They're cute, they're fluffy and and they're small. Yes, I'm talking about the shy and solitary hamster. To round off the end to National Pet Month 2014, I thought the hamster would be the ideal pet to mention.
Their name comes from the German word 'to hoard' which reflects the way that they collect food in their cheek pouches and store it, before they come back to it later on. In the wild it would be too dangerous to stop and eat in the open, which is why they wait until the safety of their home before they eat a treasured treat. What's amazing is that they can store up to half their body weight in these pouches!
There are 24 different species, but five members of this group are kept as pets. All fairly small in size, these include the Syrian, striped dwarf Russian, white dwarf Russian, Roborovski's dwarf hamster and the Chinese hamster.
My friend Gina's hamster Elwood was a Syrian hamster and was roughly two years old. Sometimes we looked after him when she went away and it was always fun to put him in his ball and let him run around the floor. He was pretty quick so we would often have to put cushions near the walls and doors to stop him running into them!
The Syrian breed was one of the first species of hamster to become a pet and they come in a range of colours, such as black, cinnamon and white, as well as their native golden. They are 6-7 inches high and only weigh 5-7oz. This breed tends to live longer than the other types of domesticated hamster and can live for 2-5 years.
Unlike the dwarf hamster, it is advisable to keep the Syrian breed alone. They will fight among themselves and shouldn't be kept with other hamsters past five weeks old. Dwarf hamsters can be kept in same sex pairs, but only if they are introduced when they are really young.
It's also important to take your time and let your hamster get to know you before handling them too much. Younger hamsters will bite when startled and remember they are prey animals. They are always on the lookout for predators, such as owls, that will swoop down and grab them. Therefore, when you start to handle your hamster, always scoop them up from underneath and let them sniff your hands first. This is especially significant if you have dwarf types because they move so quickly. Cup them between your hands too and that way, they will feel more secure.
Hamsters are largely nocturnal and will snooze during the day before becoming more active at night. However, their sleeping patterns has altered due to our daily lives and artificial light, so they will wake up and then settle back down to sleep several times a day. Make sure their exercise wheel doesn't squeak or you'll be in for plenty of sleepless nights, because when they wake up they like to do some vigorous exercise. Even though they only have little legs, they can run up to five miles every night!
They also don't have very good eyesight, but what they lack in sight, they make up for with their ears and nose. Hamsters have great hearing to alert them to danger in the dark and an excellent sense of smell, which enables them to forage for plenty of food.
As they are rodents, they have very strong front teeth that are perfect for opening nut shells and seed cases. They love to gnaw on anything hard, but make sure you keep an eye on their teeth because these teeth never stop growing. A vet can trim these down, but it means putting them under anesthetic which puts stress on their tiny hearts. Why not put a wooden chew block or provide them with plenty of seeds and nuts to trim these down instead?
Hamsters enjoy eating raw vegetables, but make sure you keep the portions small because too much will give them stomach upsets. They shouldn't be given too many treats as these contain fat and sugar. Food such as chocolate, grapes, oranges, apple seeds and rhubarb are poisonous and will make them ill.
If you're looking for a hamster because you can't commit to looking after another animal, such as a cat or a dog, why not try your local rescue centre? There are plenty of unwanted animals in the world that just want a home and all they need is a second chance.