Myths and Misconceptions about Hamsters
For many years hamsters have been kept as pets and have long since been enjoyed by thousands of people across the world. In fact, they are regarded as one of the most popular ‘pocket pets’ in the pet industry. Those big eyes, stuffed cheeks and curious natures are hard to resist and so it is no wonder that hamsters have charmed people for years. However, with their popularity have come many widespread rumours and misinformation about their care leading to many cases of neglect, which are often at the hands of the ignorant and misinformed. The key to ending this neglect is through education. If owners knew how to properly care for their hamsters then it is unlikely that so many hamsters would suffer at the hands of their caretakers. Therefore, I have written this in order to point out some of the popular myths and misconceptions about hamsters.
Set up and Habitat Myths
Myth: Hamsters are small animals, so they need small cages.
Truth: Hamsters may be small in size but they move and explore a lot. In the wild it is recorded that hamsters will often run up to eight miles in one night. While a wheel certainly is a valuable tool in helping a hamster to burn some energy and get some exercise, it does not mean that a cage can be small. Hamsters still require room to explore, play, dig, hoard food, make a nest and just move around. In a small cage not all of this can be provided. Some studies even suggest that a hamster needs up to one square metre (or about 10.5 square feet) of floorspace in order to provide the hamster with enough room to do what it needs to do. If someone can provide that much room for their hamsters then I think the hamster can only benefit from it, though the absolute minimum cage size is generally agreed to be 360 square inches (2322 square cm). Also keep in mind that hamsters need more floorspace in a cage than they do height.
Myth: Aquariums are a bad cage choice for hamsters as they do not provide adequate ventilation.
Truth: Aquariums make great cages for hamsters provided that the lid allows proper ventilation. The lid should be made of mesh or wire, not glass or plastic thus allowing the air to flow through. The biggest concern with keeping animals, such as rats, in aquariums is that the ammonia would build up and cause respiratory problems., but hamsters do not produce enough ammonia in their urine for this to be as much of a concern. However, as with all animals, it is recommended to change the soiled bedding when it starts to smell - whether they're housed in a tank or a wire cage.
Myth: Any seed mix is fine for a hamster.
Truth: Hamsters, just like any creature, have specific nutrition needs and not all hamster foods are made equally in this regard. The first thing that must be considered is whether you want to use a seed mix or a lab block as your hamster’s staple diet. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Quality lab blocks provide complete nutrition in compressed blocks of food and do not leave room for hamsters to be picky. However they tend to be rather boring for hamsters. Seed mixes provide variety and if they are mixed well then they also provide complete nutrition. The downside to seed mixes is that unless you leave the food until it is all eaten then the hamster can be picky and might not get all of the nutrition that the mix provides.
Some things that you need to look for in quality hamster foods include: that the protein percentage is between 17-21% for hamsters over one year of age (for younger hamsters, pregnant hamsters and nursing hamsters a higher protein level is better at about 30-35%), while the fat content is between 4-6%. You do not want a food that has a lot of sweet products such as cane molasses or honey, especially if you have a species of hamster that is prone to diabetes (such as Chinese, Russian Campbell Dwarfs and Winter White Dwarfs.). Specifically with seed mixes you want a mix that is well balanced and isn’t overloaded with fattening foods such as sunflower seeds, peanuts and pumpkin seeds. If you have diabetes-prone hamsters then you also need to watch that there aren’t too many sweet foods such as corn, corn products, peas, carrots, and fruits. If you’re hamster is diabetic then you need to make sure that these foods are picked out and since picking out too much food from a mix can throw it off balance, you want a mix that doesn’t contain a lot of these foods.
Myth: Sunflower seeds are unhealthy and should only be fed as treats/ not at all.
Truth: Sunflower seeds are much believed to be unhealthy seeds that are too fattening for hamsters. For years many people believed that they should be avoided or used as the odd treat. The truth is sunflower seeds are actually very healthy. They contain so many essential nutrients that help a hamsters body stay healthy. From heart health to cholesterol-lowering, sunflower seeds really do so much for a hamster’s well being. Now as with any food, moderation is still they key. Too much of a good thing is not healthy either. Ensuring that your hamster receives three to six sunflower seeds a day or so will give your hamster the balance that they need in their diet.
Myth: If I feed my hamsters meat then they will become cannibals. -or- If I feed my hamster meat then it will want to eat me.
Truth: Hamsters are actually omnivores. This means that they can eat both meats and vegetation just like humans. In the wild along with grains and plant matter hamsters will also eat insects. They are capable of eating cooked meats (plain with no spices or flavours) too. They will not become cannibals nor will this make them want to eat you. This is one of those urban myths that really doesn’t even have a reason for being around.
Species Related Myths
Myth: Syrian hamsters can learn to live together. -or- ‘My Syrians haven’t fought yet so that means they can live together’.
Truth: In the wild syrian hamsters only come together to mate when the female is in heat. The female then raises her young but boots them out of her nest as soon as they are capable of living on their own. These young hamsters go off and find their own territory and the cycle repeats itself. Syrians do not live together in the wild so why would they live together in captivity? They are solitary by nature and do not take well to having cage mates. Just because two Syrian hamsters have not fought yet does not mean that they will not fight at some point.
These fights can lead to injuries, expensive vet bills, stressed hamsters or even death. There is no reason to tempt fate and try to go against nature other than for selfish desires of wanting to keep them together. While they may be upset or confused after being separated, within a day they will be back to their normal selves without a thought about their old cage mate. In fact you may even see them come out of their shell now that they are no longer forced to live in an unnatural social environment.
Sometimes you hear about a pair of Syrian hamsters that just don’t fight. This does not mean that they are thriving in this situation though. The stress of living together can lower their immune systems, a lot of times you hear about Syrian hamsters living together only to die at a young age or from some sort of illness. This is because when under this constant stress a hamster’s immune system is lowered, thus making them susceptible to other illnesses.
Further Reading: The Lone Species.
Myth: Dwarf Hamsters should never be housed together.
Truth: While dwarf hamsters are not social-dependent animals such as rats or humans, where they become stressed and develop certain stereotypes when housed alone, dwarf hamsters can live with others of their own species. In the wild dwarfs live in small groups or colonies, while those that have their own burrows will often keep their burrows close together for breeding purposes. This means that unlike the Syrian hamster, dwarfs can be kept together. It is highly recommended that pairs or groups be of the same sex so as not to bring on a population explosion.
Now just because they can live together, does not mean that they will not fight. However there are ways to eliminate the chances of fighting. In order to do this you must look at their environment or in this case - their cage. With pairs or groups you will need to consider things such as cage size, amount of supplies and toys per hamster, among other things with the physical aspect of their cage. The other factor that comes into play when housing multiple hamsters is the individual hamster. Not every hamster will be suited to social life and sometimes a certain pair just cannot get along, much like how you can’t like every person you come across. So while dwarfs may have small arguments or dominance behaviours this does not mean that they need to be separated, even humans disagree from time to time. The rule is usually no blood, no foul. This also applies to Chinese hamsters, though it seems that the incidence of Chinese hamsters needing to be separated may be higher than that of dwarf hamsters.
Myth: Chinese hamsters are a type of a dwarf hamster.
Truth: Let’s make this a mini science lesson. Every living organism is organized using a classification system. The basic structure of this classification system includes the: kingdom, then phylum, then class, then order, then family, then genus and then species. So when looking at hamsters using this classification system it looks like this:
Now before we move on keep in mind that there are many different kinds of hamsters. As we look further using this classification system, you will be able to see just how the different species of hamsters are broken up by genus and then species. There are about seven different genera (plural for genus) that make up this family and they include the following:
Genus: Cricetulus/ Phodopus/ Calomyscus/ Cricetus/ Mesocricetus/ Tscherskia/ Mystromys/ Calomyscus
From there you have the different species. For example looking at the dwarf hamster genus, Phodopus, we can then look at the three species of this group:
Species: campbelli/ sungorus/ roborovskii
(Russian Campbell/ Winter White/ Roborovski)
There are only three species of hamsters that fall under the genus Phodopus, meaning that there are only three kinds of dwarf hamsters. Chinese hamsters are not part of this genus however. If we go back and look at the genus, Cricetulus, then we can find today’s domestic Chinese hamster with the species name being:
So all together using this classification system, Chinese hamsters are:
Animalia> Chordata> Mammalia> Rodentia> Cricetidae> Cricetulus> griseus
The reason that Chinese hamsters are often grouped with dwarf hamsters is due to their small size and the dorsal stripe that runs down the centre of their back which are characteristics of some of the dwarf hamsters (roborovski dwarfs do not have any dorsal stripes). So while they are closely related they are not a ‘dwarf’ species.
Myth: There are more than five domestic species of hamsters. -or- ‘I have created/bought the newest species of hamster.... the black bear hamster!’
Truth: There are many different nicknames for hamsters these days. Pet stores and some breeders have been seen claiming that they have certain hamsters that are new, rare or better than your average hamster. For example some common names include ‘black bear’, ‘teddy bear’, ‘blueberry’, ‘panda bear’ and there are so many more. However there are only five species of domestic hamsters. They are the Syrian, Winter White Dwarf, Russian Campbell Dwarf, Roborovski Dwarf and Chinese hamsters. Nicknames are made up for hamsters usually to make a certain colour or fur type seem rarer then another hamster of the same species. If it is rare then they feel that they can justify raising the price. These are just nicknames though and do not in any way make the hamsters any better then another of its species.
Myth: Dwarf hamsters are evil [monsters]. -or- Dwarfs enjoy nothing more than to bite a human.
Truth: Despite popular belief, dwarf hamsters are not the “devil’s creation”. Hamsters in general have a bad reputation for biting, but dwarf hamsters have it the worst. I cannot even count the times I have read this online, heard it from others or have been lectured by pet store employees about the evil dwarf hamster. Dwarfs have this reputation due to some misunderstandings.
The first thing is, hamsters have really terrible eyesight. However they are not helpless due to this, and have learned how to compensate for their less-than-ideal eyesight. Dwarf hamsters often use their teeth to explore something new in order to figure out what it is. This includes your hand, though keep in mind that nibbles do not usually hurt nor do they draw blood. Also because of their poor eyesight hamsters can easily mistake a finger for an enemy (especially if you wake them up, or pick them up with out warning!) or even as a piece of food. It’s important to always let your hamster know that you are there and to wash your hands before handling your hamster so that your hands do not smell like a tasty treat.
The second thing that must be considered is that dwarf hamsters are often found to be cage territorial. This is usually only seen in hamsters that are kept in small cages, although hamsters can carry this habit even if their cage is upgraded. This just means that the hamster is feeling territorial over their home. Sometimes this can be worked out but for the most part, their space must be respected. When a hamster is cage territorial this does not mean that they will not be willing to be handled outside of their cage. Using a tube or a cup of some sort for the hamster to climb into while in their cage is a great way to respect their space yet still get them out.
Myth: Roborovski dwarf hamsters cannot bite because their mouths are too small.
Truth: Any animal can bite and the Roborovski dwarf is no exception. They have four sharp incisor teeth that are quite capable of drawing blood and pain despite their small size. Don’t be fooled by their small stature. If they feel the need to defend themselves then they most certainly can.
Myth: All hamsters are nocturnal/crepuscular.
Truth: In the wild it is found that Syrians and Roborovski dwarf hamsters are in fact nocturnal. Russian Campbell dwarfs are said to be either nocturnal or crepuscular (that is awake at dawn and duck). The other species (Winter White dwarfs and Chinese hamsters) are not quite specified as to when they are most active, though it is obvious that it not only depends upon the species, but upon the location of said animal as to whether they are nocturnal or crepuscular. In the wild they stay in their burrows during the day and at night not only to avoid predators but to avoid the extreme temperatures that befall the desert-like Mideast and Asia habitats that hamsters originate from. It has been recently said that all hamsters are crepuscular, meanwhile before it was that all hamsters are nocturnal, however this is not found to be true in the wild for several species.In domestic settings a hamster being nocturnal vs. crepuscular is going to depend not only upon its species, but also it's environment. Variations in factors such as temperature, seasons, location in the world, light in the room, etc. are going to change a hamsters schedule. So while Syrian hamsters where I live may be seen to be nocturnal, other Syrians in a different part of the world may be crepuscular.
Although it should be mentioned that some hamsters do (particularly Syrian hamsters) seem to follow a nocturnal routine. It should also be noted that with the use of artificial light in the home, hamsters may have a differing schedule from their ancestors or from those that have more natural light than artificial.
Myth: Hamsters make great pets for children. -or- Hamsters are cheap pets. (Thank you theFeldhamster).
Truth: Hamsters are commonly thought of as a great pet for young children or a great cheap pet. This is not the case though. First of all children typically have an early bed time, meanwhile hamsters are often not up and about until well into the night as they're crepuscular/nocturnal by nature. It is not until the child or teenager can stay up late that they may be able to handle such a schedule. Otherwise they will not see their pet very often, leading them to disturb the hamster during the day or to grow bored of it. Generally hamsters don't like to sit still for cuddles and can be difficult for young children to handle. Many hamsters have been inadvertently squished or harmed in the hands of a young child who did not understand or were incapable of understanding how to handle such a delicate animal. Every child is different and some may be ready for a pet sooner than others, but a child should be mature enough to appreciate and respect the needs of their pets. Under no circumstances should a child be given the sole responsibility of their pet, an adult should be supervising the child's interactions with the hamster at all times and the responsibility should ultimately fall upon an adult.
Also bear in mind that a hamster's cage should be be kept in the child's bedroom. At night the hamster's activities will disturb the child's sleep and during the day the child may disturb the hamster's sleep. If the hamster cage must be placed in the child's room, make sure that the cage is not placed directly next to the child's bed and that the child does not make too much noise during the day such as listening to overly loud music. It is probably best to also invest in a good, silent wheel. As for the type of a cage a bin cage or aquarium is probably the best option so that the hamster cannot chew on the bars of a wire cage during the night.
It is also important to remember that while hamsters are not the most expensive pets available they are not exactly cheap either. Hamsters have their own specialized needs such as needing a large space, their nocturnal/crepuscular schedule, special dietary needs for diabetes-prone dwarfs, etc. They may also need to a vet at some point in their life which can be quite expensive depending on your location.
Myth: Hamsters smell. (Thank you Azayles)
Truth: Any animal, even humans, will smell badly if their home isn't kept clean. Hamsters typically are not smelly animals, in fact they are quite clean and often groom themselves more often than a cat does. They are also tidy, in the wild they have separate parts of their burrows to use as a washroom which they either empty out or bury. In a cage hamsters don't have a chance to do this, so it is up to the owner to clean the cage. If the cage smells than it is in need of cleaning. The cage may also not be well ventilated in which case, modifications or a cage change may need to be in order.
Female hamster may emit a strong, musky smell when they are in heat. Not all females smell strongly when in heat and not everyone can detect this smell. Some male hamsters will also have a stronger, pungent and musky scent than others and this should not be mistaken for an issue. It isn't exactly a bad smell, just different. Both of these odours for either sex are used to attract mates and otherwise warn other animals and hamsters of their presence.
Myth: Hamsters do not require a vet? (Thank you Luci17)
Truth: While hamsters do not require vaccinations and neutering isn't often performed on such a small animal, hamsters do occasionally need a vet. Hamsters can become ill just like any other kind of animal. When they do become ill they can go downhill quite quickly so it is important not to dawdle and play the waiting game. Hamsters are also good at hiding any health problems, as prey animals they need to be good at hiding it so that they don't seem like an easy target. Watching your hamster daily for changes in behaviour, appetite, or anything out of the ordinary can help you detect if something is wrong.
It is essential to understand that hamsters should not be treated as disposable pets. The ideology that they are not worth paying vet bills for is outdated and wrong. Whether you can get another hamster for $10 is not important when it comes to being a responsible pet owner for the living being that depends completely on you.
ConclusionResearching and learning about hamsters and their care needs are vital to having happy and healthy pets. Cutting out the myths and the misconceptions surrounding hamsters can only benefit them and help others to understand the truth behind these myths. Please feel free to share this with anyone, though I do ask that you do not claim this as your own and that you link back to Hamster Hideout.
Resources and Links for Further ReadingSunflower Seeds Re-examined
Scientific Facts about Hamster Homes
And a special thank you to HoppingHammy for being such a great editor!
Edited by Christmas_hamster, 04 January 2013 - 12:44 PM.