AskDefine | Define hamster

Dictionary Definition

hamster n : short-tailed Old World burrowing rodent with large cheek pouches

User Contributed Dictionary



From Hamster, itself from hamustro, of Slavic origin


  • /'hæmstəɽ/


  1. A small, short-tailed European rodent, Cricetus frumentarius, often kept as a pet. It is remarkable for having a pouch on each side of the jaw, under the skin, and for its migrations.
    It is the cutest sight to see a hamster stuff his puffy cheeks with food; where is it going to store it?
  2. In the context of "zoology": Any of various Old-world rodent species belonging to the subfamily Cricetinae.


small, short-tailed European rodent





  1. present simple and imperative form of the derived verb hamsteren



  • /amstER/ (h aspiré)


fr-noun m
  1. hamster




Extensive Definition

Hamsters are rodents belonging to the subfamily Cricetinae. The subfamily contains about 18 species, classified in six or seven genera. Because they are easy to breed in captivity, hamsters are often used as lab animals and kept as pets in more economically developed countries. Recently hamsters have become established as popular small family pets.
Hamsters are crepuscular. In the wild, they burrow underground in the daylight to avoid being caught by predators. They are most active around dusk and dawn, which has led many people to mistake them for being nocturnal. In the wild they will eat any wheat, nuts and small bits of fruit and vegetables that they might find lying around on the ground, occasionally eating small insects such as small crickets or mealworms. The name hamster is derived from the German word Hamster, itself from earlier OHG hamustro, from ORuss choměstorǔ, which is either a blend of the root of Russ chomiak "hamster" and a Baltic word (cf. Lith staras "hamster") or of Iranian origin (cf. Av hamaēstar "oppressor"). They have elongated fur-lined pouches on both sides of their heads which extend to their shoulders, which they stuff full of food to be brought back to the colony or to be eaten later.
Their diet contains a variety of foods both in the wild and when kept as a pets including dried food, berries and nuts. Fresh fruits and vegetables are also an integral part of their diet. Behavior can vary depending on their environment, genetics, and interaction with people.


Hamsters are stout-bodied, with tails much shorter than body length and have small furry ears, short stocky legs, and wide feet. Their thick, silky fur, which can be long or short, can be black, grey, white, brown, buff, yellow, "sapphire" or red depending on the species, or a mix of any of those colors. Underparts vary in color from white to shades of gray and black. The Djhungarian hamster (Phodopus campbelli) and the striped dwarf hamster (Cricetulus barabensis) have a dark stripe down the middle of the back. Dwarf desert hamsters (genus Phodopus) are the smallest, with bodies 5 to 10 cm (about 2 to 4 inches) long; the largest is the common hamster (Cricetus cricetus), measuring up to 34 cm long, not including a short tail of up to 4 cm. The tail is often difficult to see; usually it is not very long, and on a long haired hamster it is barely visible. Hamsters are very flexible; and their bones are somewhat fragile.


Hamsters' northern range extends from central Europe through Siberia, Mongolia, and northern China to Korea. The southern portion of their range stretches from Syria to India. Throughout dry, open country they inhabit desert borders, vegetated sand dunes, shrubby and rocky foothills and plateaus, river valleys, and mountain steppes; some live among cultivated crops. Geographic distribution varies greatly between species. The common hamster, for example, is found from central Europe to western Siberia and northwestern China, but the golden hamster has been found only near a small town in northwestern Syria.


Hamsters are omnivorous. Their diet consists mostly of grains (such as whole grain oats and corn) but also includes fresh fruit, roots such as carrots, green parts of plants. Hamsters carry food in their spacious cheek pouches to cache in the burrow. Hamsters in the Middle East have been known to hunt in packs to find insects for food.
Hamsters are nest builders, so most owners supply strips of tissue or toilet paper so they may build a secure spot in a corner or in their "house". Avoid using newspapers as the ink on it might be ingested when the hamster chews on them. Also avoid bleached-white toilet paper. Hay is also a valuable building material for cozy hamster nests, but may pose the risk of having pesticides on it or sharp pieces that could cut or scratch the hamster. Therefore, select dry hay such as Timothy and use the softer, leafy parts of the hay rather than the stems. Sawdust made from pine, and cedar wood shavings are not suitable for nesting material as stated earlier. It is not advisable to use lint, as the hamster may consume it and the lint will block their intestinal passage. Fine chinchilla sand (not chinchilla dust because the powdery material will cause respiratory problems) can be given in an enclosed container. Hamsters enjoy rolling in the sand to keep their fur clean and dry.
Hamsters, like many rodents, are also gnawers, and must be supplied with appropriate materials for doing so; for example, an edible gnaw toy or an unpainted wooden block can be placed in the cage. Failure to do so can cause dental problems for the hamster, as the incisors, which grow continually, will become too long and cause discomfort and/or eating problems.


Many hamsters tend to carry food from the source (by carrying it in their cheek pouches) and hoard it away in a cache hidden somewhere inside their container. Fresh vegetables and fruits, seeds, and insects like grasshoppers make up an important part of hamsters' natural diet. However, not all foods are suitable for hamsters and some, such as sweets made for humans or poisonous plants like the leaves of the tomato or rhubarb, are dangerous for hamsters. Citrus fruits such as oranges and lemons should never be fed to a hamster because their stomachs can not handle the acid. Iceburg lettuce has very little nutritional value and in excess can cause liver problems. Campbell's Dwarf Hamsters are susceptible to hereditary diabetes, and any hamster suffering from diabetes should not have high sugar foods, such as fruit and corn.
In detail, the solid food components can be divided into three categories: dry, fresh, and animal food. Dry food generally makes up the bulk of a hamster's diet. Besides the standard rodent food sold in pet stores, most other kinds of seeds, kernels, and nuts can be given. Bird food like millet is a noteworthy alternative for small hamsters.

Sex and longevity

Syrian hamsters typically live no more than two to three years in captivity, less than that in the wild. Russian Hamsters (Campbell's and Winter White) live approximately 1.5 to 2 years in captivity, and Chinese Hamsters 2.5 to 3 years. The smaller Roborovski Hamster often lives to 3 to 3.5 years in captivity. Both Syrian and Russian hamsters mature quickly and can begin reproducing at a young age (4–5 weeks), whereas Chinese hamsters will usually begin reproducing at 2–3 months of age, and Roborovskis at 3–4 months of age.
Left to their own devices, hamsters will produce several litters a year with several pups in each litter. Male and female hamsters are therefore usually kept in separate enclosures to prevent the addition of unwanted offspring. When seen from above, a sexually mature female hamster has a trim tail line; a male's tail line bulges on both sides. Male hamsters typically have very large testes in relation to their body size. Before sexual maturity occurs at about 4–6 weeks, it is more difficult to determine a young hamster's sex. When examined, female hamsters have two holes close together, whereas males have anal and genital openings further apart than the female's. (The penis is usually withdrawn into the coat and thus appears as a hole or pink pimple.)

Health conditions

Relationships among hamsters

Neumann et al. (2006) conducted a molecular phylogenetic analysis of 12 of the above 17 species of hamster using DNA sequence from three genes: 12S rRNA, cytochrome b, and von Willebrand factor. They uncovered the following relationships: The genus Phodopus was found to represent the earliest split among hamsters. Their analysis included both species. The results of another study (Lebedev et al., 2003) may suggest that Cricetulus kamensis (and presumably the related C. alticola) might belong to either this Phodopus group or hold a similar basal position. The genus Mesocricetus also form a clade. Their analysis included all four species, with M. auratus and M. raddei forming one subclade and M. brandti and M. newtoni another. The remaining genera of hamsters formed a third major clade. Two of the three sampled species within Cricetulus represent the earliest split. This clade contains Cricetulus barabensis (and presumably the related C. sokolovi) and Cricetulus longicaudatus. The remaining clade contains members of Allocricetulus, Tscherskia, Cricetus, and Cricetulus migratorius. Allocricetulus and Cricetus were sister taxa. Cricetulus migratorius was their next closest relative, and Tscherskia was basal.

Similar animals

Note that there are some rodents which are sometimes called "hamsters" that are not currently classified in the hamster subfamily Cricetinae. These include the Maned Hamster or Crested Hamster, which is really the Maned Rat (Lophiomys imhausi), although not nearly as marketable under that name. Others are the mouse-like hamsters (Calomyscus spp.), and the white-tailed rat (Mystromys albicaudatus).




  • Lebedev, V. S., N. V. Ivanova, N. K. Pavlova, and A. B. Poltoraus. 2003. Molecular phylogeny of the Palearctic hamsters. In Proceedings of the International Conference Devoted to the 90th Anniversary of Prof. I. M. Gromov on Systematics, Phylogeny and Paleontology of Small Mammals (A. Averianov and N. Abramson eds.). St. Petersburg.
  • Musser, G. G. and M. D. Carleton. 2005. Superfamily Muroidea. In Mammal Species of the World a Taxonomic and Geographic Reference (D. E. Wilson and D. M. Reeder eds.). Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
  • Neumann, K., J. Michaux, V. Lebedev, N. Yigit, E. Colak, N. Ivanova, A. Poltoraus, A. Surov, G. Markov, S. Maak, S. Neumann, R. Gattermann. 2006. Molecular phylogeny of the Cricetinae subfamily based on the mitochondrial cytochrome b and 12S rRNA genes and the nuclear vWF gene. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, in press; Available online 17 February 2006.

External links

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hamster in Scottish Gaelic: Hamstair
hamster in Galician: Hamster
hamster in Korean: 햄스터
hamster in Croatian: Hrčci
hamster in Ido: Hamstro
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hamster in Italian: Cricetinae
hamster in Latin: Cricetus
hamster in Dutch: Hamsters
hamster in Japanese: ハムスター
hamster in Norwegian: Hamstre
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hamster in Polish: Chomik
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hamster in Simple English: Hamster
hamster in Slovenian: Hrčki
hamster in Serbian: Хрчак
hamster in Finnish: Hamsterit
hamster in Swedish: Hamstrar
hamster in Turkish: Altın hamster
hamster in Yiddish: האמסטער
hamster in Chinese: 仓鼠
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