Doric Hamsters and Exotics

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Syrian Hamsters

Syrians are the largest of the species commonly available at pets. Bred in a wide variety of colours and coats there is a colour for everyone! These guys are among the most misunderstood and neglected of pets as well as being highly controversial in terms of advice available online. My advice for this species is to listen to your breeder. We see a wide variety of issues so have plenty of experience but we have also raised the baby we've given to you so are best placed to give you individualised advice.

A Syrian hamster is an intelligent, agile, sometimes clownish, sometimes cuddly and always manipulative! A bit like owning a cat, you will soon find your hamster owns you. This is what, in my view, sets them apart from other pets. It is also what makes them unsuitable for very young children without supervision. Hamsters are not like rats or guinea pigs, whilst they can be cuddly it's much more common for them to want to run around and explore their environment without you. You need to be sure that a hamster's personality is right for you. 
Your female hamster will smell once every four days. This is part of her season/cycle and generally is worse if she is handled. It doesn't last but some people just can't stomach it. If you have a sensitive nose please don't try to keep a female Syrian hamster only to give it up later. Go for a boy. I personally don't notice the smell in my house but have been 'skunked' a few times when judging. Again, they don't spray you and it doesn't linger long but it is a source of irritation to some.
A Syrian hamster's pee can be quite thick and may be mistaken for infection by your vet. There is a distinctive difference between an infected discharge and this thickened urine so make certain before providing unnecessary treatment.

Temperament

A well-bred hamster is confident, moderately active and tolerant of changes to it's schedule. Your hamster will quickly learn when you are around and will be awake at these times naturally. They are most active at dawn and dusk so you may not want the cage in your room! Syrians are adept at bar chewing and pinging in order to get your attention.

A misconception is that Syrians bar chew out of boredom. This is not strictly true. Whilst some may do this, the majority of bar chewers that I've had do so whether they are in a 100cm cage or not. I have found that it is linked to the overall activity of a hamster in that bar chewers tend to be more hyper anyway.

Breeder hamsters do tend to be calmer and less active in general than those you might find in a pet shop. Five years of rescuing hamsters has shown me the differences here. Be prepared to work with your new young hamster regardless of how much handling they've had with their breeder. They need to get to know you.

Males tend to be more laid back than females although this is always the case. Females are not more aggressive but you need to understand that when a Syrian wants to explore rather than cuddle they rarely take no for an answer. This is where they get their reputation for being nippy. Whilst they tolerate firm, gentle handling, they do need to be respecting. Just like cats, there is only so much you will get away with in terms of forceful handling.

A cuddly Syrian will tuck up under your chin, a female might prefer to climb all over you or run off and explore.

Housing and Toys

Your new cage should be no larger than 80cm long and not too tall. Rat cages other than the single storey types such as the Ferplast Mary, should be avoided. Syrians love to climb up but aren't so good at coming down. They are determined and will get into all the wrong places but I would not describe them as 'height aware'. They will often just let go when dangling from the roof. A common injury in a Syrian hamster is a broken tail, they can also break legs so don't take the risk.  
Avoid cages with plastic tubes attached unless they are easily removeable later in life like the Savic Hamster Heaven. Most pedigree hamsters grow too large for these and do get stuck.
Syrians can live in glass tanks or gerbilariums quite happily.
There is no 'cage minimum'. There is no RSPCA guideline, and no legal minimum at all. A long time ago, the RSPCA tried to bring in a guideline but quickly removed it when they realised it could not apply safely to all hamsters or all individuals within a species. Hamsters are not rabbits. Once your hamster is elderly, or if it becomes chronically ill or disabled then please do modify the space available to suit your individual animal.
The rule 'the larger the better' applies only to a sensible size. Your hamster will not stay tame in a massive environment and may suffer low levels of background stress at having such a large territory. Many say that hamster roam for miles in the wild, and this is true. However, they do this to find food and water in an arid setting and of course wild hamsters don't generally live long. Given an abundance of food and water nearby, many hamsters will opt to be lazy. Boys especially so. Large chain pet stores often sell hamsters from large commercial 'farms' or imported from those. These hamsters tend to be smaller and extremely over active compared to pedigree Syrians. A large piece of furniture to house a hamster like this may work as it may not be 'cuddly' to start with and needs the space to work off all that abnormal energy. But I don't recommend these massive cages for pedigree hamsters.
You may wish to include shelving but make sure you can easily access your pet. Plenty of cardboard boxes and tubes provided they are cut along the middle if small as your hamster may get stuck. Provide a house of some sort, something to chew and climb on. Sand baths are optional, as are wheels.
You can place a wheel in the cage all the time but keep an eye on any excessive running. I wouldn't put a wheel in with a  hamster younger than 4 months old as you want their energy going into growing. A wheel can be useful exercise assuming your hamster uses it sensibly and not to the detriment of other activities. If you feel your hamster is obsessed with wheel running then simply offer it in the evenings for a while and then take it out.
Hamsters love tubes, rat or ferret tubes are great hung from the roof. You can also get hold of cardboard carpet tubes from your local carpet shop. These are a great width and cut down easily with a Stanley knife.
I wouldn't waste money on mineral blocks. Hamsters mostly just chew these to little bits or ignore them entirely. Supplement any diet with water soluble supplements or powder/paste added to wet food.

Health

Pyometra - As at the start make sure you know what your hamster's urine normally looks like. Pyometra is an infection of the womb or cervix and results in an abnormal discharge and bleeding. Sometimes a 'closed' pyometra doesn't give any signs other than a swollen abdomen or difficulty walking. Any signs like these must be assessed by a vet immediately. An ultrasound scan is NOT a reliable diagnostic tool on an animal the size of a Syrian and a tiny uterus. An 'open' and discharging pyometra may not be seen on a scan but your hamster should never bleed from it's vulva. An antibiotic such as Baytril is useful in the short term, or for elderly females. If you have a young hamster with this issue then your vet should be able to spay her. Syrians do well with surgery and anaesthetic usually so this is a good, viable option assuming your hamster is otherwise healthy.  There are risks and these should be discussed with your vet. This can affect any hamster, any age, from any background, in any condition and for many different reasons.

Lumps and Bumps - Many lumps turn out to be abscesses but I've heard of a few vets with a disturbing tendency to shout 'systemic cancer' any lump without even testing it. Hamsters are not 'prone' to cancerous tumours but they can have them. They can also have benign, fatty lumps or hard encapsulated abscesses. The easiest diagnostic tool is to lance the lump but sometimes an abscess is so hard it won't discharge when lanced. Your hamster is best put lightly to sleep and the vet can then properly investigate by taking a biopsy. It doesn't cost a lot of money to send this sample to a lab and your vet may be able to do an initial inspection to find out if it's something more sinister or not.
Tumours can be removed in some cases but this depends on what it is and where it is. Chat with your vet about any lumps you are worried about and make sure they take an interest in finding out what it is. Any vet that suggests euthanasia in the first instance, without investigating, should warrant a second opinion.
If you opt for surgery then do send the lump off for analysis as it's already been removed. This means the vet can not only tell you what it was, but also ascertain if it's been completely removed or not, or if it may be likely to recur. Once you have this information, do let me know for my records. 
Unlike other species, being prone cancer does not appear to be genetically passed on. I've had a few Syrians pop up with an odd lump and never seen this again in any siblings, parents or pups all the way down the lines. Some vets will tell you that it's your breeder's fault for breeding this in. It really doesn't work like that, I wish it did! We could then easily eradicate cancer in many species.
Urine Infections and Kidney Issues - Far more common is the 'UTI' or urinary tract infection. Your hamster's wee corner may start to smell, their urine may become very thick all the time or smell and you may notice your Syrian drinking more often. Drinking more often can also indicate kidney problems in elderly hamsters. Chat with your vet if you are concerned. A course of antibiotics will usually clear up a UTI. Kidney issues are a more persistent issue associated with old age. To help your hamster, cut down the amount of protein you feed assuming you add extras to their diet. This won't reverse any problems but will potentially ease things for your hamster.
If your hamster gets recurrent UTI's then you may need to look at your cleaning regime. Cleaning a cage too infrequently, or too frequently can both cause issues. Too little leaves a build up of waste in the cage. Too often makes your hamster scentmark more than normal and puts a strain in the kidneys.
Respiratory Issues - Generally speaking, Syrians don't squeak. However, your hamster may snuffle in a new environment or a newly cleaned cage for a few minutes and they can certainly 'chatter' at you when you wake them up if they aren't happy. Syrians can also make some very bizarre noises when they are asleep.
If you notice your hamster is squeaking or making noises all the time, particularly if it gets worse once active, take your pet to the vet. A course of antibiotics is usually enough to sort this out but do think about how they may have gotten sick. It could be viral, or a simple bacterial infection but it may be secondary to another problem, a result of a bedding allergy or due to being in a drafty place.
Broken tail/leg - These often heal without incident but you need to look into how it happened in the first place. Is your cage too tall, the bedding layer too thin, anything that your hamster has climbed onto, inside or outside the cage? Correct any issue to prevent further problems.
Misaligned/Overgrown Teeth - Not a common problem in a pedigree Syrian but it does happen. Talk to your vet about the various pros and cons of repeated tooth clipping and any effects that may have on their quality of life.
Wet Tail - Only affecting Syrian hamsters, this is an infection that causes diarrhoea and is often fatal. It generally affects young pups but is rare in pedigree Syrians. I believe this is due to the time pups are taken away from Mum and the level of stress they encounter at such a young age. Any diarrhoea should be assessed by your vet as an emergency. Hamsters dehydrate quickly.
Feeding too much fresh veg to a pedigree animal should not cause this issue but dry food should make up the vast majority of their diet.