This small pet can none­the­less oc­cupy a big place in your heart

Animal Scene - - FRONT PAGE - Text by NYZA FAUS­TINE HO Pho­tos by JEF­FREY C. LIM

If you’ve been to a pet store, chances are high that you’ve seen a Syr­ian ham­ster, as they are com­mon pocket pets found in pet stores. Swirly. bitz is a ham­ster breeder fa­mous in the trade in the Philip­pines be­cause she breeds for the qual­ity of the ham­sters. She has been breed­ing Syr­ian ham­sters for more than a decade, and sat down with An­i­mal Scene to share her opin­ions and ex­pe­ri­ences re­gard­ing the keep­ing of the Syr­ian ham­ster. A LONG HIS­TORY WITH HU­MANS Syr­ian ham­sters have been kept in cap­tiv­ity for cen­turies, and are the old­est breed of ham­ster be­ing kept in cap­tiv­ity. Selec­tive breed­ing has re­sulted in many dif­fer­ent mu­ta­tions be­ing avail­able. At first, only the agouti col­ors or the wild type were avail­able, un­til other col­ors be­gin to mu­tate or change. Selec­tive breed­ing con­tin­ues to this day to main­tain the qual­ity of the ham­sters and cre­ate new mu­ta­tions. If you come across a dark gray Syr­ian ham­ster, ex­pect it to be more ex­pen­sive be­cause Swirly. bitz ex­plains that this color is quite rare.

There are hun­dreds of Syr­ian ham­ster col­ors and pat­terns, mak­ing it the ham­ster breed with the most num­ber of mu­ta­tions avail­able to­day. It has a good tem­per­a­ment and tol­er­ates han­dling well. There are two main types of Syr­ian ham­sters: the golden and the teddy bear. The for­mer are short-haired while the lat­ter are long-haired. Yet there are also even curly ham­sters; they are called the “rex coat” type, and while they are not com­monly seen in pet stores, they are usu­ally avail­able from breed­ers. The va­ri­ety of Syr­ian ham­sters adds to their gen­eral ap­peal, and the rar­ity of cer­tain types of Syr­ian ham­sters moves breed­ers keep them as tro­phies, mak­ing the breed­ing of Syr­ian ham­sters very re­ward­ing if one knows how to achieve a cer­tain de­sir­able coat type and color com­bi­na­tion. By Swirly.bitz’s reck­on­ing, ham­sters have been sold as pets lo­cally since the 1980s, but the boom in their sales took place in the mid-2000s. For her, what sets the Syr­ian ham­ster apart from other ham­ster breeds is that they are soli­tary crea­tures who can reach a large size among its kind, from 5 to 7 inches (13 to 18 cm) long, though she has bred a few that have reached about 8 inches in length. They are also the eas­i­est to han­dle among ham­sters. She ex­plains that lo­cally, there are two com­mon types: the “teddy bear,” whose coats (also known as “skirts”)—es­pe­cially among the males—mea­sure 1 to 3 inches; show types’ coats can mea­sure up to 5 inches. Then there is the short haired or Golden va­ri­ety, whose fur is fine and very soft to the touch. In­ter­est­ingly, she notes, Syr­ian ham­sters can be cruel to their own kind, but they are very easy to tame, es­pe­cially if the owner puts in the ef­fort to es­tab­lish a good re­la­tion­ship with them. KEEP­ING SYR­IAN HAM­STERS Syr­ian ham­sters make for good first pets, and Swirly.bitz rec­om­mends them for first­time ham­ster keep­ers. They are slower mov­ing com­pared to the other breeds avail­able in the Philip­pines. Syr­ian ham­sters are easy to han­dle be­cause of their size. Their fluffy fur makes them nice to touch and theit dif­fer­ent coat types means each kind of­fers a dif­fer­ent kind of feel. They are some­times given as a gift to chil­dren from par­ents who want their chil­dren to learn about about the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties that come with car­ing for an­other liv­ing crea­ture. Swirly.bitz cau­tions, though, that the giv­ing of any pet is a re­spon­si­bil­ity. “There is noth­ing wrong about giv­ing [a ham­ster as a present].” But she firmly be­lieves that sellers should be aware that to ed­u­cate buy­ers about the proper keep­ing of ham­sters is their re­spon­si­bil­ity. “They are not toys; they have life,” she points out, adding that im­press­ing upon both buyer and seller that a ham­ster is a re­spon­si­bil­ity is very im­por­tant. That said, they make good pets for kids; Swirly.bitz be­lieves that keep­ing them will teach chil­dren “…how to take re­spon­si­bil­ity [for an­other crea­ture], es­pe­cially with the guid­ance of their par­ents. Also, [ the chores in­volved in car­ing for one can cre­ate] a great fam­ily bond­ing time [as they can share] the same in­ter­est.” The Syr­ian ham­ster’s slow­ness means kids will not be able to lose them even if they let go of the ham­ster. Par­ents still need to su­per­vise the first few con­tacts be­tween a child and a ham­ster to make sure the child does not crush the ham­ster in its hands. They are gen­er­ally docile and are not very quick to bite. How­ever, when dis­turbed from slum­ber, they are very eas­ily ir­ri­tated. Syr­ian ham­sters love hoard­ing food in their nests or in their cheek pouches, which can con­tain a lot of food at a time so the ham­ster will not starve, but some­times

they put too much food in th­ese cheek pouches be­fore they empty its con­tents into their nests. They look very dif­fer­ent—some say, funny—when their cheek pouches are full. This be­hav­ior is the rea­son why they are not sup­posed to be fed with sticky food like peanut but­ter or choco­lates, be­cause th­ese food items can get stuck in their cheek pouches; since it’s dif­fi­cult to check what’s in there, th­ese food items can rot and even­tu­ally lead to an in­fec­tion. Many keep­ers as­sume that feed­ing ham­sters store-bought food is enough to guar­an­tee their good health, but Swirly.bitz says that as a breeder “…my Num­ber One rule [for the sta­ple food I feed] my ham­sters is to know the weather [and other cli­mate] con­di­tions where you are.” Each food has a dif­fer­ent ef­fect on a ham­ster; for one, corn can bring up a ham­ster’s body tem­per­a­ture, and should be avoided if you live in a warm cli­mate. “It is good to [give them] a bal­anced diet; that’s why I al­ways con­sider the place tem­per­a­ture and weather…here in our coun­try, which is a trop­i­cal one. Feeds [given] dur­ing sum­mer are dif­fer­ent from [those given dur­ing] rainy days.” In pet stores, Syr­ian ham­sters are kept in groups, gen­er­ally di­vided by gen­der, with fe­males and males kept sep­a­rately. Peo­ple who pur­chase th­ese ham­sters some­times imitate this setup of keep­ing two or more ham­sters to­gether in an en­clo­sure, but this is very wrong since the Syr­ian ham­sters are, be­lieve it or not, soli­tary by na­ture. They are ter­ri­to­rial and when kept to­gether for a very long time, it is in­evitable that one will in­jure or kill its cage mate/s. Be­cause it is their na­ture to pre­fer be­ing alone, Syr­ian ham­sters are best kept alone. Also, it is not true that Syr­ian ham­sters only re­quire a small en­clo­sure due to their small size; in fact, they like to ex­plore their sur­round­ings and do some ac­tiv­i­ties in their cages to avoid bore­dom. The min­i­mum rec­om­mended en­clo­sure size for a Syr­ian ham­ster is 20 liters. The larger, the bet­ter when it comes to the en­clo­sures of Syr­ian ham­sters. A small very en­clo­sure will re­strict move­ment, and in turn, will also re­strict the growth of Syr­ian ham­sters. This means they will not be able to reach their max­i­mum size. The en­clo­sure should be se­cure, Swirly. bitz ex­plains. “You’re not giv­ing them a prison cell but a home. Give them a com­plete, good en­vi­ron­ment—an en­joy­able one. As keep­ers, you should know many things to make them happy. It’s…not all about you, it’s all about them.” Can Syr­ian ham­sters be bathed in wa­ter? She does—af­ter all, it rains in the wild— but points out that it’s not just a mat­ter of wash­ing the an­i­mal like a piece of cloth. “I wash them very [quickly] us­ing [a mild shampoo with aloe vera] then blow dry them care­fully [so that they won’t get stressed]. I do it ev­ery 15 days only. [I also give them] sand baths.” Their coats are im­por­tant, and so their bed­ding needs to be cho­sen care­fully. “For Ted­dies I use pel­let bed­ding in­stead of wood chips to avoid fur tan­gles; [I] also comb their fur twice a day. [The diet I give Ted­dies is also] dif­fer­ent [be­cause] they need more food; [main­tain­ing] their fur [takes up] a lot of nu­tri­ents, [par­tic­u­larly] niacin.” This self-con­fessed Teddy lover adds that she “…al­ways uses a good foun­da­tion for [my] breed­ing line [to im­prove] the next gen­er­a­tion, for the fur qual­ity is…in­her­ited by the off­spring.”

She ad­vises that keep­ers know about the cor­rect diet for them, the proper way of keep­ing them, and what they need to stay happy, healthy, and men­tally alert, such as wheels, hides, tubes, and other recre­ational items. One of her most im­por­tant cau­tions is re­gard­ing food. Just be­cause a ham­ster looks like a cute ball doesn’t mean it’s healthy; when it’s obese, it’s not good for them at all. “Do some re­search, be re­spon­si­ble; it’s not a toy, it’s not only a pet, it’s a mem­ber of the fam­ily,” she em­pha­sizes. BREED­ING MAT­TERS If one wishes to breed Syr­ian ham­sters, this should only be done when they are at the right age—four to five months old—to avoid prob­lems for the mother and her off­spring. At this age, the fe­male’s body is ready for par­ent­ing; more im­por­tantly, she is men­tally ma­ture enough, Swirly.bitz notes, to han­dle a lit­ter. “[It’s] so sad [that most breed­ers] here in the Philip­pines…breed [Syr­ian ham­sters when they are just] 1 to 2 months old…ed­u­cat­ing them is a must, but sadly, only a few lis­ten… The most hard­headed…are the an­i­mal millers. They don’t care for the an­i­mal, they care for the money only and not the health of the an­i­mals.” Since the Syr­ian ham­ster is a soli­tary species, they should mate in neu­tral ter­ri­tory, or in the ter­ri­tory of the male, never that of the fe­male. Af­ter mat­ing, ham­sters must be re­turned to their own en­clo­sures to pre­vent fights, which can turn deadly. Once she gives birth, the mother should be given food that is rich in pro­tein, and wa­ter should al­ways be avail­able. It is of ut­most im­por­tance to never touch the pups (baby ham­sters) be­cause this will cause the trans­fer of your scent to them, and the mother will re­ject them as a re­sult, of­ten be­fore they can sur­vive alone. The pups will be ready to live on their own within 3-5 weeks. Once the pups are weaned, Swirly.bitz ex­plains that the mother should be given 2 to 4 months to re­cover be­fore be­ing bred again. “I only use 2 cy­cles for ev­ery fe­male I have, [mean­ing], each fe­male only gives birth twice [in a year],” she ex­plains. She shares that the largest lit­ter she’s seen from a sin­gle mother was 24 pups, of which 23 sur­vived. “At first it made me happy, but soon I re­al­ized how aw­ful it was. The mother be­came thin; [her bones be­gan to show] and…the pups were thin too. [Be­cause] the com­pe­ti­tion for the milk was very high, the pups are mal­nour­ished; some were big and some were small. [That’s] why I didn’t main­tain this line; the char­ac­ter­is­tic of the num­ber of pups in each lit­ter can be also in­her­ited.” To al­low such a trait to pass on would be cruel, she de­clares. (With ad­di­tional text and edit­ing by CHAR­LENE BO­BIS; ad­di­tional photo cred­its to Swirly.bitz)

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