Ultimate Guide To Syrian Hamsters

By Dawn | Filed under:  Hamster Species

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Having looked previously at Roborovski hamsters, this time it’s the turn of the Syrian hamster.  Syrian hamsters are low-maintenance pets for sure but it’s good to know a little bit about them before buying (or indeed if you already own one), so that’s where this guide comes in.

Let’s take a step back in time now and learn where they were discovered and how they became the much loved pets they are today.

When were syrian hamsters discovered?

The first documented evidence for the Syrian hamster dates all the way back to 1797.  This first evidence was detailed in a book called the Natural History of Aleppo by Alexandra Russell, second edition (Amazon, #CommissionsEarned) and it was in this book that hamsters were first recorded as being present in the mount Aleppo region of Syria.

It wasn’t until 1839, some 40 years later, that George Waterhouse named and classified the Syrian hamster, then known as the “Golden hamster”.  In this year, after he returned from Syria, he presented a skull and skin of a hamster to the Zoological Society in London.  You can even see these remains today at the Natural History Museum in London.

A description, which could quite easily be that of the Syrian hamster, was published in the Zoological Society’s proceedings in 1840.  Here’s what was written:

“..and is remarkable for its deep golden yellow colouring.  The fur is moderately long and very soft and has silk-like gloss; the deep yellow colouring extends over the upper parts and the sides of the head and body and also over the outer parts of the limbs; on the back the hairs are brownish at the tips, hence this part of the fur assumes a deeper hue than on the sides of the body; the sides of the throat and upper parts of the body are white, but faintly tinted with yellow; on the back and sides of the body, all hairs are of a deep grey or lead colour at the base.  The feet and tail are white.  The ears are of moderate size, furnished externally with whitish hairs.  The moustaches consist of black and white hairs intermixed…”.

About 40 years later in 1880, a group of hamsters were brought to Edinburgh, Scotland by British diplomat James Henry Skene on his retirement. These were probably the first time that hamsters were brought to the UK, but unfortunately the colony died out after 30 years for reasons which are unknown.

Syrian hamster domestication

Today’s Syrian hamsters are thought to have descended from one mother hamster and her litter.  In 1930, Professor Israel Aharoni captured the mother and young from a burrow eight feet down near mount Aleppo.

Although the reports vary in terms of how many were actually captured, how many escaped and how many actually survived to adulthood, the general consensus was that there were about eleven babies and the mother.

Unfortunately when the mother and the babies were placed into a colony box, the mother killed one of the babies. So to stop this from happening again to the rest of the letter, the professor put the mother to sleep humanely.  As a result, the ten babies which did survive, whose eyes were still closed, had to be hand-reared.

Things then took a turn for the worse and they all escaped, fortunately however, nine of them were recaptured and were taken back to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem where five of them escaped again, this time through the wooden bottom of their cage.

Thankfully the remaining four were bred very successfully and then in 1931, the hamsters were dispatched to various countries including the UK to ensure that the species survived in the event of natural disasters striking the original colony.  Syrian hamsters arrived in the US a few years later in 1938.

By 1937 hamsters had made the transition from laboratory to being kept as pets and by 1935 many people were keeping and breeding hamsters and forming clubs.

In 1949 the National Hamster Council in the UK was inaugurated which is now known as the oldest hamster organisation in the world.

By the late 1940s and 1950s the Syrian hamster gained in popularity as a pet and in the middle of the 1980s hamster enthusiasts started to form clubs, although these were combined clubs dedicated not just to hamsters, but to rats, mice and other rodents too.

It wasn’t until the late 1990s that clubs started to form that were solely dedicated to hamsters.

Although the hamsters found by Aharoni in 1930 were thought to be the origins of all hamsters today, another litter of twelve were found in 1971 in Aleppo.  Early records show that these were hand-tame and very tractable and within three days of handling them, they arrived in the US and also bred very successfully.

Another discovery in 1978 meant that two female hamsters were captured, again in Aleppo, and taken to the US.

A final discovery was made in 1982 where two hamsters were captured but only one of them survived.  Again this was a female hamster and this was brought to the UK.

Syrian hamsters in the wild

Hamsters are solitary animals and generally live as individuals in the wild.  Although you will often find mother and father living together with their young until they have reached sexual maturity.

The majority of Syrians in the wild live in the Aleppinian Plateau in Syria, although some Syrian hamsters have also been reported in areas of Eastern Turkey. 

Historically Syrian hamsters lived in open fields or steppes, but as these areas became much more populated, they’ve moved into agricultural areas.

Hamsters are burrowers and dig their own burrows using only their feet and teeth.  The burrows that they dig can be between two and ten feet deep and usually consist of several entrances.

Burrows consist of several chambers, usually around 3-5, the largest of which is a pantry where they store their food.  The second largest chamber in the burrow is used as a nesting or sleeping area and is usually thick with grass leaves and whatever else the hamster finds on their tours that they think is comfy.

Hamsters spend a great deal of time in the burrows when it is hot and also use them to bring up their young and use them to rest during the winter.

In addition to a pantry and a nesting area, hamsters also have a toilet chamber.  Hamsters are extremely clean animals and hygiene is very important to them, so they normally keep this chamber far away from their nesting and food supplies.

In the wild, hamsters can hibernate in response to the cold weather and when food is in short supply, but they do wake up periodically to nibble on the food that they have stored in their burrow.

Interestingly, research by A. Terada and N. Ibuka has shown that older Syrians start their hibernation earlier and spend more time in sleeping mode than younger hamsters.

Syrian hamsters are crepuscular and nocturnal which means they are active at dawn and dusk and asleep at most times during the day, although they do wake up occasionally to eat and drink.

It is at night time that Syrian hamsters go foraging for food and they can cover as much as eight miles over the course of a single evening.  They usually leave the nest between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. and return around 4 a.m. to 5 a.m before they are discovered by predators.  For this reason they will not be found outside the nest during the day.

Syrians must collect as much food as they can during the short harvest season in the summer and use this as their winter supply.  So a hamster will collect lots of grains, fruit, herbs and seeds in their large cheek pouches and bring them to their burrow. They then empty them using their front feet to help shove the food out from behind.  

Pouches provide a very practical way of carrying large amounts of food back to burrow and they can get so full, that they often swing from side to side with the added weight.

Hamsters forage for food using their excellent hearing and great sense of smell to find food because they don’t have great eyesight.

What do syrian hamsters look like?

Syrians are well-rounded, have a broad body and head, large erect, tulip-shaped ears and have large wide-set eyes.

Many describe them as looking like a miniature bear, which is true, especially when they’re sat down.

The very first Syrians were called ‘golden hamsters’ because of their golden brown fur.  They also had a creamy white belly and chest and some of them also had a ashy gray stripe across the chest.

Originally the only colors of fur that were available were shades of their original golden color, however natural mutations of this color have followed and Syrians have been selectively bred to produce different colors.

In terms of their eyes, these may be black, brown or even a shade of red and their coats may be long or short.

In the US, long-haired hamsters are called ‘teddy bear hamsters’. It is common practice for the color or pattern to be used in its name instead of ‘Syrian’.  Another example is a ‘satin hamster’ and a banded Syrian is called a ‘panda bear’ hamster.

A Syrian hamster’s cheek pouches can also change their appearance especially when they’re full.  Fully loaded cheek pouches can even make a hamster look like they’re wearing a large fur collar.

Aside from their appearance, a hamster’s cheek pouches provide a very practical way of caring large amounts of food back to the burrow.

What do syrian hamsters eat in the wild?

Syrian hamsters are omnivores, so in the wild, they will feed mainly on plants, seeds, fruit and vegetables.  

They also eat ants, cockroaches, flies and wasps to enable them to get enough protein into their diets.

What do pet hamsters eat?

Pet Syrian hamsters should be fed on a good quality commercial hamster mix which is usually made up of seeds, grains, nuts and dried pellets that are nutritionally balanced to contain between 17-19% protein, 4-7% fat and 6-15% fibre.  These hamster mixes are readily available from pet stores, or on Amazon (#CommissionsEarned), but care must be taken to make sure that they are of good quality and safe for your hamster to eat.

Seed diets are also sold in pet stores, and although Syrians eat a lot of seeds in the wild, they’re diet is much more varied because of the scarcity of food in their environment.  In other words, they grab what they can. 

So it’s important that these seed diets are used to supplement their staple hamster mix diets, mainly because they’re high in fat and can lead to obesity and potential nutritional deficiencies if that is all that is given to them.  They can also go rancid if they’re not stored properly

You can feed hamsters fresh foods and greens and cooked lean meats but these must be given in moderation.  Some foods should be completely avoided such as Clementines (because they are too acidic for them).  You should also avoid anything that is on this list of foods that hamsters can’t eat, as some of them can be detrimental to a hamster’s health.

Hamsters are also quite small, so they only eat about 12 grams of food per day and eat the majority of it at night.  They also hoard a lot of their food in their nesting area and in other corners of their cage, so it might look as if they eat more than they actually do!

How big does a syrian hamster get?

Syrian hamsters grow between 6 and 8 inches and weigh between 5 and 7 ounces and their tail is about a half an inch long.  Syrian females also tend to be bigger than males.

Syrians are significantly smaller than common hamsters (Cricetus cricetus) that frequent eastern Europe and western Asia, but are larger than Roborovski’s desert hamsters (Phodopus roborovskii) found in areas of China and Mongolia.

Because Syrians are bigger than most other hamster species, they are often easier to handle and therefore work well as a children’s pet.  Syrians are also significantly less nervous and move around a lot more slowly than smaller dwarf hamster types and generally respond well to gentle handling and seem to enjoy it.

How long do syrian hamsters live for?

Syrian hamsters have relatively short lifespans and live between 1.5 to 2 years on average but they can live nearly twice as long in captivity than they do in the wild.

How long a hamster lives often comes down to how good their genetics are so there’s not much you can do to make them live longer.  For example, some hamsters may show clear signs of aging at only two years old whilst others are still fit at three and some have even managed to make it to almost for years old!

When you consider the metabolic rate of hamsters, which is about 76 breaths a minute with a heart rate of between 250 and 500 beats per minute, it is easy to understand why they don’t live very long.

What eats hamsters?

Syrian hamsters serve as a food source for many different predators including foxes, mustelids, birds of prey, and snakes. To avoid predators, they seek shelter in their burrows and they’re extremely vigilant.

Hamsters will also defend themselves using their large incisors and if females think their young are in danger, they will carry them away to safety in their cheek pouches.

Despite being prey animals, their rapid reproductive rate means that Syrian hamster populations can withstand relatively high rates of predation.

Impact of Syrian hamsters on the environment

As mentioned previously, Syrian hamsters serve as a food source for many other animals.  Also because Syrians have a diet consisting mainly of seeds and grains, they disperse these seeds because many of them are lost in the process of taking them to their burrows.  Abandoned hamster burrows are also used by other animals such as toads.

Although Syrian hamsters generally have a positive effect on the environment, they do have some negative effects as well.  For example, Syrian hamsters are often considered as agricultural pests in the wild.  As a result, rodenticides are used by farmers to help them control the numbers.

Hamsters have a high reproductive rate because of their short gestation period and their ability to spontaneously ovulate and as a result they can quickly establish large colonies.  As such, hamsters are illegal in Hawaii and California because they have desert-like climates which are favored by hamsters and should they ever escape into the wild,they would pose a significant problem for agriculture and other species.

Are Syrian hamsters endangered?

Syrian hamsters are listed as vulnerable by the IUCN and this is mainly due to the small geographic range that they occupy and their localized distribution.

The greatest threat to wild populations is human encroachment on their habitat and because they are seen as agricultural pests, they continue to be trapped and poisoned.

However, the good news is that because Syrian hamsters are widely kept as pets and used a lot in research, so the species is in no danger of becoming extinct although wild populations are under threat.

Reproduction

Syrian hamsters can breed like wildfire, which helps to keep their numbers up in the wild, which is essential being the prey animals that they are.  In captivity, Syrian hamsters can have young hamsters every month of the year; although fertility is decreased in winter months and after they are about a year and half old.

Litter size is usually between 4-12 pups after a gestation period of just 15-18 days.  When the young are about 10 days old, they begin nibbling on solid food and are weaned at 3 weeks old.

Young males become sexually mature at 42 days old, whereas females are slightly earlier at 34 days.

When hamsters are born, they are undeveloped and need lots of help at birth and are born with their eyes closed. They first open their eyes after about 12 to 14 days.

Once Syrians are beyond the dates of sexual maturity, they need to be separated, otherwise they will begin to fight.  If you put different sexes together in the same cage, they’ll fight and mate.  If you put two Syrians of the same sex into the same cage, they’ll fight.

It’s possible to have two Syrians that get along when they’re young, but they will more than likely fight together in the future.

If you do house them together, which I completely advise against, then what will probably happen is that you’ll hear sounds of tussling and shrill squeaks in the night.  At this point, there’s a high risk of injury to one or both of the hamsters which can lead to death if you don’t intervene.

Spare your sleep and the health of your hamsters and get them separate housing.

Caring for Syrian hamsters

Syrian hamsters are very low maintenance pets, especially when you compare them to other animals such as dogs and cats for example.  As such, they are great pets for children, although they’re not for very young children because they tend to wake up late into the evening.  

Hamsters are nocturnal/crepuscular which means they’re most active at dusk and dawn.  Our hamster wakes up late in the evening, however he has been known to stock up his cheek pouches and have a drink during the day.  He doesn’t hang around though and tends to go back to his nest after a few minutes.

Caring for hamsters is very straightforward although there are some things you do need to be aware of; many of which are covered in detail in my hamster care guide.  But in essence, hamsters need very little other than a large cage, food, water, bedding, a wheel for exercise and some chews and chew toys to keep them from being bored and to help keep their continually growing teeth in check. 

You will also have to spend time taming your hamster and getting them used to being handled to prevent them from biting.  Once they are tame, they will take food from your hands and will happily sit on your lap and let you pet them.  They will also enjoy having the freedom and exercise to run around in a playpen.

Are Syrian hamsters friendly?

Yes, Syrian hamsters are friendly hamsters, but because they are prey animals, they do need to be tamed.  Once they are tamed, they are great fun to keep, and you can establish quite a strong bond with your hamster.

Our Syrian hamster Richmond is very tame and friendly now, although in the beginning, he had a habit of biting.  However, with perseverance, we’ve managed to get him to sit still on our lap whilst being petted.  We try to get Richmond out of its cage as often as possible and interact with him to help maintain the bond we have with him.

Do Syrian hamsters bite?

Yes, Syrian hamsters do bite, either because they are frightened (and therefore need taming) or because they mistake your finger for food.  

Hamsters are not aggressive animals and they don’t bite because they hate you, but because they are prey animals, they do need a way of protecting themselves when they get scared.

Hamsters don’t have great eyesight and rely a lot on their sense of smell and hearing to know what’s going on around them.  If you handle your hamster after eating, then your hamster can mistake you for food, so it’s important that you wash your hands thoroughly with scent-free soap before handling your hamster.

What is a teddy bear hamster?

A teddy bear hamster is a “nickname” for the long-haired Syrian hamster, also known as the Golden hamster and originates from Syria.  In its natural habitat, they live in deep burrows and come out at night to forage for food.

What’s the difference between teddy bear and syrian hamsters?

Teddy bear hamsters are Syrian hamsters with a nickname given to the long-haired variety to help differentiate them.  They are not a species of hamster in their own right.

Because Syrians have now been selectively bred for different colors, patterns and hair types, breeders have used these names instead of ‘Syrian’.

For example the ‘Panda Bear hamster’ is a Syrian hamster with a banded pattern and a hairless Syrian is called an ‘alien hamster’, although they aren’t as readily available as the furred type and are not as appealing either.

You may also come across a ‘black bear hamster’, which is just a Syrian hamster with black fur.

What is a fancy hamster?

A ‘fancy hamster’ is the nickname given to Syrians that have short-hair.

Wrapping Up

In this guide to Syrian hamsters, we’ve taken a step back in time and learned all about their history, what they’re like in the wild and how they came to be our beloved pets.  

We’ve also learnt about predation, conservation status and how to care for hamsters as pets.  If you already have a Syrian hamster or you’re undecided whether or to bring one home, then I hope this guide has been useful to you and you now have a greater knowledge and appreciation for these amazing animals.