Where do Hamsters come from?

The “Hamster Rat”

So how did a desert rodent – detested and despised by farmers – transform its reputation into a cute, cuddly and positively loveable pocket pet (so named because these guys can literally fit in your pocket!)

I’m glad you asked.

Let’s go back in time to the 19th century – specifically 1829. That’s the year George Waterhouse, a British zoologist, stumbled across one of these tiny creatures in the Syrian city of Aleppo. For reasons unknown, he called the rodent Cricetus auratus – or golden hamster. He brought the animal back to the United Kingdom, where they were enthusiastically greeted as pets. But their popularity wouldn’t last.

It appeared that owning a small rodent was merely a trend – a craze, if you will – and before you could say “hamster wheel,” the rodents disappeared.

But luckily for hamster lovers all over the world, that wasn’t the end of the story. Fast forward to the 20th century – 1930 to be exact – when another zoologist, this time Israel Aharoni from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, discovered a female hamster complete with twelve offspring in the Syrian Desert.

The hamster who rocked the zoological world

Who would think that a discovery like this would rock the zoological world? But indeed, it did. For those who took their study of rodents seriously – and professionally – Dr Aharoni had just delivered quite a coup.

Few experts – let alone laypeople – had even heard of hamsters. Those who did know about them knew that not one had been spotted for almost 100 years. The natural assumption amongst scientists was that the species had become extinct. After Dr Ahoroni’s discovery, the experts now learned that the animal was merely elusive – preferring to live the life of a hermit, out of view. Hamsters thrive in the tunnels they create.

Dr Aharoni did what any respectable zoologist would do – he took the newly discovered family back to Jerusalem with him. Unfortunately, he knew far too little about what was needed to keep them alive. Only a quarter of the litter survived, but he was able to breed those who did survive. But the road to celebrity status was not to be an easy one for the hamster. And he had to endure many years of hardship.

As you may know, it wasn’t very long ago that hamsters were used for the longest time as a laboratory animals. While this may not have been a humane fate for this tiny creature, this did help to teach us how to keep the animals healthy in captivity. And as you might guess, this knowledge would be essential later when hamsters became a popular pet.

You can still find an occasional lab hamster, though not nearly as many as a generation ago. Today, hamsters are the revered pet of many a household.