How Smart Are Hamsters? Everything We Know About Their Intelligence

Written by Sarah Psaradelis
Updated: September 13, 2023
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Hamsters are small rodents from the Cricetidae family, one of the largest families of mammals. As rodents, hamsters are rarely recognized for their intelligence. They are commonly viewed as disposable, marketed as starter pets for children. However, hamsters are more intelligent than you might think.

Their intelligence is one of the many reasons they are kept as pets and used as laboratory animals. This article discusses how smart hamsters are and everything we currently know about their intelligence.

Cognitive Capabilities: Understanding Hamsters Problem-Solving Skills and Learning Aptitude

Hamsters are naturally smart animals that can solve problems and learn from past experiences. They can respond to human vocal cues, learn complex cognitive skills, understand the behavior-and-reward system, and keep their living space organized. Furthermore, hamsters have certain regions in their brains that are linked to intelligence.

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teddy bear hamster on a rock

Hamsters have been known to show problem-solving skills that are a sign of intelligence.

©Anastasia Solovykh/Shutterstock.com

Below are several ways hamsters reveal their intelligence:

1. They Respond to Human Vocal Cues

A hamster’s strongest sense is their smell, but their hearing comes second best. This allows hamsters to hear our voices and respond to sounds, such as awakening when they hear the sound of our voice when we call their names for treats. These rodents have poor eyesight and rely on their other senses such as sight, taste, and smell to navigate their environment.

Hamsters have excellent hearing, and they can even pick up on ultrasonic frequencies outside of a human’s hearing range. Their low-frequency hearing range means that they can hear sounds below 100 Hz. Although their exact range of hearing is not well understood, many hamster owners can agree that they respond to our voices and sounds that they are familiar with.

2. Hamsters Learn Complex Cognitive Skills

Hamsters can learn various cognitive skills that make them intelligent. For example, hamsters demonstrate impressive complex skills when they build burrows, forage for food, or display previously learned behaviors they associate with a positive outcome. Hamsters have been known to learn tricks such as spinning around, completing obstacle courses, and even learning the approximate clock times they are fed and wait or beg for food.

3. They Understand the Behavior and Reward System

Animals that can understand the behavior and reward system are considered to have some degree of intelligence. Hamsters happen to be one of those animals, and they respond well to rewards in the form of food. This is mainly because hamsters are very food-motivated animals. They can understand that by doing certain tricks or behaviors, they can earn a treat in return. Hamsters will then apply those behaviors with the intention of getting a treat, even months after they have learned it.

4. Hamsters Keep Their Living Space Organized

Hamsters are some of the cleanest animals in the world. They regularly groom themselves to keep their fur free from dirt. However, hamster cleanliness doesn’t end with grooming. Hamsters will also keep their surrounding environment clean both in the wild and in captivity.

They form deep burrows with nesting sites and use different sections for their waste and food. This helps to prevent their food from getting soiled with urine or poop and keep their environment clean. Hamsters have been observed to throw poop out of their hideouts or move it to different sections of their enclosure.

Sunburst hamster food

Hamsters create deep burrows in the wild. They rely on their sense of smell to locate their burrows.

©polya_olya/Shutterstock.com

Potty training is often a huge success in hamsters since they usually urinate in the same spot. They can easily be trained to urinate in a designated potty spot, often with plenty of treats as motivation.

5. These Animals Have Complex Brain Regions

Hamsters have relatively small brains that weigh between 0.05 to 0.09 ounces. However, do not let their small brains dimmish their intelligence. Their brains consist of several complex regions, such as the cerebrum, hindbrain, midbrain, and neocortex. The cerebrum region plays a major role in a hamster’s conscious actions. The neocortex is a part of the cerebrum and is responsible for a hamster’s sensory perception, reproductive behaviors, cognition, and learning. Whereas the hindbrain controls basic bodily functions like breathing and heart rate, and the midbrain controls their vision and hearing. These brain regions are similar to the ones that humans have, although they are not as complex.

Intelligence In the Animal Kingdom: Comparing Hamsters to Other Species

Hamsters are fairly intelligent in their own ways, but they aren’t the most intelligent animals out there. Mammals are considered the smartest animals on earth, mainly because of their complex cognitive abilities and large brain-to-body ratios. Primates such as chimpanzees are some of the most intelligent animals in the world. They perform well at various tasks that are used to determine the intelligence of an animal, including social skills, emotional capacity, and problem-solving abilities.

However, terrestrial animals are not the only ones who are highly intelligent. The orca or killer whale is an example of a marine animal that is regarded as highly intelligent. Orcas have one of the largest brains among ocean animals and have numerous folds and regions responsible for intelligence. Neuroscientist Dr. Lori Marino considers orcas highly intelligent mammals who display behaviors such as specific diet preferences, cultural traditions, and dialects that only a smart animal can possess.

Killer Whale, orcinus orca, Female with Calf

Orcas or killer whales are highly intelligent cetaceans.

©slowmotiongli/Shutterstock.com

Although a hamster’s intelligence level might not be as complex as primates or cetaceans, that doesn’t mean that they are not smart. The exact level of a hamster’s intelligence has not been as thoroughly researched as some of the larger mammals.

Past Discoveries and Studies on Hamster’s Intelligence

Hamster intelligence and IQ haven’t been as well researched as some other animals, but there have been a few studies done.

One study acknowledged that hamsters have working memories (including spatial ones) that can be influenced by their circadian clocks, also known as day-and-night rhythms. Spatial memories are responsible for certain learning and problem-solving skills while allowing hamsters to recognize familiar objects and apply them to navigate their environment effectively. The study found that hamsters suffered from memory impairment when the parts of their brain responsible for their sleep and wake cycle, the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), were disrupted.

Another study found that hamsters show behavioral and psychological adaptations in response to changes in daylight lengths, specifically for winter. These seasonal changes are important for hamsters whose bodies need to undergo some major changes to survive cold winters or hot summers. This is a biological instinct that hamsters have to survive, and it is not necessarily a definite way to prove their intelligence.

Winter white dwarf hamster

Winter white dwarf hamsters or

Siberian

hamsters are used for scientific research.

©Tsesar Anna/Shutterstock.com

The Siberian hamster is the species commonly used for research purposes. However, Chinese hamsters are used too. They are used for several different research purposes, such as infectious disease or behavior studies. Siberian hamsters are often favored for seasonal biology studies because they go into torpor.

Final Thoughts

Hamsters are not only adorable rodents that make good pets, but they are intelligent too. These sentient rodents can learn, form memories, and perform various problem-solving skills. Although their brains might be tiny, hamsters prove they are intelligent through many of their everyday behaviors.  

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Perytskyy/ via Getty Images


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About the Author

Sarah is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering aquatic pets, rodents, arachnids, and reptiles. Sarah has over 3 years of experience in writing and researching various animal topics. She is currently working towards furthering her studies in the animal field. A resident of South Africa, Sarah enjoys writing alongside her pets and almost always has her rats perched on her shoulders.

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