The Syrian Hamster behavior

The Syrian hamster is probably one of the most popular easiest and trouble free pets in which to keep. But as with all animals that humans have kept in captivity, tamed, or bred for special purposes have their origins in wild ancestors. The Syrian hamsters we see today are the direct descendants of hamsters' found in the wild. Although the Syrian hamster has been domesticated this does not mean we can change their natural and instinctive behavior that has been inherited from their wild counterparts. An animal’s behavior is governed by its genes just as its physical characteristics are. These are known as 'instinctive' or 'innate' behaviour’s. This kind of behavior is vital for young animals as it helps them to recognize danger and food. Sometimes with domesticated animals behavior problems can arise because the pet owner is not fully aware of the animal’s natural or instinctive needs.

Whilst some behavior problems may be due to a lack of knowledge and understanding behavioural problems can arise as a result of environmental and or management issues that can affect their normal physiological responses and inhibit the expression of their typical behavior. In most cases these problems can easily be rectified with the correct course of action. Understanding the nature and behavior of the Syrian hamster is essential in maintaining the psychological and physical well being of the animal, and may also help you to understand why some can deviate from their natural pattern of behavior.
It is very important that potential pet owners should fully understand the needs and requirements of theses exquisite little creatures. Although their needs are minimal these pets need special care and attention. It is important for potential new hamster owners' to learn how to fulfil those special needs in which to prevent unusual behavior problems arising.
We receive many emails from our visitors, and a number of them are concerned by the seemingly strange and inappropriate behavior exhibited by their new pet hamster. So over the course of the next few months we hope to compile a list of the most common behavior and health problems that some pet owners may encounter with their pet hamster. Letters Page.

Here is an excerpt from one of the many emails: "I have read that hamsters always go to the potty in the same place, well the one I have doesn’t he urinates in his nest. Today I cleaned the cage again, for the umpteenth time, and his fur was all wet again, and he smell’s terrible” I had read that hamsters were clean animals, but this one isn't, do you think he has issues, or am I doing something wrong? When we first bought the hamster, we set up the cage and his little house for sleeping, with bedding and nesting material etc: etc: Then after about a week the hamster started taking all his bedding and food into the wheel, (or will store his food and make his nest in the tubes,) and refuses to come out, he stays in there permanently, he poops, wee’s eats and sleeps in there. I bought this hamster for my young son, but I am very reluctant for him to handle it yet because of these very unhygienic issues
Thank you in anticipation for any help or advice you can offer. Debbie.

Note how the author stipulates that the hamster acted quite normally for the first week before taking all his bedding, (meaning his nesting material) and food into the wheel. This is one of the most common behavior issues. Another common one is where the hamster starts storing his food in the toilet corner. These are just some of the problems that may be encountered by many new pet owners, and a problem that is associated mainly with the Syrian hamster. Here I will try to explain simply why they act like this and how to prevent, or resolve these issues.
Solitary and territoriality are two completely different subjects. It is surprising how many people confuse the two and seem to relate them together with the same meaning. ”All” hamsters are territorial, but some of the species are sociable creatures, meaning they will coexist and live quite happily together in groups or pairs, in the same, or opposite sexes. This being the case with Rats, Mice, Gerbils, and Dwarf hamsters etc: But the exception to this rule is the Syrian hamster, these are solitary creatures, meaning they prefer to live alone leading a totally solitary existence.
Sometimes, when territorial animals are kept together in groups a dominance hierarchy forms, conflict is regulated through this hierarchy and injuries are then avoided. This kind of behavior can be seen in the Dwarf hamster. Accounts of injuries during territorial conflict between these creatures attest to the fact that not all conflicts may be peacefully resolved. Permanent separation and a solitary existence may be the only option in the case of the Dwarf hamster.
Syrian hamsters are different they are territorial as well as being solitary and prefer a solitary existence. Solitary animals are often fiercely territorial they will defend their territory from their own species, and of others, this can lead to injuries and death. Because their sense of territory differs from other species the rules governing their territorial behavior and solitary instinct always prevail.

So what is a territory exactly? A territory is an area with defined boundaries within which an animal lives. In the case of a captive or domesticated animal this is the cage or whatever housing you have supplied for them. Setting up, marking and maintaining a territory is a common pattern of behavior exhibited by many species of mammals, insects, birds, and reptiles. This requires a huge investment of time and energy on the part of the territorial animal. "Territorial" animals will protect their territory from other animals and intruders, bearing in mind intruders may also include "you". Territories are used for a variety of purposes such as feeding, mating and caring for their offspring’s.
The Syrian hamster may be kept in the same sex groups up to the age of 6-8 week. Territorial aggression starts to emerge in the Syrian hamster at around eight week of age, so from this age on the animal should be housed alone. Your thoughts should then be given to the animal’s sense of individuality, security, needs and well being.

The cage

If a Syrian hamsters' territory (the cage) comes under threat by another of their species or any other they will aggressively defend their territory using physical force if necessary. If the animal cannot visibly see or confront the intruder then it is not able to physically defend that territory (this can happen when cage cleaning takes place, and the animal is not in the cage) they can then suffer the psychological trauma of an incursion of their territory 'possibly' by a predator, when that happens the rules governing their solitary behavior is brought into focus and they may no longer accept they can defend that territory.

Cage cleaning can be a very stressful and traumatic time for a hamster. (This can be defined or construed as an incursion of their territory by an intruder/predator) Changing the bedding and nesting material can induce a very strong stress response. (These are known as External stressors) Stress can manifest itself in many different ways either psychologically or physically there is no set standard pattern of reaction to stress. The physical symptoms of stress are detrimental to the animal’s well being. Stress in itself is not particularly harmful for short periods, it is when stress becomes persistent and prolonged the symptoms then may become aggressive and severe, and the digestive system is usually the first line of attack. Prolonged stress is a common cause of diarrhea in a hamster. Psychological stress can also cause emotional disturbances and this may inhibit the animal’s expression of its instinctive behavior. Therefore removing, cleaning or destroying the hamsters nest may cause the animal to abandon its' usual nesting site. So it is important to understand the causes of stress and how to minimize it.

Hamsters are avid nest builders and with sufficient time once the animal is placed in the cage for the very first time they will set about exploring and marking their new territory. They will find a place in which they consider to be safe and suitable in which to construct a nest. This may be in the form of a nesting box you have supplied for that purpose or a corner of the enclosure of their choice. Food, shelter and nesting are all very tightly linked to territoriality. You must take into consideration the value of safety and security that the animal puts on this. When the cage is cleaned for the first time (the usual trend is about a week before any cage cleaning takes place)

Many new hamster owners without realizing but with good intention remove and throw away everything, including all the bedding, nesting material and any food that has been stored. This is a mistake made by many new hamster owners. A young hamster is not very messy so no cage cleaning really needs to take place for the first 2-3 week after they have been introduced into the new cage. This will give the animal time to become familiar with, and accustomed to their new surroundings. This will also give the animal plenty of time to mark and scent their new territory. Many territorial animals use their own scent to mark their territories. The hamster accomplishes this by using their scent glands. These glands may be located on various parts of their anatomy. The Syrian hamsters' scent glands (Sebaceous glands) are located on their hips. Scent marking is used for a variety of functions, it helps them to maintain a sense of familiarity and security within their territory, it helps to orientate them within that area and to attract and stimulate mates, and it also serves to deter others from entering that territory.
No doubt from time to time you may see them sit on their hind legs (Haunch) and face wash profusely; they will do this periodically in order to scent their paws. They are more inclined to do this when placed in unfamiliar surroundings, as they place their paws back on the ground they leave their own familiar scent marking; this scenting will last for many days. They will rub their flanks on the cage bars or the sides of the cage and on objects within their cage. They do this in order to mark out their territory; this also helps them to associate different points and places within that enclosure. Exaggerated and excessive cage cleaning removes that scent they rely on and this will cause undue stress.


The Nest

The nest plays a very important part of the hamster’s environment and is just as important as their food and water. The nest is a place they associate with safety and security and is most probably the cleanest area in the cage. All hamsters are driven by a very strong "nesting instinct," and all are very protective of the nesting site.
On occasions some new hamster owners may have experienced a hamster that has abandoned or deserted their usual nesting place (the sleeping quarters) seemingly for no apparent reason. This usually happens just after cleaning the cage. Then discover the hamster has deserted his usual nest and made another nest in the tubes, wheel, or some other inaccessible part of the cage. The reason they do this is the hamster has become aware their nest has been disturbed / discovered. A hamster will abandon a nest that "appears" to have been discovered, possibly by a predator, and will go in search of a safer nesting site. Great care should always be taken not to invade their private space too much.
The female is more protective of the nesting site as she has a tendency to have a greater parental investment in the nest than the male does.
The nest should always remain untouched until the second or third cage clean takes place. If the nest is destroyed by cleaning or by removing the old nesting material and replacing it with all new material will remove the hamsters own familiar scent. When this happens the nest smells different to them, if it smells any different it gives great cause for concern and will cause undue stress. Because of predation risks the hamster may reject and abandon it as not being safe to sleep there or to use it again.
When the cage clean takes place on the third occasion, the nesting box can be removed for a light cleaning in the usual manner. In order to buffer some of the stress all the old nesting material should be retained and used again by replacing it back at the nesting site. Using the old material will keep the hamster's familiar scent at the nesting site. A little of any dry food that has been stored in the nest should be replaced, just remove any perishables.
During the course of any future cleaning of the nest, the nesting material can be changed but it must be done gradually and over a period of time. This can be done by removing about half the old material and introducing about the same quantity of new on each occasion. Replacing the old nesting material will keep their familiar scent at the nesting site. The new material should be placed anywhere in the cage and not in the nest; the hamster will take it to its nest.


The Food Store.

Hamsters are natural hoarders and are notorious for stockpiling their food. They are very possessive and protective of their food hoard. Many hamster owners fail to realize the importance of this behavior. It is a natural and instinctive behavior inherited from their wild ancestors. They will find what they assume to be a relatively safe place to store any food they have collected. This is usually in a corner of their enclosure. A small amount of the hamster’s favourite bits may also be taken and stored in the nest. This food stored in the nest is kept close by for their short periods of awakening during the day and this should be left, or replaced. Any other food that has been stored elsewhere in the enclosure should be retained and put back in the same place that it was found, once the cage has been cleaned. Removing the hamsters’ food hoard completely may cause the animal to become anxious, remove only any spoilt or perishable food. If there is an excessive amount of dry food stored it is safe to remove some of it, but always replace the bulk of it. Failure to replace it may result in the animal marking any food that may be stored in future. Food marking is usually done by urinating on or around it, this is a territorial behavior. The reason they urinate on the food is because something (you) has taken their precious food supply that has been painstakingly stored for future use. As far as the animal is concerned it may have been a predator. So the animal may urinate on it as a warning to them, this is mine! Leave it alone. Some even resort to storing food in their toilet corner in order to keep it safe from scavengers.

Excessive wheel use.

Another behavior problem that some hamster owners may encounter is the hamster’s manic running on, and or excessive use of the wheel. Although the value of the exercise wheel is sometimes debatable, a hamster that runs intensively on the wheel may be a locomotor stereotypy. This may be seen with a hamster that is kept in a relatively small cage. The animal may use the wheel excessively or to a degree that is more than justifiable. An increase in cage size, environmental enrichment and activities (tubes etc :) that engage the animal physically usually decrease the demand for the wheel. A hamster would rather express their urge and expel any excess energy by moving around a larger and more spacious cage

The Female

I have heard it said on occasions that the female has a more aggressive nature than the male. This is not true; however, the female is more aggressively protective of her territory because she has a tendency to have a greater parental investment in her territory than the male does. But these same rules apply to both male and female.

If you look through "their eyes" and try to perceive the world as they do you will make progress, in preparation for establishing that everlasting bond of trust and friendship between you and your pet.





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