Hamsters are small, furry, short-tailed creatures with large cheek pouches which carry food. They exist in a variety of breeds, coat types and colors, and belong to the family of rodents known as Cricetinae. The Syrian hamster is probably the type most commonly kept as a pet, and it exists in more than 40 different coat colors. Dwarf hamsters are smaller in size, requiring gentler handling. Campbell's Russian, Winter White Russian, Chinese and Roborovski hamsters are all classed as belonging to the dwarf group, although the Chinese variety are quite different, have longer tails and may be described as mouse-like.
Syrians are the biggest hamster type, being around 7 inches (about 18 cm) in length. They need to be kept alone to prevent fighting. The original coat color of the Syrian hamster is described as golden, appearing as a golden brown body with a white underside, gray ears and black eyes. Many other coat colors may be seen, including white, gray, yellow, cream, cinnamon and black. Coat colors may be solid or can occur in bands, spots or a tortoiseshell pattern, where there are flecks of two different colors.
Most Syrian hamsters are short-haired but they may also have long fur, or what is known as a rex coat. In a rex coat, the hairs have a slight wave which serves to make the fur stand out from the body. Satin coats are another possibility, where the fur is glossier than usual.
Campbell's Russian dwarf and Winter White Russian dwarf hamsters are small, only around 3 inches (about 8 cm) long, and both types have a short, grayish coat. In the wild, the coats of Winter Whites normally turn white in the winter months. While Campbell's and Winter Whites can live in groups, it is important to make sure that all members of a group are of the same sex, or breeding can quickly lead to large numbers of pets which could be difficult to look after. Roborovski hamsters are the smallest of the dwarf group, and are extremely active, making them difficult to handle. They are less than 2 inches (about 5 cm) in length, with short sandy gray fur, and may be kept in pairs.
Chinese hamsters are less commonly found as pets than the other hamster types. They are similar to mice in appearance, although they have much shorter tails, and the most common coat color is brown. Their bodies are slender and they are around 4 inches in length (about 10 cm). While they can live together, Chinese hamsters may need to be separated if fights break out.