If you’re considering adopting a hamster, you’re in for a treat! Hamsters are one of the most popular small pets in the world for a reason. They’re adorable, loveable, and relatively easy to take care of.
However, there are some important things to be aware of before you choose to become a hamster parent. One of those essentials worth considering is the fact that there are 24 different species of hamster.
- Golden (Syrian Hamster)
- Roborovski Hamster
- Campbell’s Dwarf Russian Hamster
- Winter White Dwarf Russian Hamster
- Chinese Hamster
Although there are two dozen hamster species in the world, there are five species that make the most popular pets. Below, we detail the most important things to know about the five most popular hamster species kept as pets.
Note: It’s important to mention that almost all dwarf hamsters in the pet trade, even if labeled as “Djungarian” or “Campbell’s” hamsters, are hybrids of the two species. Hybrid hamsters may display more traits of one species or the other, but they may display traits of the other species as well.
1. Golden (Syrian) Hamster
Consensus: Syrian hamsters are generally considered the best “beginner” hamsters. They’re easier to handle and larger in size than other hamsters. However, they can actually be very difficult to please and care for.
- Size: 5 to 9 inches; about 5 ounces
- Appearance: Several colors, patterns, and fur-length variations exist; most commonly golden brown with a lighter-colored belly
- Lifespan: 2 to 4 years
- Personality: Easier to train and handle than other hamster species, but fully nocturnal and rarely active in the daytime; highly territorial with other hamsters
Mesocricetus auratus, also known as the teddy bear hamster, the golden hamster, and the Syrian hamster, is the most popular pet hamster species.
They’re usually golden brown in color, but many other varieties are available through selective breeding.
Golden hamsters are one of the easiest to handle and bond with, and they’re larger in size than other species, making them the most popular hamster species for children and new hamster owners.
However, they can be difficult to please when it comes to their enclosure, as well as messier (and smellier) than other hamsters.
This species is fully nocturnal, which can make bonding with them during the day more difficult. The best time to interact with a Syrian hamster is early in the morning or late at night.
It’s also important to keep them in a quiet area where they can have peace and privacy while they sleep during the day.
2. Roborovski Hamster
Consensus: Roborovski hamsters are the smallest breed kept as pets and prefer not to be handled.
- Size: 2 to 3 inches; about 1 ounce
- Appearance: Sandy brown with white markings and a white belly
- Lifespan: About 3 years
- Personality: Highly active and happiest without regular handling; well-known escape artists
Phodopus roborovski, or the Roborovski hamster, is the smallest species of hamster kept as a pet. Roborovskis are fast-moving and highly active, and they’re known to make quick escapes.
Because they’re so small and quick, hamster owners recommend keeping a Roborovski hamster in a glass aquarium with a mesh lid, rather than a cage with bars.
Although pet shops and some pet blogs state that you can keep “robo” hamsters together in an enclosure, it’s not recommended. While this species lives in loose colonies in their natural habitat, they don’t occupy the same small space and only really interact for breeding purposes. They prefer to live alone and won’t get lonely if solitary.
Roborovskis can get bored easily, so they need plenty of toys and activities (including a wheel like this one) to keep them entertained.
3. Campbell’s Dwarf Russian Hamster
Consensus: Campbell’s dwarf hamsters can be amazing pets, but they’re known to be stubborn and even grumpy.
- Size: Up to 4 inches; about 2 ounces
- Appearance: Dusty brown with a dark stripe down its back and white markings
- Lifespan: About 2 years
- Personality: Can be assertive and stubborn; friendly if handled from a young age
Phodopus campbelli or the Campbell’s dwarf Russian hamster, is known for having an assertive, stubborn personality. However, many hamster owners find them to have more personality than other species.
Campbell’s hamsters can be extremely fast and agile, and they’re prone to nipping if displeased. For that reason, many hamster owners recommend only adopting this species if you have prior hamster-owning experience.
Campbell’s dwarfs can sometimes get along in pairs or same-sex groups. However, it’s not recommended and can be dangerous for your hamsters.
While Syrian hamsters are completely nocturnal, these dwarf hamsters sometimes wake up for short periods of time during the day. This can make it easier to interact with your hamsters if you prefer to do so while the sun is up.
4. Dwarf Winter White Russian Hamster
Consensus: Winter white Russian hamsters are similar to Campbell’s dwarf hamsters with a different look and slightly more friendly temperament. They make a great pet for a beginner (adult) hamster owner.
- Size: Up to 4 inches, about 1.5 ounces
- Appearance: Grey fur that can turn white in the winter; short face and a round body
- Lifespan: Up to 3 years
- Personality: Good-natured and relatively easy to tame
Phodopus sungorus, or dwarf winter white hamsters are docile and easier to handle than other species, including Campbell’s hamsters. However, they’re still just as quick and agile as other dwarf hamsters, as well as relatively fragile.
They can make good pet hamsters for beginner hamster-owners, but generally not for children. That’s because they can easily wriggle out of a child’s grasp and get lost or injured.
Like Campbell’s dwarf hamsters, winter whites can sometimes be kept in pairs or small groups, especially if adopted from the same litter. However, it’s not necessary to keep them in pairs, and it’s recommended to have just one to avoid injuries or even deaths.
Winter white hamsters are more docile and less prone to biting than other dwarf hamster species. They also have a fuzzier, fluffier appearance, with round bodies and short faces. The winter white hamster’s unique coat can turn white in the winter months, giving it its name.
5. Chinese Hamster
Consensus: Chinese hamsters can be docile, fun-loving companions who enjoy handling if raised and socialized from an early age.
- Size: Up to 5 inches
- Appearance: Greyish-brown with a white underbelly and a dark stripe running down its back; longer tails than most hamster species; often mistaken for a mouse
- Lifespan: Up to 3 years
- Personality: Timid and prone to nipping without the proper handling at a young age; if socialized early on, docile and comfortable with handling
Cricetus griseus, or the Chinese hamster, is a medium-sized species that’s not commonly found in pet stores. Despite often being referred to as “Chinese dwarf hamsters,” they are not actually dwarf hamsters and have a different temperament than dwarfs.
Chinese hamsters also have a different look than other hamster species, with long tails and thin frames. For that reason, Chinese hamsters are often mistaken for mice or other rodents.
The Chinese hamster requires regular handling at a young age to become a confident and loving pet. If properly tamed and handled from a young age, the Chinese hamster can become very comfortable being held.
If not raised and handled from an early age, Chinese hamsters can get nervous and nip or bite when handled. They’re also relatively small and nimble, making them prone to escaping or getting lost.
Chinese hamsters are less territorial than Syrians, but they should still not be kept in pairs or groups. Chinese hamsters are happiest and healthiest as solitary pets.
Is a Pet Hamster Right for You?
Whether or not a hamster is the right pet for your family depends on what you’re looking for in your small pet.
If you’d like to be able to handle your pet every day, for example, you may want to stick with the Syrian hamster or choose another small animal altogether. Dwarf hamsters can be difficult to handle and take more work to tame.