The Syrian Hamster, and Why They are the Worst Beginner Species
You've likely heard at least a handful of times that Syrian hamsters are the best beginner species, but is this really true? This article will discuss why this actually may not be the case.
Oh yes, you read the title right - today we're going to be discussing the Syrian Hamster (M. auratus) and why they are oftentimes the worst species for beginners to the hobby that is hamster keeping.
Syrian hamsters are the largest of the five domesticated species, and because of this they are often said to be the best beginner species simply because many claim that their size makes them 'slower' and 'easier to handle' but in many cases, these statements could not be further from the truth and give people a false illusion as to what these hamsters are really like.
Syrian hamsters are bigger, but because of this they are also stronger and so can be much more difficult to restrain. Being a bigger, stronger hamster also means that they are capable of delivering a bigger, deeper and much more painful bite than a dwarf hamster would be capable of inflicting. Their larger size may give the illusion that they are not as fast as the smaller dwarf species, but in no world are they slow. Syrian hamsters can move, and they can move fast.
Being larger, and more stronger, Syrian hamsters are capable of delivering a much more painful, deeper bite.
In addition to being stronger, and so more difficult to restrain and capable of delivering a more painful bite, Syrian hamsters are the most demanding domesticated species in terms of space requirements. Male Syrian hamsters can sometimes be content in bare minimum sized enclosures; that is, enclosures of a footprint of 800"2 (however, I wish to stress that this is not a common occurrence, and they often require enclosures of a minimum footprint of 1,000"2+). Female Syrian hamsters however, are notorious for not being satisfied in enclosures under 1,500"2 - and many may require in excess of this, which is incredibly daunting to a beginner to the hobby, and many experienced owners at that. For a beginner with their first hamster, spending an upwards of €200 (+) on just an enclosure can be incredibly daunting; especially because these are often people who do not know if they want to continue keeping hamsters after getting their first thus it is a huge investment to make. An unhappy Syrian hamster will be relentless in their attempt to escape, and can be an incredibly stressful experience - for not only the hamster, but the human too. They will scratch at the walls of their enclosure, chew any surface they can manage to sink their teeth into, and spend every waking moment looking for an escape route instead of interacting with their environment. In many countries, Syrian hamsters are the most popular on re-home sites; and I personally believe that this is due to how restless they are when housed in unsuitable enclosures. Dwarf hamsters are much more forgiving of housing mistakes, whereas an unhappy Syrian will drive anyone to the brink of insanity with their desperation to escape.
Syrian hamsters often require large enclosures, in excess of 1,500"2. The enclosure above is 2,400"2 and is the only sized enclosure that I have personally had success in seeing both male and female Syrian hamsters truly thriving. I do not recommend Syrian hamsters to be housed in anything smaller than 1,500"2 with at least 30cm of substrate if you want a truly happy hamster.
If your hamster is visibly distressed and unhappy with their cage size, an upgrade to a larger enclosure is absolutely necessary and few people are willing or even capable of providing a Syrian with what they really need to thrive. These hamsters are a species who require very large enclosures to thrive, which often exceed 1,500"2-2,000"2 with an excess of 30cm of substrate to burrow, in addition to plentiful enrichment. As they require larger cages, more enrichment is needed to fill their enclosures and being a larger species means that their equipment is more expensive (you cannot rely solely on DIY toys; hamsters require a variety of textures in the form of cork flats/rounds, bamboo roots, grapevine, drift wood, etc for enrichment and these pieces can get costly). Because of this, these setups get very costly, very fast and keeping a Syrian hamster happy and content can become extremely overwhelming for even the most experienced keeper.
Syrian hamsters are simply not suitable for the average beginner, unless they are fully aware of the spacial requirements these animals (including male syrian hamsters!) often require and anyone - beginner, or experienced keeper - considering keeping a Syrian hamster as a pet must be willing and capable to upgrade their enclosure as required.
So if the Syrian hamster isn't often the best beginner hamster, are there any species that are more suited to those looking for their first hamster, or who just don't have the space to provide for a Syrian?
Winter White dwarf hamsters are, in my opinion, the best species for beginners to the hobby.
The term 'beginner' animal is a term hated by most, but I do believe that that are animals better suited to beginners than others. In the hamster world, the dwarf species are much easier to please than Syrians. They are can sometimes be happy in bare minimum sized enclosures of 620"2 (though it is recommended to strive for beyond this, preferably 800"2, if possible), and very rarely require enclosures in excess of 1,000"2 in order to thrive. However, not all dwarf species are suitable for folks who want a (generally) easy to tame animal that will be handleable, and these species are the Chinese dwarf and Roborovski dwarf who are best suited as observational pets as they are typically shy animals who very rarely seek or enjoy human interaction. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule and there are people with very tame Roborvski & Chinese hamsters but generally speaking, neither of these species suit folks who are looking for a hamster they can handle and interact with. If handling is a requirement, the Winter White (and hybrids) dwarf hamster can be just as sweet as Syrian hamsters and just as easy to tame. Due to their smaller size, they are also easier to handle - especially for smaller hands - and if they were to bite you, it is far from as severe as the bite a Syrian hamster is capable of inflicting. If tame, they are a very easy species to handle and interact with and once housed in a species appropriate enclosure with appropriate enrichment, are very easy to satisfy in a captive environment.
The Campells dwarf hamster look similar in appearance to the Winter White dwarf hamster, but are often more demanding in terms of spacial requirements and less forgiving if housed in small enclosures.
The Campbells dwarf can also be an option for beginners, but this species is less forgiving than the Winter White. They are naturally more territorial, and are much more likely to develop cage aggression if housed in too small of an enclosure (and are less likely than a Winter White to be satisfied in anything smaller than 1,000"2) and/or if they are not provided with adequate enrichment. They can be very sweet hamsters, but I personally recommend the Winter White dwarf for beginners/for those who do not have the space for Syrian hamsters.
*Note that this article is a complete generalisation of species and is written according to the species norm. I have experience in keeping all 5 domesticated species, and have written this article based on my experience with multiple individuals of these species. There are exceptions to every rule, and not all Winter Whites (or Syrians for that matter) will be sweet and tame. If you are not willing to care for an animal that does not meet your expectations, please do not get one or ensure that you assess the animals temperament before bringing them home.
The Syrian Hamster: An Introduction