Humans domesticated hamsters over 200 years ago, but there is still plenty to learn about these furry companions. From quirky behaviors to their high intelligence, hamsters are so much more than they seem.
Whether they’re running free in the wild or cuddling up to their caretakers, every hamster has a unique personality on show. Keep reading to discover some surprising facts about their behavior and physiology!
1. Hamsters are Nocturnal in Captivity
In the wild, hamsters must hide or run to evade their numerous predators. These instincts are so ingrained that even pet hamsters feel the need to hide, and many do so when their humans are most active during the day.
Hamsters sleep for about 12 to 14 hours a day. When there’s a lot of sound, light, and movement, their instincts tell them it’s safer to run back to the burrow and wait until everything dies down.
Their schedule may change with different personalities and conditions. Some pet hamsters naturally take on the crepuscular habits of their wild cousins, while others become diurnal like the humans that care for them.
Providing your hamster with a more natural environment and taking time to socialize them helps synchronize them with your schedule.
2. Hamsters Sometimes Eat Their Babies
Rodents do what they can, but they aren’t winning any “Mom of the Year” awards. If they suspect something is wrong with their babies, it’s not unusual for the mother to eat a few (or the whole litter).
This is more common with first-time hamster moms, as they’re more likely to become overwhelmed, but any adult hamster around the babies may make this decision. This is why it’s so important to separate the father as soon as the babies are born.
Sometimes it happens by accident when they try to move them and store them in their cheeks instead, but stress from a poorly designed environment or someone handling the pups can trigger this response.
There’s not a lot you can do if mom decides to go this route, but setting up a safe space before she gives birth paves the way for a happier ending.
3. Hamsters are Rodents
Rodents are a rather vague and diverse order that make up about 40 percent of known mammal species. Hamsters belong to the subfamily Cricetinae, and share several features with the 1,500 species in their extended family.
Like all rodents, hamsters have a single pair of incisor teeth that never stop growing to allow them to gnaw on food without losing the tools needed to eat. They’re small, making them prey for many, but fast and agile enough to evade the most keen of predators.
Because the order Rodentia is so large, we also see areas where hamsters fall outside the norm. Unlike many others, they prefer to live solitary lives. They’re also omnivorous, while most rodents stick to a herbivorous diet.
4. Hamster Teeth Never Stop Growing
As mentioned, hamsters have large incisor teeth that never stop growing. These elodont teeth do not have roots and grow about 1 mm per day. Because of this, it’s important to provide pet hamsters with plenty of hay and wooden objects to chew on.
Hamster teeth are pretty hard, about a 5.5 on the Mohs scale of hardness (iron sits at 4). They have strong enamel on the front to keep the teeth healthy, but the lack of enamel on the back allows them to chisel them down as they gnaw on food and other objects.
Researchers have recently discovered these incisor teeth contain active stem cells. They hope to use this knowledge to fuel advances in the regrowth of human teeth.
5. Hamsters Have Poor Eyesight from Birth
Hamsters are born blind, but it doesn’t get much better when they open their eyes around 2 weeks old. Because they’re built to live primarily in tunnels, hamster eyesight doesn’t extend much further than the tip of their nose.
They see much better in dim light than bright light, with the latter nearly blinding them. Regardless, hamsters rely more on their whiskers and their sense of smell to navigate. Their strong scent glands leave a trail for them to follow when returning home.
This is why it’s so important to offer hamsters a single-level enclosure with plenty of burrow space. They often won’t realize they’re up on a ledge until it’s too late, and even a short fall can lead to issues like broken bones, internal injuries, or death.
6. Hamsters Sometimes Bite
Hamsters would prefer to run from danger, but biting works well as a last line of defense. If they’re backed into a corner or caught off guard, a quick bite may have their pursuer rethinking their plan.
While most hamsters are not aggressive, some species are more territorial. A dwarf hamster is more likely to draw blood than a Syrian hamster, but a bite from either hurts.
To prevent bites, you want to make sure your hamster is comfortable in their environment. They should have plenty of spaces to run and hide, a quiet space, and plenty of warning before you try to handle them.
Because hamsters have a better sense of smell than sight, they may also mistake unwashed hands for a tasty treat. Cleaning up before handling them, proper socialization, and patience are the best ways to minimize your risk of getting nipped.
7. Hamsters Die Easily
Being small and cute works in several areas of life, but it doesn’t make for hardy creatures. With proper care, most hamsters only live 2 to 3 years.
Overbreeding also contributes to genetic issues, like heart failure, that shorten a pet hamster’s life span. When breeding for supply, most of these hamster mills don’t pay attention to these problems or follow proper breeding practices.
You can do your part by seeking out reputable breeders and providing a safe space, proper enrichment, and a healthy diet for your hamster. Understanding signs of illness in hamsters allows you to act fast when problems arise.
8. Hamsters May Hibernate
Most species of hamsters don’t hibernate in cold weather, but the Syrian hamster is one that will. As permissive hibernators, this only occurs under certain conditions (usually if the temperature drops too low).
If the ambient temperature drops below 65° F for more than 24 hours, it kicks off this instinct. A Syrian hamster will block itself off in its burrow, waking only about once a week to snack from its stash.
Hamsters look dead during this time. Their heart rate drops from 400 bpm to only 4, and they only take about 2 breaths per minute. Hamster owners should look for these short, irregular breaths and note limpness (rather than stiffness) when picking them up.
Because it’s easy for hamsters to dehydrate during this time, it’s best to prevent hibernation.
9. There are Over 20 Hamster Species
There are over 20 species of hamsters across the globe, but we usually see one of four as pets:
- Golden/Syrian/Teddy Bear Hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus)
- Winter White Dwarf Hamsters (Phodopus sungorus)
- Campbell’s Dwarf Hamsters (Phodopus campbelli)
- Roborovski Dwarf Hamsters (Phodopus roborovskii)
In the wild, hamsters exist across the globe. They originated in Syria, but now live in areas like Greece, Belgium, and northern China.
Some, like the European Hamster (Cricetus cricetus), fall on the endangered species list. This particular hamster has been reduced to just 25 percent of its native range because of issues like agriculture, residential development, and climate change. Recent efforts have seen the population bounce back, but they’re nowhere near where they used to be.
10. Hamsters are Banned in Hawaii
Hamsters are just one of a long list of animals that are illegal to bring to the Hawaiian islands. Hawaii’s climate set the stage for a loose hamster to settle down and start a family.
Because they reproduce so quickly, the invasive species wouldn’t take long to disrupt the environment. The flora and fauna native to the islands evolved together, achieving balance in a unique setting. The slightest upset could have major effects on wildlife as well as the agriculture islanders rely on.
11. Hamsters are Smarter than You Think
As you would expect, hamster brains are tiny (less than the size of your smallest fingernail). While their brain only weighs about as much as a mint, it resembles the human brain and shares many of our functions.
Hamsters can connect certain words to items and functions. They recognize their name, and some people have been able to train them to follow commands like dogs. Some studies observe wild hamsters' high spatial intelligence as they utilize visual memory when foraging.
They may not be tricksters or extremely social, like rats or guinea pigs, but they recognize the need for cleanliness in their body and their habitat. Hamsters also exhibit different personalities and moods that may be influenced by their conditions and own sense of self.
12. Hamsters can Run Fast and Far
Despite their small size, hamsters know how to get around. The average hamster sprints at a speed of 8 miles per hour. Comparatively, humans walk around 3 miles per hour.
What’s most surprising is how far a hamster can go in a single night. Most run an average of 5 miles while they’re awake. This may not seem like a lot, but the average human walks less than 2 miles daily.
Their need for speed allows them to escape predators easily. Hamsters have quick reflexes and can even flatten their bodies or do flips to get where they’re going. The small size and shape of their hind feet also allow them to run backward just as fast as they run forward for an expeditious retreat.