Niacin and European Hamsters

The European hamster is much larger than it’s Syrian cousins. Cricetus cricetus has made it’s way to the UK as part of the exotic pet trade but is still very much a specialist animal to keep. Growing to over 20cm long, reportedly, it’s certainly not an animal for the regular pet owner!

An interesting study is circulating the internet. The effect of a diet of corn on the European Hamster. Whilst it is an intriguing look at the wider issues of vitamin deficiency, I do take umbrage when I read some what sensationalist headlines. Take the following as an example:-

You’d think a website that looks into scientific topics would be somewhat restrained. The heading reads:

Corn Turning French Hamsters into Deranged Cannibals: Research

And goes on to make several spurious comments. I’ll go through those below and then move onto the actual research.

Firstly, the article points out that the hamsters are wild specimens. I’d dispute this as, further down, the article tells me that the ‘usually cute and cuddly’ hamsters turn savage without niacin. Now you can have tame European hamsters or wild ones, but not both. Given what I’ve heard of those brought into the UK I’d suggest that there are no such things as ‘cute and cuddly’ European hamsters yet. This is important as my feeling is the results of the research have been somewhat beefed up. We shall see.

Of course, one glaring issue is that hamsters in general need no excuse to cannibalise their young. It’s something they will do in a variety of situations. Although the study seems to have robustly controlled for these other factors it does not take into account whether the same hamster, once deprived of niacin, then goes on to cannibalise when it previously did not. Or vice versa. Is it purely the issue of niacin or could it be that other dietary factors are at play here. Certainly a diet consisting of purely corn is deficient in many aspects. The article claims that merely the introduction of one vitamin was enough for these hamsters to reproduce successfully. Well, the control group was fed a very different diet that was varied while this one was fed corn enriched with niacin….I find it hard to understand how pups were raised successfully in the absence of protein. I’d like to read the original research to find out exactly what the researchers did feed.

The elephant in the room is the headline. I can see pet forums erupting into a sea of ‘I told you so, corn is evil’ type posts. Just when we’ve managed to reassure the pet owning public that picking out corn from their pet’s food isn’t necessary we see headlines like this. So it’s important to think critically and see past this to the wider view. It’s is the fact that they solely eat corn that is the issue. It isn’t varied. A better headline may have been ‘unbalanced diet leads to….’?

There is also a leap to take the wide ranging symptoms of niacin deficiency in people and apply them all to hamsters. Dementia, for example, is displayed very differently in dogs and cats so it stands to reason that we’ve no idea how it manifests in rodents for certain. Dementia itself can vary wildly from person to person, so even the idea that all the hamsters acted the same is suspicious.

The link to the actual study can be found here:-

The Royal Society Publishing

If anyone has online access to this I’d certainly be interested in reading it. The issue of the effect of agriculture on native species is an important subject to highlight and the effects of vitamin defiency in hamsters is also of wider interest to us as keepers. The species is endangered so it is vital that this sort of work goes on to aid in securing a better habitat for these hamsters, not just in terms of monoculture vs biodiversity but also human encroachment, use of pesticides etc.

Don’t destroy the credibility of this sort of research by sensationalising it. It very much distracts from the scientific work.

I guess that’s my rant of the week! Seriously though, someone get me a copy of this research. Send it to my email address at Doric Hamsters and let’s have a look.

**featured photo is courtesy of Kimballstock