Hamsters are rodents belonging to the subfamily Cricetinae. The subfamily contains about 25 species, classified in six or seven genera. They have become established as popular small house pets, and partly because they are easy to breed in captivity, hamsters are often used as laboratory animals.

In the wild, hamsters are crepuscular and remain underground during the day to avoid being caught by predators. They feed primarily on seeds, fruits, and vegetation, and will occasionally eat burrowing insects. They have elongated cheek pouches extending to their shoulders in which they carry food back to their burrows.

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Hamsters are typically stout-bodied, with tails shorter than body length, and have small, furry ears, short, stocky legs, and wide feet. They have thick, silky fur, which can be long or short, colored black, grey, honey, white, brown, yellow, red, or a mix, depending on the species. Two species of hamster belonging to the genus Phodopus, Campbell's dwarf hamster (P. campbelli) and the Djungarian hamster (P. sungorus), and two of the genus Cricetulus, the Chinese striped hamster (C. barabensis) and the Chinese hamster (C. griseus) have a dark stripe down their heads to their tails. The species of genus Phodopus are the smallest, with bodies 5.5 to 10.5 cm (2.2 to 4.1 in) long; the largest is the European hamster (Cricetus cricetus), measuring up to 34 cm (13.4 in) long, not including a short tail of up to 6 cm (2.4 in). The Angora hamster, also known as the long-haired or teddy bear hamster, which is a type of the golden hamster is the second-largest hamster breed, measuring up to 18 cm (7.1 in) long.

The hamster tail can be difficult to see, as it is usually not very long (about 1/6 the length of the body), with the exception of the Chinese dwarf hamster, which has a tail the same length as the body. One rodent characteristic that can be highly visible in hamsters is their sharp incisors; they have an upper pair and lower pair which grow continuously throughout life, so must be regularly worn down. Hamsters are very flexible, but their bones are somewhat fragile. They are extremely susceptible to rapid temperature changes and drafts, as well as extreme heat or cold.