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The Margin: Forget dogs and cats —hamsters are quickly becoming the ‘it’ pet

When Samantha Slaven-Bick went looking for a hamster last summer as a gift for her animal-loving 11-year-old son, she quickly discovered she was hardly alone in her quest.

“Everyone wanted one during COVID,” recalls the Los Angeles resident. She visited three pet stores that were sold out, before finally finding an establishment that had the pint-sized pets in stock.

Hamsters have indeed surged in popularity in recent years, along with similar creatures — think rabbits, gerbils and guinea pigs — that belong to what the pet industry classifies as the “small animals” category. In a survey released last year, the American Pet Products Association, a trade group, noted that 6.2 million American households keep a small animal as a pet, a figure that grew by 800,000 households since a previous survey in 2019.

The association noted that 27% of those 6.2 million households have a hamster. Do the math and that’s roughly 1.5 million American homes with the furry creatures.

The rodents have been in the news this week for an entirely different reason. In Hong Kong, authorities are stopping the sale of hamsters and culling some 2,000 small animals, including hamsters, after a number of the rodents tested positive for coronavirus. There is fear the hamsters could pass the virus on to humans, especially after Hong Kong authorities also learned that a pet-shop employee tested positive.

“All pet owners should observe good personal hygiene, and after you have been in contact with animals and their food, you should wash your hands,” a Hong Kong official said.

Still, Dr. José Arce, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, says hamster owners shouldn’t be too worried. He says the risk of a hamster contracting the virus and then spreading it to a human is “very low,” based on scientific research, though he cautions that pet owners should always be mindful.

“If we take the basic sanitary precautions, we can live happily with hamsters,” he says.

Dr. Arce isn’t surprised that hamsters are becoming popular. He says they make a great “starter pet” in that their needs are fairly minimal, but they can still form a solid bond with their owners. Hamsters can also provide a good education for children in what it means to care for a pet, he adds.

““If we take the basic sanitary precautions, we can live happily with hamsters.””

— Dr. José Arce, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association

Not that there aren’t adults who appreciate hamsters. Robert Peterpaul, an actor, writer and podcast host who lives in Connecticut, got a hamster during the early days of the pandemic. He says that he and his fiancé, Cassie Carroll, felt they didn’t have room in their small apartment for a dog or a cat, but wanted a pet to keep them company during that especially trying time.

Their hamster, Butter, fit the bill. “You could pick her up and hold her…She was really interactive,” Peterpaul says. (Alas, Butter died last year — hamsters have a fairly short lifespan.)

Of course, not every hamster owner reports having such a relationship with their pet. Some hamsters can bite. And the fact they are nocturnal creatures may not work in every pet owner’s favor.

Slaven-Bick says her hamster’s nighttime habit of using the exercise wheel doesn’t exactly make for a quiet evening situation. She goes as far as to say she much prefers her family’s other pets, including a reptile known as a bearded dragon, to the hamster she acquired for her son. But even then, the hamster, called Moon, has her moments.

“I will say she’s very cute,” says Slaven-Bick.

As popular as hamsters are becoming, they aren’t nearly as ubiquitous as dogs and cats, according to the American Pet Products Association’s most recent survey. Dogs are the most common pet in the U.S., with 69 million households having one. Cats come in second with 45.3 million households owning one.

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