Guinea Pigs and Hamsters
Nature Bulletin No. 747 March 14, 1964
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist
GUINEA PIGS AND HAMSTERS
Many of us share our homes and family life with four-footed, warm-
blooded pets. Dogs and Cats are most common but, occasionally,
rabbits, rats or mice of various domesticated races are house pets. This
select list also includes the guinea pig and a fairly recent addition, the
hamster, which has become very popular in the United States.
The Syrian or Golden Hamster has come to be known as "The
hamster" although many other wild species and varieties of these
rodents are found in Europe and Asia. Because of their habit of
hoarding food they get the name "hamster" which, in German, means
a selfish or greedy person.
Somewhat smaller than a rat, the golden hamster is a fat chubby little
animal with thick, soft, golden brown fur, short legs and a little
bobbed tail. It is active only at night. A pair of large cheek pouches are
used to carry food to its burrow which is a deep network of tunnels. It
includes a grass-lined nest chamber and storerooms that may contain
as much as a bushel of wheat or other grain. In its native Syria these
food caches often are robbed for human food.
The naked, pink, blind young are born in litters of seven or more. At
two weeks of age their eyes are open, they are completely furred, and
are beginning to forage for themselves. In another week they forsake
their mother and each digs a burrow of its own. Other litters follow at
monthly intervals. Young females can start bearing young at six
weeks. Two years is old age. Because of the hamster's high rate of
reproduction it is a pest in agricultural lands where it is native.
In 1930 a man from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem captured a
litter of young from which a male and two females survived in
captivity. This Adam and his two Eves were the ancestors of all the
golden hamsters now in homes, pet shops and laboratories. The first
ones were brought to the United States in 1938.
As a pet, the hamster is clean and reasonably gentle. Adults fight if
caged together and sometimes nip a finger if handled roughly.
However, there is no danger from rabies since they are reared in
The Guinea Pig grunts but it is not a pig. It does not come from
Guinea in Africa but from South America. From there, the Dutch and
English slave traders (nicknamed Guineamen) brought it to Europe in
the 16th Century. Its wild ancestor, the cavy, belongs to a group of
about twenty species in South America. One of these, the capybara,
reaches the weight of a hundred pounds and is the world' s largest
living rodent. The Inca Indians of Peru domesticated the guinea pig
and used it for food long before the discovery of America.
The guinea pig is a chunky, one-pound animal with a large head, short
legs, and no tail at all. It walks flat-footed like a man or a bear. The
fur of different breeds may be long or short, silky or coarse, smooth or
in odd whorls -- with a bewildering array of colors and color patterns.
They are widely used in the study of heredity.
give birth to four or more young two months after mating.
Well developed from the first, with eyes open and a coat of fur, the
infants can scamper within a few hours and begin to nibble greens
next day. They mature in a few months and can live to be eight years
old. Friendly and harmless, they grunt when hungry and converse in
The guinea pig is import ant in medicine where they are used for
testing the potency of vaccines, serums, antitoxins and the virulence of
disease germs. In research laboratories it has been partially replaced by
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Update: June 2012