Syrian hamsters originate in the Middle East (particularly Israel and Syria). Most of the Syrian hamsters available as pets or show animals today can trace their ancestry back to a mother and her 12 pups caught in Aleppo, Syria, by Professor Aharoni in 1930.
The Syrian hamster was thought to be extinct in the wild as no sightings had been made of wild Syrian hamsters since the 1980’s. However expeditions in 1997 and 1999 found some wild Syrian hamsters. 19 were caught and now form the nucleus of a captive breeding programme in Germany. The wild Syrian hamster is currently classified as endangered.
The Syrian Hamster is generally about 5 ½ inches (13 cm) in length, although some can be little larger. Females are often larger than the males. They are stocky animals with large eyes, tulip shaped ears, and a very short tail. The Syrian hamster is sometimes known as “the Golden Hamster”. The original wild colour of the Syrian hamster is golden brown ticked with black on the upper two-thirds of the body. The belly fur is white with a grey undercoat. They also possess black cheek flashes and cheek-pouches that can carry a large amount of food to store back in their burrows. In the wild and in captivity they are fiercely territorial and will attack any other hamster that ventures into their space. In the wild the female will only tolerate the male briefly for mating. She will attack him at all other times. In the wild and in captivity Syrian hamsters are solitary animals and must be housed on their own.
Syrian hamsters are bred in four different coat types – Shorthaired, Longhaired, Satin and Rex. The Longhaired Syrian is a lovely animal, but it is only the male who develops a really long coat. The male longhaired Syrian’s coat often grows to 3 or 4 inches long – some have even had longer coats than this. The long coat of the male Syrian creates a “skirt” of hair around their back end. In contrast, female longhaired Syrians just look fluffy.
The Satin Syrian has a very beautiful glossy sheen to the coat. Some of the hair shafts are hollow creating the ultra shiny coat. Two Satin Syrians should not be bred together as they will produce either bald hamsters or hamsters with sparse coats.
The Rex hamster looks as though its whiskers and coat have been crimped.
COLOURS AND PATTERNS
Many new colours were developed in Syrian hamsters during the latter part of last century. Commonly available colours include Golden, White, Cream, Cinnamon, Sable, Black and Silver Grey.
The Syrian hamster is also bred with patterned coats. These patterns are the Banded, Dominant Spot, Tortoiseshell and White, Tortoiseshell, and Roan.
The Banded Syrian has a band of white around its middle. The rest of the hamster can be any of the available colours. The Dominant Spot Syrian hamster is a very attractive creature which has even patches of colour on a white ground. The Tortoiseshell has patches of colour mixed with patches of black, and in the case of the Tortoiseshell and White with patches of white as well. The Roan Syrian has a coat where the colour is mingled with white hairs to give “flecked” look.
A detailed description of all of the colours of Syrian hamsters that are currently available can be found on the National Hamster Council website.
Syrian hamsters are solitary animals and MUST be housed on their own.
It can be very confusing to see Syrian hamsters housed together in a pet shop or at a breeder’s establishment and to then be told that they must be kept on their own. However, the Syrian hamsters sold in pet shops or kept together in a breeder’s cage are youngsters under 8 weeks of age. After this age Syrian hamsters start to squabble and these squabbles eventually lead to very nasty fights.
Syrian hamsters should be housed in as big a cage as possible. They are large active animals and need space to move around.
There are a number of different companies which manufacture cages suitable for Syrians. Some cages designed for rats, such as the Ferplast Mary cage, are very suitable for Syrians. Many cages have plastic tunnels attached. These can lead to problems with poor ventilation and with the diameter of the tubes – some Syrians grow too large to fit through some of these tubes comfortably.
TEMPERAMENT AND ENRICHMENT
Syrian hamsters need lots of attention and they can become very attached to their owners. When their owners are not able to spend time with them, they need to be provided with lots of things to do. A bored hamster is an unhappy hamster, so provide your hamster with lots of toys. Toys suitable for Syrian hamsters can include wheels, which they love (not for longhairs), wooden log rolls (check carefully for any sharp bits in the wood), cardboard tubes, cardboard boxes such as cereal boxes, and ceramic and plastic houses. Your local pet shop or garden centre will often have a good selection of toys for you to choose from.
Syrian hamsters are able to breed at the age of 4 weeks. The male pups should be removed from their mothers and sisters by this age.
The female Syrian comes into season every 4 days. A female Syrian hamster will indicate that she is ready to mate by standing stock-still, with her tail and rump up in the air. If she is in season she will “stand” for the male. If she is not she will attack him.
To mate the hamsters place the male and female Syrian in a neutral space – such as a cardboard box- or in the male’s cage. NEVER put the male in the female’s cage – she will attack him, and possibly cause serious injury. If the female is “standing” leave them together for about 20 minutes. (It is best to supervise them in case the female decides that she has had enough and attacks the male). Then return each hamster to its own cage.
The female has a gestation period of just 16 days, one of the shortest gestations known in mammals. The pups are born naked, blind, and helpless.
Do not disturb the mother for the first two weeks as she may kill her pups. Just change her food and water as normal and leave her in peace. The pups develop very quickly. By fourteen days of age the pups are sampling food and water, and, much to mum’s disgust, are exploring the cage. The mother will often be seen pulling a pup back into the nest by its leg or tail alongside protest squeaks from the pup. Don’t worry about this – it’s perfectly normal behaviour, and, contrary to how it looks, mum is not harming her pups.
The pups can be handled when they are fourteen days old. At first it is perhaps best to remove the mother from the cage as she may be over protective if she sees you trying to pick up her pups. Place her in a travel box with a tasty treat. Rub your hands in the bedding so that you have the pup’s smell on you. This helps the pups to accept you a friend rather than foe. Then gently pick up each pup, one by one, with your hands over the bedding. The pups will be nervous and jumpy at this stage so it is best to only have your hands a few inches above the bedding so that the pup doesn’t have far to fall if it makes a break for it! After you have handled all of the pups return the mother to the cage. She will patrol her cage and investigate each of the pups, and then should settle down. Repeat this daily and the pups will soon be tame.
Article by Heather Carol for the Southern Hamster Club