The Chinese Hamster is a delightful creature, with the endearing habit of clinging to its handler’s fingers like a harvest mouse. They are packed full of personality, and are very intelligent. They make fabulous pets.
The Chinese Hamster originates in North-Eastern China. They were first domesticated around 1919, and were used originally as a laboratory animal. In the latter half of last century interest increased in the Chinese Hamster as a pet and show animal. It is, however, still not as common as other hamster species in pet shops.
The Chinese Hamster looks very like a mouse without the long tail. They are long and slender, with a short prehensile tail, large dark eyes, and tulip shaped ears. It is part of a group of 6 species classified as “rat-like” hamsters. An adult Chinese Hamster is about 4 inches (10-12cm) long and weighs up to about 45-50g.
There are only two colours that are regularly seen in Chinese Hamsters, the Normal and the Dominant Spot. A third colour, Black-eyed White, occurs randomly and very rarely within litters with two Dominant Spot parents.
The Normal is the wild coloration and is a rich mahogany brown with black ticking on the upper two thirds of the body. From under the cheekbone in a straight line from the cheek to the tail, and under the stomach and legs the Normal is white with a grey undercoat. The Normal has a black stripe running from the forehead along the spine to the tail.
The Dominant Spot is a very attractive animal. The base colour is white with patches of the Normal colour scattered (ideally in an even pattern in a show animal) across the upper part of the body. There is often a concentration of brown colour along the spine. The Dominant Spot also has the black stripe from the forehead down the spine to the tail.
Once tame the Chinese Hamster is a joy to handle. Once they are tamed they are happy to sit in their handler’s hands, or to climb up a sleeve.
The adult male Chinese hamster is very obviously male, as they have very prominent testicles. This difference between the sexes is very evident by about 8 weeks of age.
Before this time you can tell the sexes apart by the distances between the two genital openings. The distance between the anus and genitals in the male animal is twice that of the female. Equally the male has fur between anus and penis whereas the female’s genitalia are closer together without fur in between.
I have personally found that the best housing for my Chinese Hamsters is a glass aquarium with a close-fitting lid made of wood and mesh. The tank can accommodate a decent layer of substrate (which then doesn’t go all over the floor) which the hamsters can burrow into. I use 24”x12”x12” tanks, 18”x 10” x10” tanks (for singles or pups) and the 8 boys are kept in a 48”x 15”x 12” tank.
My hamsters are kept on white shredded paper bedding, but other keepers use wood shavings, Aspen bedding, Megazorb, and some have kept Chinese hamsters in a Gerbilarium type substrate consisting of compost, chopped straw or hay, and sand which replicates the substrate that these animals would encounter in the wild.
Other hamster keepers have kept these animals in mouse cages (be careful that these are not too small), modified plastic storage tubs, and Rotostack-type accommodation Chinese Hamsters can squeeze through the tiniest of spaces so many barred cages sold for other hamsters are unsuitable for Chinese hamsters as they would squeeze through the bars.
When active these creatures can whiz around their accommodation, so they need lots to occupy them. They love wheels, but care should be taken that they are given solid wheels rather than ones with open spokes to prevent injuries to the legs and tail. Cardboard rolls are among my hamster’s favourite toys as they replicate the burrows that they would create in the wild.
In the wild the Chinese Hamster eats grasses, shoots, and seeds, supplemented by a few insects. This combination can be replicated in captivity by providing a good quality hamster mix, fresh vegetables and either a little cooked chicken, or mealworms or crickets.
Pups, expectant and nursing mothers and elderly hamsters can benefit from milky porridge. My hamsters adore Whiskas Cat milk.
My hamsters have a combination of the following mixed in equal parts:
- Beaphar hamster mix
- Pinhead Oatmeal
- Hemp seed
- Sunflower Seed
- Budgie Tonic Seed
A dog biscuit can also be added to the hamster’s cage as these are very good for the hamster to gnaw on to wear down their teeth.
My hamsters also adore stripping the seeds off Millet sprays.
They also have a variety of fresh vegetables – favourites with Chinese Hamsters seem to be Broccoli, Cauliflower, and Cucumber. A little vegetable should be given daily.
My Chinese hamsters also have a little cooked Chicken three times a week.
Chinese Hamsters have a tendency to develop Diabetes. There is a possibility that this condition can be prevented, or alleviated by a diet low in sugar. These hamsters would not come across refined sugars in their wild environment so their digestive systems are not geared up to take sweet treats or foods.
In order to see whether diet is effective in the treatment or prevention of Diabetes my Chinese hamsters are not given any refined sugars, raisins, peas, fruit (fruit sugars), sweetcorn (maize), or carrot. I will be interested over the next couple of years to see whether this diet prevents the incidence of Diabetes in my hamstery. At present I have only one hamster with the condition – a two and a half year old Dominant Spot male.
As stated in the previous section Chinese Hamsters can suffer from Diabetes. This can be tested using Diastix, which are available from the chemist. Just pop the hamster in a plastic travel container without any bedding, wait until the hamster obliges with a urine sample, and dip the Diastix into the urine. The colour will change if the hamster has a problem.
This condition is not as common with Chinese Hamsters as it is within the Campbell’s species. Chinese hamsters with this condition tend to drink and eat more than normal, but do not waste away in the same way as Campbell’s hamsters. Chinese hamsters with Diabetes can live a normal life span. Just provide plenty of clean drinking water, and offer a sugar-free, high protein diet.
Chinese hamsters can catch colds and other maladies from their human handlers, so if you have a cold, cough or a stomach bug, wash your hands thoroughly before changing the hamster’s food and water and don’t handle the hamster until you are feeling better.
The Chinese Hamster becomes sexually mature at about 5 weeks of age.
Breeding Chinese Hamsters can be a little tricky. Mature females can be highly aggressive to the males and can cause them serious injury. There are a number of ways to get around this:
- Introduce a male and female pup to each other by the time that they are 5 weeks old, and let them grow up together. A number of breeders have had considerable success using this method.
- Introduce a younger female to an older male. In this situation (in general- it doesn’t always work) the male will be dominant.
- If a female has already had a litter place her with the male on the day of her season. Females come into season every four days and come into season straight after having their litters, so their season can be accurately worked out.
It is best to introduce the hamsters on neutral ground or in the male’s cage – never introduce them in the female’s cage as this could lead to serious fighting. Once a female has mated her gestation period is 18-21 days. Once the female is pregnant she can become highly aggressive to the male. If the hamster owner wants to try and keep the breeding pair together, then plenty of hiding places should be provided so that the male can get out of the way of his mate.
The female only shows her pregnancy a few days before she is due to give birth. When she does show she will look as though she has swallowed a barrel!!!
Female Chinese Hamsters give birth to 2-7 naked, blind pups. The female will come into season again a few hours after birth, so if another litter is not wanted the male should be removed before the birth.
The young pups develop very quickly. They begin to develop their fur coats at about five days. By fourteen days the pups are miniatures of their parents and are eating and drinking independently. The male pups should be separated from their mother and sisters at about three and a half to four weeks old. The female pups can stay with their mothers until they are found new homes.
The pups can be nervous to start with, but get used to handling very quickly. The pups are like quicksilver at first so it may be wise to handle them in or over their cage until they are used to the experience.
Chinese Hamsters are unpredictable towards their own kind. They are highly territorial, particularly in the case of the females. However, despite this, as well as being kept as a solitary animal, the Chinese Hamster can be kept in single sex or breeding pairs, or single sex groups. Some breeders have also kept them in colonies.
If these hamsters are kept in pairs or groups the owner must keep an eye out at all times for aggression. Squabbles can often be heard within the pairs or groups as individuals decide to argue about a sunflower seed or bit of space. However, if the hamster owner discovers cuts on their hamsters then the animals should be separated immediately. I have a group of 8 boys living together, and other groups including a group of 3 girls, and another of 3 boys. The group of 8 boys were introduced to each other when the eldest was a year and a half old and the youngest was 8 weeks old.
However, I also have other hamsters that will not live with another hamster as they want their own space. Like people, these animals are complete individuals…..some like company, and some very definitely want to live alone. There are no hard and fast rules with this.
Hamster owners can try to keep the Chinese Hamster in pairs or groups, but should be prepared to keep the animals in separate cages if the need arises.
The Chinese Hamster generally lives longer than a number of other species of hamster. On average they can live two and a half to three years, but can live to four years.
Article by Heather Carol for the Southern Hamster Club