Known unofficially as “pocket pets,” hamsters are sweet, cute and docile little critters, right? Wrong. Although undeniably adorable, hamsters can be fiercely territorial animals, and will fight if they feel their turf is being invaded. Even males from the same litter will attack each other on occasion.
Since their domestication in 1930, several varieties of hamsters have become common. The three basic groups that are now popular as pets are the Golden hamster, the shorthaired Fancy hamster, and the longhaired Teddy Bear hamster. Less common, but equally winsome, are the small, dark brown creatures known as Chinese or Dwarf hamsters. These hamsters, often used for biomedical research, are recognizable by both their diminutive size and the distinctive and elegant pattern of black stripes running across their backs. But whatever their markings, coloration, size or breed, hamsters share one common trait: aggression toward their own kind.
A day in the life
Hamsters are solitary animals, and so are not dependent on the company of other hamsters for their well-being. They dig burrows, create nests and will hibernate if the temperature drops. They are nocturnal, sleeping during the day and becoming active at night, when they search for fruit, vegetables, grains, worms and insects. They carry and hoard their food in their large cheek pouches.
Hamsters use their flank organs (glands located in the hip region) for marking territory. They can grow anxious and alarmed if their food stashes have been moved or depleted. Fearless in combat, they will bite, claw and scratch their perceived enemies.
This aggression is not restricted to males. Females are bigger than males, and they are also more aggressive. They have been known to kill their mates, and even their young. For this reason, it’s best to house hamsters in separate cages, except during breeding. In fact, breeding is one of the few instances in which hamsters do not display aggression toward each other. (Lactation is the other.) Often, the chattering of teeth and a high-pitched shriek precedes an attack; any hamsters exhibiting this behavior should be separated immediately.
If the female is bred, it’s essential to provide her with ample nesting and bedding, as well as plenty of fresh food and water before the babies are born. Once the babies arrive, she should not be disturbed for at least a week. When a mother hamster feels threatened, she may respond by killing and eating her young. Or she may stuff the pups into her cheek pouches and frantically tote them around the cage, trying to find a secure place in which to establish a nest. The newborn pups can easily suffocate as a result, especially if they are in cheeks for any length of time.
So while hamsters can make entertaining and engaging pets, it’s crucial to understand the impulses that govern their behavior and to handle them accordingly. Keeping hamsters in discreet environments will help ensure both their safety and longevity.