster (Cricetus cricetus). 

It has an average head-to-body length of about 34 centimeters (13.5 inches), with a short tail of roughly six centimeters (2.5 inches long). 

As their name implies, the dwarf hamsters (Phodus genus) are the smallest. 

Their average body length is between 5.5 and 10.5 centimeters (2.25 to 4.25 inches). 

Just like the size, hamster coloration can also vary widely, depending on the species and the specific color mutations. 

The Syrian hamster, which is the most common domesticated species, has reddish-brown or golden fur. 

However, the thick, long fur of the hamsters can be gray, black, honey, brown, yellow, or even white. 

Some species are also banded, with a mix of different colors. 

Hamsters have two dark spots on their flanks, which is typically more obvious in males than in females. 

This is where their scent glands are located. 

They secrete scent markers from these glands, which is useful for marking their territories. 

Habitat and Distribution

Like other rodents, hamsters are highly adaptable. 

In the wild, the different species of this rodent are found in a variety of habitats. 

They are mainly found all over Europe and Asia, but certain species may be endemic to specific regions. 

For instance, the European hamster can be found in the wild in Eastern Europe and Western Asia. 

Similarly, the Syrian hamster lives specifically in northern Syria and southern Turkey.

In places where they’re found in the wild, hamsters mainly inhabit warm, dry areas such as steppes, dunes, and the edge of deserts and other arid areas. 

Many hamster species thrive in open grasslands, meadows, and agricultural fields.

All hamster species are known for their excellent digging habits. 

They live in burrows dug deep below the ground using their limbs, teeth, and snout. 

Some species, like the Syrian hamsters, can dig burrows up to a depth of about 0.7 meters. 

Roborovski hamster hiding in its burrow | Bullet via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0

The burrows typically have one or more entrances to the outside but are connected internally with numerous chambers and galleries for nesting, storing food, and other activities. 

The fact that hamsters live in burrows contributes to their adaptability in the wild. 

The burrow adjusts high temperatures and other extreme climatic conditions to create a suitable ambient temperature for the rodent.

Although most wild hamsters make their own burrows, they may also take over burrows made by other animals. 

Pet hamster species prefer homes reminiscent of their habitat in the wild. 

They need a comfortable, dry, and clean space to rest undisturbed. 

They do not do well in drafty or damp conditions.

The sleep pattern and daily habitat of hamsters depend on a predictable cycle of light and darkness. 

They’re best kept in rooms where you can control the lights to go off and on at night and during the day since erratic lighting can throw them off their activity cycle. 

Behavior and Social Structure

A hamster is sitting in a cage on a yellow staircase | Soelma Tsydypova via iStock

Hamsters are active rodents both in the wild and as pets. 

While most pet species are gentle and playful, some wild species can be quite aggressive, which makes them unsuitable to be kept as pets. 

Hamsters are generally territorial. 

They have scent glands that produce scents that they use to make their territories. 

Hamsters may also mark their territories with urine and feces. 

Territoriality can lead to aggressive interactions between hamsters if they encroach on each other’s territories.

However, some species defend their territories more aggressively than others.  

Hamsters are crepuscular or nocturnal. 

This means they’re more active during low-light periods of the day, such as dawn, dusk, or during the night. 

This activity pattern helps them avoid natural predators, such as birds of prey and snakes. 

A wild European hamster appeared in the wild | Zacharias Korsalka via Wikipedia

In the wild, hamsters spend the day resting in their burrows. 

They wake up in the evenings to forage for food and engage in other activities. 

Domestic species groom themselves and run or wheel during periods of activities like this, too. 

Running on Wheels is a favorite pastime of pet hamster species. 

There are different theories to explain why they do this, including boredom, stress, or simply a compulsion. 

Some scientists think hamsters get a runner’s high when they run on wheels, which is why they do it.

Due to the physical benefits of exercise for pet animals, hamster owners are often advised to provide them with wheels within their enclosure to power their daily burst of activity. 

A few hamster species, such as Campbell’s dwarf hamster (Phodopus campbelli), can be raised and kept in pairs or small groups when introduced at a young age. 

But hamsters are generally solitary. 

Most species prefer to live alone and will only come in contact with other hamsters when it’s time to mate. 

Social interactions with other hamsters tend to be brief and aggressive. 

Diet and Feeding

Hungry hamster standing near bowl of dry food | Irina Orlova via iStock

Like many other rodents, hamsters are omnivores. 

This means they eat both vegetables and meat. 

In the wild, hamsters mainly eat grass and seeds but eat insects and other animal matter quite frequently. 

Pet hamsters can be fed on a diet of hamster pellets supplemented with occasional fruits, seeds, and nuts. 

A diet with a variety of natural foods like this is healthier for them compared to an exclusive diet of packaged foods. 

Pet hamsters should not be fed junk food, chocolate, onion, garlic, or any type of sugary or salty foods. 

Also, while pet hamsters tend to love peanut butter, it has to be given to them moderately since the butter can get stuck on their cheeks and teeth. 

This rodent demonstrates a wide range of unique feeding behaviors. 

For instance, hamsters may sometimes eat their own feces. 

Doing this allows them to recover nutrients from foods digested in their hindgut. 

A cute wild hamster searching for food | Image clip via HamsterLAB

Some species of wild hamsters are also known for their unique habit of hunting insects and other foods in packs. 

Hamsters hoard food in their burrows. 

Their mouths have spacious cheek pouches, which they use to transport food to underground storage chambers in their burrow.  

They can carry enough food in their cheeks to make their head double or even triple in size. 

Like all rodents, hamsters have prominent incisor teeth, which continue to grow throughout their life. 

They may gnaw on various hard objects to keep their teeth from overgrowing. 

Reproduction and Life Cycle

Hamster babies sleeping together | jxfzsy via iStock

Many hamster species are seasonal breeders. 

For the Syrian hamster, the breeding season is between April to October in the Northern Hemisphere. 

However, some species, such as the dwarf hamsters, are known to breed all through the year. 

As mentioned earlier, hamsters are solitary animals but will tolerate others during their mating periods. 

A receptive female releases chemical cues to attract males, while males mark their territories with scent marks. 

Mating is a brief and aggressive affair after which the male leaves. 

Hamsters are not known to form long-term bonds, and only the female is responsible for the young.

After mating, hamsters give birth to a litter of one to 13 young within a short gestation period of about 16 to 23 days.

Hamster mothers typically give birth to young in a nest within their burrows. 

Here, they nurse and provide warmth to the juveniles until they’re mature and independent. 

Newborn hamsters are lying on a light background | BetterPhoto via iStock

The young are born hairless and blind, but they grow very quickly. 

Most species are old enough to explore outside the nest after just one week. 

The mother may breed again after about three weeks, although most hamster species are not fully mature until about five weeks. 

The average lifespan of hamsters varies for the different species. 

For instance, Syrian hamsters live for about two to three years in captivity, but wild species don’t live this long. 

Russian hamsters, on the other hand, may reach up to four years, while Chinese hamsters only live for about three years in captivity. 

Ecological Role and Interactions

hamster eating seeds | jxfzsy via iStock

As herbivores that feed on grains and seeds, hamsters play a significant role in the dispersal of seeds of various plants. 

They transport seeds to new locations, and some of these seeds end up germinating and growing, contributing to the overall health and diversity of the plant populations within their habitats. 

The burrowing activities of these rodents may also contribute to the soil structure where they live. 

Burrows aerate the soil and improve the distribution of nutrients, which is beneficial to plants and other organisms within their ecosystem. 

Other animals may also make use of burrows made by hamsters 

Wild hamsters may serve as an important food source for predators within their ecosystem. 

Hamsters are primarily consumers, and being preyed on by bigger animals such as foxes, snakes, and raptorial birds aids the transfer of energy to higher energy levels within their ecosystem. 

Conservation Status and Threats

A wild hamster sitting on a grass | GrashAlex via iStock

Although hamsters are very popular as pets, many species of this rodent are not doing so well in the wild. 

The golden hamster, for instance, is listed as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. 

In their natural range in Syria, the species is currently threatened by agriculture and human development, which is pushing them out of their natural habitats. 

Agricultural activities are particularly detrimental to populations of wild Syrian hamsters.

Changes in land use change the typical flora of their ecosystem, forcing them to eat a diet of corn or earthworms. 

This leads to a disease known as pellagra, characterized by an inability to absorb niacin during digestion. 

The poorly nourished hamsters end up eating their litter, which has fatal consequences for their population. 

Other hamster species that are currently threatened or at risk of extinction include the common hamster and the Romanian hamster. 

To help the threatened species of this hamster, conservationists may consider providing nutrient-rich foods for hamster populations. 

Captive-bred hamsters may also be released into the wild to help rejuvenate the natural populations. 

Unique Adaptations and Survival Strategies

A hamster foraging for food | SgH Vienna via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0

Wild hamsters have creative strategies to survive periods of scarcity. 

For instance, they have expandable cheek pouches, which allow them to carry large quantities of food back to their burrows. 

This ability makes it possible for the hamsters to stock up on food during periods of abundant supply so they can eat them later when resources are scarce. 

This adaptation is particularly beneficial for species living in habitats where food supply is sporadic. 

Some hamster species, like the European hamster, can also enter into hibernation during the harsh winter months. 

The reduced metabolism during this period allows them to conserve energy until resources are abundant again. 

Hamsters have poor eyesight but can still get around easily on their own using other well-developed senses. 

They have a great sense of smell and leave a scent trail as they move, which helps them trace their way. 

They also use this scent trail to find other hamsters within their range. 

Hamsters also have excellent hearing and may be able to recognize familiar sounds, including their owner’s voice. 

Cultural Significance and Human Interactions

Two brown adult hamsters playing inside a dollhouse | Nynke van Holten via iStock

Hamsters are among the most popular pets in the world. 

The Syrian hamster is the species most commonly kept as a pet, but a few other species are domesticated, too. 

Their cute appearance and relatively low maintenance makes them the beloved pet of many households. 

Hamsters may also be trained to participate in hamster shows. 

These are popular events among hamster owners and pet enthusiasts. 

In these shows, the hamsters compete against each other and are judged based on their appearance, tameness, and ability to perform basic tasks. 

There are no winners or losers in many of such shows, as they’re mainly meant to celebrate these adorably cute rodents. 

Future Prospects and Research

Close-up shot of scientist’s hand giving to a hamster organic material to eat in chemistry lab during the experiment | Maksym Panchuk via iStock

Hamsters are famous laboratory animals used for a wide range of scientific research and animal testing.

While their use for this purpose has declined in recent decades, they’re still among the most popular rodents used for this purpose. 

Most notably, the cells extracted from the kidneys of baby hamsters and the ovaries of adults are commonly used for cholesterol synthesis studies. 

Hamsters are also used as models for cancer and for various infectious disease research. 

These studies have provided a better understanding of the effects, treatments, and prevention of these diseases in humans. 

Hamsters are also susceptible to several metabolic disorders that affect humans.

This makes them the ideal animal model for studying these metabolic disorders in humans. 

Some studies also focus on hamsters themselves to better understand their behavior and habits. 

For instance, hamsters are known to exhibit several fixed action patterns, and many ongoing studies focus on understanding these behaviors, both in the wild and in captivity.  


Hamsters are small to medium-sized rodents in the Cricetinae subfamily. 

There are numerous species within this subfamily, found in various parts of Europe and Asia. 

Hamsters have also been exported as pets to other countries and now have a worldwide distribution. 

In the wild, this rodent species exhibits different adaptations which aid their survival during periods of scarcity. 

They’re beloved household pets due to their cuddly appearance and gentle nature. 

Hamsters are also important laboratory animals that aid our understanding of various diseases and conditions that affect human health.


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