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A Hamster by Any Other Name (is still a Syrian Hamster)

Recently, I was approached by a woman in the mammal room. She asked me if we had “Black Bear” hamsters available for sale.  I explained that some of the hamsters we have in the room were indeed black. The patron insisted that what she was looking for was a special breed of hamster, that were bigger and made better pets. She appeared rather annoyed that I didn’t seem to know what she was talking about.

Knowing this story all too well, and having heard it several times before, I was forced to politely explain that the “black bears” are not a different breed, just a plain old Syrian that happens to be black. She simply fell victim to a clever marketing strategy lots of pet stores use, naming hamsters and other pets in cute,clever ways to make them more appealing to unsuspecting customers.

The woman looked thoroughly surprised.

“You’re kidding! I paid $25 for the last one I had, and the pet store swore it was some kind of new and improved breed!”

The reality is that the five main types of hamsters sold in pet stores are the Cambell’s Dwarves (also known as Siberian or Russian Dwarves), Winter Whites, Chinese, Roborovskis, and Syrians. The most popular and largest pet hamster is the Syrian, but very few pet stores actually label them as such. They can be called anything the pet store wants to call them: Common, Golden, Black Bear, Teddy Bear, Angora, Honey Bear, Panda, European, Sable, or just plain Fancy. No matter what you call them, all these hamsters are all the same species.

Many hamster breeders and pet stores may claim to have developed a breed of hamster that is supposed to be healthier, friendlier, or larger than “regular” hamsters. In actuality, they breed Syrians for color (or even just pick that color out of a litter of several different colors) and give them nicknames that may be more enticing to consumers. Often the new title allows these animals to be advertised at higher prices, too.

Black and White Syrian HamsterIn our small animal room, we often get requests for certain “breeds” of hamsters and it often takes some convincing about temperament, size, and rarity of said breed. I explain that we carry a variety of colors and patterns within our hamster selection that could technically be labeled in all sorts of exotic ways, but we choose the more generic term “Fancy” to avoid confusion. It seems to be quite a shock to those who’d been out on a desperate hunt for the one “rare breed” their child just has to have. All along they could have picked a perfectly good solid black hamster under the label of “Fancy” for half the price of what some other pet stores charge. Don’t be fooled, a hamster by any other name can still be just as sweet!

The common Syrian Hamster is the most common pet hamster on the market today, known for coming in many colors and patterns, in both long and short hair types. This hamster prefers living alone and can make a good companion for children and adults as long as it is handled gently and with regularity. An adult hamster will reach about 7 inches long and live anywhere from 2-4 years if given proper care. And of course, all hamsters enjoy a running wheel, chew toys, and plenty of tubing and hide-outs to explore and rest in. Hamsters can be great pets for the right person, no matter what the name.

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Jess has been an employee at That Fish Place/That Pet Place since 2005, stationed in both the Reptile and Small Animal rooms. She specializes in small animal care, and focuses particularly on rats, giving her the nickname of “The Rat Girl” by her customers and fellow employees. She has an Associate degree in Liberal Arts from Penn State York and is currently attending English courses online at University of Maryland University College. Her passion has always been animals and she has owned just about every variety of them, including cats, birds, reptiles, rodents, and even millipedes! She also loves writing and is working on publishing a series of young adult fantasy novels.

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