I’d be the first to admit that I’m a bit of a pedant; seeing someone writing about their ‘cute furies’ makes me wince (while also conjuring some interesting mental images). Using unusual non-standard terms to describe hamster colours or fur types is a particular pet peeve of mine.
Thankfully my favourite species, the Chinese hamster, is relatively lucky. I’ve only come across the term ‘snowflake’ as a cutesy way of describing a dominant spot. Poor Syrian and Winter White hamsters, however, seem particularly prone to this mis-naming. Long haired hamsters can be found under the terms angora, teddy bear, semi-longhaired (usually females), with Syrian hamster colours described as panda bear, dalmatian, calico and ginger. Winter whites can be found advertised as sunfire, mushroom, lemon, black, mandarin and golden.
Why does it matter what they’re called? Would the hamster in the picture be any less cute if he was called a ginger angora teddy bear hamster rather than a longhaired golden Syrian hamster? Some people may even consider him more cute if he was a ‘teddy bear hamster’. For me there are several reasons it matters.
Firstly, it creates confusion for potential owners. They may end up with a species they hadn’t expected and not be prepared for the individual needs of that species, be that in terms of diet, or caging, or being kept with/without company. It also makes it hard to seek help as advice given may be inappropriate.
I was asked advice by a concerned owner who was struggling to handle the hamster they had been sold as a Chinese hamster. I offered advice and, after looking at my website, the person realised they’d been sold a Roborovski hamster not the Chinese hamster they’d wanted. I recommend people seeking hamsters to research the species they want before buying so they can assess the information they are given by someone rehoming a hamster to them (regardless of whether that person is in a pet shop, a rescue or a breeder).
Secondly, unusual terms can be used by people to portray the variety as “rare” or more desirable to own. There are few truly rare colours or varieties of pet hamster species in the UK.
For example, I show and breed black-eyed white (BEW) Chinese hamsters. I don’t advertise these pups as “rare” because they currently aren’t well enough established in this country to rehome them as pets alone. Any BEWs that are born here are rehomed to other National Hamster Council club affiliated exhibitor/breeders to further establish and improve them. I would urge people to use caution if they find a variety/colour of hamster described as “rare”, especially if they are more expensive than “non-rare” hamsters. When BEWs are well enough established I’ll be seeking people who genuinely want to own a lovely pet hamster, and not a “rare colour collector” (sadly, I’ve encountered this type of person before; someone who wants to own a hamster purely because of the rarity of his/her fur type and not for the enjoyment of the hamster him/herself).
My biggest concern, however, is that these unusual terms can be used to portray hybrid hamsters as pure Winter Whites. Pure Winter Whites aren’t found with red eyes or with orange/black fur. Sadly, there are some commercial breeders who sell “Winter Whites” in black, golden and mushroom, all of which are known to be hybrid colours. This can mean that pet shops stock and sell hamsters they believe to be Winter Whites which are actually hybrids.
Only two pet hamster species can interbreed: Winter Whites and Campbell hamsters. It’s not the hamster’s fault that s/he’s a hybrid, but they can suffer significant health problems from the hybridisation. Common problems are diabetes, neurological issues and temperament problems, as well as difficulties for the mothers in delivering pups due to different head shapes and sizes in the different species.
I fostered and then adopted a rescue hybrid hamster called Bart. He was a sweet lad, but suffered from diabetes from only a month old, and developed neurological problems with obsessive licking. The obsessive nature meant he couldn’t stop himself. He managed to live to a year old with daily medication, and had to be put to sleep when his neurological problems deteriorated to the extent they affected his quality of life.
Other examples of obsessive neurological problems are flipping and twirling – things often seen in “funny” videos online which are far from funny when you understand what is happening. The poor hamster can’t control the flipping or twirling, and may not be able to stop in order to groom, eat or even drink.
My aim in writing this blog post is to highlight the problem of unusual non-standard terms, and urge caution to those buying a hamster. If you see a hamster advertised with an unusual term think very hard before seeking to buy him/her. It suggests either an attempt to portray the hamster as more rare than the variety truly is, or a significant lack of knowledge on the part of the seller. If the person using the term is a breeder then I would recommend steering well clear, and if they are a rescue then I would still suggest thinking hard.
If they can’t either use a reasonable term or acknowledge they don’t know the colour/variety, then I personally would be concerned about what else the seller/rehomer doesn’t know in terms of identifying unwell hamsters, caring for the specific species, and therefore being able to appropriately advise new owners. If you are using the freead sites to find a new hamster then I would generally suggest caution, and definitely recommend giving a hamster a thorough health check before buying him/her, and quarantining any new addition from such a source from existing hamsters in the home.
Just don’t get me started on people who advertise “hampsters”…