An Early Hamster Book

Pamela Milward

Some of you may be aware that I have quite a large collection of hamster books and at this year’s London Championships I was able to find a very interesting one. It is ‘Hamster Guidance’ by Jean E.Cook FZS published in 1948 with a foreword by Edward Hindle Sc.D,FSS, whom you will know received the first pair of hamsters from Syria. I felt members might like to hear of the advice given in this book to new owners and see how this differed from that given fifty years later.

In 1948 there were of course only normal goldens available but it was already noted that the original light grey of the belly fur was becoming whiter and the head which had been narrow and rat-like was broadening. Both changes had been brought about by careful selective breeding. Also, in the USA a white headed mutation had appeared.

For housing it was recommended that wooden boxes 24” by 12” by 9” high be used with wire netting hinged tops and a glass window on one of the long sides, the wood used being a minimum of 5/8” thickness. As these couldn’t be stacked it was stated that rabbit hutches would be suitable and that asbestos slate was a suitable construction material.

One of the greatest differences was in feeding as at that time there were no special hamster mixes and by law no foods suitable for human consumption might be fed to animals whilst food rationing, including bread, was still in force. The basic food was Spratt’s Cat food with added vegetables and household scraps. This was made into a mash and and moistened with goat’s milk or gravy. As this might be deficient in fat and minerals it was advised that one teaspoonful of cod liver oil for every 25 hamsters be added twice a week and a little salt and limestone also included. For extra protein and variety it was suggested that worms or caterpillars be given and also that acorns and blackberries would be enjoyed. Expectant females should have bone meal and cod liver oil added to the mash daily as well as goat’s milk available. New owners were advised to start with an eight week old male and when he was over three months to then buy a female. For best breeding results the female should be younger than the male although if a young or inexperienced male male was used then the female should be older.

Advice on breeding includes the hint that a female in season can be identified by hot feet. There is mention of using hamsters for research and says that those lacking size or with poor bone formation could be sold for this. Youngsters should be removed from the female at four to five weeks old. The females may then be run together until around eight weeks whilst males could be kept together longer but it is warned that if so they may be poor breeders, so it was better to separate them at seven weeks.

There are only three ailments mentioned. The first was sarcoptic mange which might be caught from rats or mice or from unclean hay. There was no cure for this and so it was best to destroy any infected hamster - a gas bottle was the kindest method and details of these could be found in the club Year Book. The cage was then washed with ammonia and the surfaces burned with a blow lamp. The second illness was chest infection. It was advised to put the hamster in a box with hay and Vick vapour rubbed on the surfaces. It was said that this usually effected a cure. The final trouble was hibernation which might occur if the temperature dropped below 36ºF. It was believed to be mainly hereditary if it happened at temperatures above 36ºF or caused by poor nutrition, especially lack of fat in the diet.

The British Hamster Club had been started in 1945. Membership cost 8/- for adults or 14/- for a partnership. Shows were advertised in ‘Fur & Feather’ then costing 4d a copy. Entry fees were 1/- for members or 2/- for non-members. (Ed’s note: younger readers may not be familiar with pre-decimal money. 1/- was a shilling which was equivalent to 5 pence.) There were usually five or six classes including - Adult male, Adult female, Novice exhibit and Novice exhibitor as well as AOS (Any Other Shade). Any hamster that was of a lighter or darker shade of golden than the standard should be entered in this class so it seems as though the standard was adhered to strictly.

Hamster show pens were identical to those of today and could be purchased for 7/6 or you could buy the front bars for 3/6 and make your own. Many hamsters were sent to the shows by rail. They travelled in their show pens with wood flakes and hay plus a two day supply of dry food and some root vegetable, not greens. On arrival at the show the stewards fed and offered water and removed the bedding. New hay was given for the return journey and also Spratt’s Cat Food. It was advised not to brush or wash hamsters but to rub them with a silk handkerchief before showing or place them in a well-ventilated box of hay for an hour or two.

I find these differences and similarities between the way we now care for our hamsters and those advised then fascinating and I’m sure we can still learn from them.

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