These small rodents can be found in the wild in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, China and Siberia. All the Golden hamsters in captivity in Britain are said to be descended from one male and two females imported from Syria in 1931. A wide variety of coat colours are available and long-haired varieties and a number of different species becoming more common. For example, the Chinese hamster (Cricetulus griseus) and the Russian hamster (Phodopus sungorus) as well as the common Golden or Syrian hamster (Mesocricetus auratus).
A captive environment needs to offer space and exercise facility plus privacy and warmth. Cages should be escape-proof and gnaw-resistant and plastic or polypropylene cages are excellent. Metal cages are less than warm and comfortable while wooden cages are not gnaw-proof and are difficult to sterilise.
Hamsters need plenty of bedding which absorbs moisture. Sawdust or wood chippings can be used and peat is a useful alternative. Cotton wool should be avoided as it can cause severe constipation and any strands of material, artificial or natural, can wind around legs causing restricted blood flow.
Hamsters are best picked up by encouraging them to walk into cupped hands. Startling them will result in a bite which is more the fault of the handler than the handled!
Hamsters should be fed predominantly on commercial rodent mixes. Too often owners give too much vegetable matter and high-energy sunflower seeds. Remember that these animals are used to a fairly dry environment without many green vegetables in their diet. Using supplementation with seeds, grains, fruit and greens is useful but should not be given in excess resulting in an unbalanced diet. Water should be given freely.
The most common problem in hamsters is 'wet tail' (proliferative ileitis or transmissible ileal hyperplasia). The causes are unclear and various bacteria can be isolated from animals with the disease, which can be transmitted by direct contact. However there are probably a host of factors which predispose to the condition. The small intestine in these cases is thickened, which may cause the signs resulting in death in the early stages of the disease but also just when the animal seems to be recovering. Treatment with antibiotics works only rarely and the vital factor is supportive therapy with fluids for animals with fairly rampant diarrhoea.
Interestingly, antibiotics can themselves cause intestinal upset and should not be given by mouth if at all possible.
As with all rodents, hamsters' teeth grow continually and have to be worn down all the time. When there is malocclusion (teeth do not grind together satisfactorily) there will be severe problems of teeth overgrowing. This causes gum ulceration and subsequent pain and failure to eat adequately.
In hamsters a gut parasite (Hymenolepis nana) is a significant problem and can lead to intestinal obstruction. It can be treated by your veterinary surgeon, as can pinworms, although many consider these not to be a clinical problem in hamsters.
In hamsters, as with other rodents, respiratory disease is common and can be caused by viruses or bacteria. Because hamsters are kept singly by most owners the sort of respiratory problems seen in big colonies of mice and rats are less likely to occur.
Problems of hair loss, scratching and red skin may be related to a mite called Demodex or to a fungus, Ringworm. Both of these can be diagnosed by a skin and hair sample examined under the microscope. There are effective treatments for both these conditions.