Honey, I ate the kids!
Who could resist a fluffy ball with beady black eyes, little pink paws, a stubby twitching nose and tiny pointed ears? For most people who visit pet shops (including me), they peer into the glass rectangular box, watching the little rodents scurry from corner to corner, face so close to the glass, their breath fogging up a spot on it as they echo a chorus of “Awws”.
They. Eat. Their. Young.
This almost simultaneously begets a series of gasps and exclamations of “No!” and “Ewww!” These hamsters don’t seem as cute as before now do they? So why do they do it?
Having had Winter White hamsters growing up, my mother used to tell me “if your hamster gives birth, better cover the cage with a cloth and don’t stare”. I was led to believe, as many others did, that cannibalism was caused by the mother feeling threatened or stressed resulting in a protective instinct to consume the offspring. However, the relationship between such factors and the frequency of pup cannibalism has yet to be empirically proven. Instead, research has paved way for more realistic reasons such as hormonal changes and litter size.
1. Hormonal Changes
Thelma E. Rowell, the author of the journal article, “Maternal Behaviour in Non-Maternal Golden Hamsters” came up with the hypothesis that hormonal changes that induced the hamsters to lactate affected whether the mother hamster would act more maternally by retrieving and caring for the pups rather than devouring it, an extreme non-maternal behavior.
However, this speculation was disproved as multiple experiments showed that “even lactating females do not always show maternal responses to their own pups”(Rowell 1961, 14) . She then attributes the complexity of the hamster to their solitary nature which he then proves is “of particular importance in determining behavior towards young”(Rowell 1961, 14), leading to the second reason of litter size as further investigated by Corrine Sali’s report.
2. Litter Size
Did you know pup cannibalism is not exclusive to hamster? Other animals that commit cannibalism include mice and white stork. Their reasons run parallel to each other.
Researchers Lack and Wynne-Edwards observed that such cannibalism was adaptive and the parent stork consumed varying amounts of their offspring according to the abundance of food available. (Day 1976, 4) Similarly, Corrine Sali observed that for the golden hamsters, “If litter size is artificially reduced by removing pups from the litter, the mother reduces cannibalism proportionally. If litter size is increased on the day of parturition, by giving the mother newborn foster pups, she will exhibit a compensatory increase in cannibalism”(Day 1976, iv). This is to ensure that her litter size is compatible with her capacity to rear young under those environmental conditions.
So to all the current and future owners of hamsters, should they give birth, just separate the mother from the pup and all problems will be solved.
Also, I will gladly take those adorable babies off your hands should you decide to give them away (:
Clara Ko (A0099349J)
Rowell, Thelma E. (1961), Maternal Behaviour in non-maternal golden hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus), Animal Behaviour 9 (1-2), pp 11-15. Accessed 4 April 2013 from
Day, Corinne Sali Dulberg, (1976), Pup Cannibalism: A Description and Causal Analysis of One Aspect of Maternal Behaviour of the Golden Hamster (Mesocricetus auratus), Open Access Dissertations and Theses, Paper 819. Accessed 4 April 2013 from