Chinese hamsters, also known as Chinese striped hamsters or Chinese dwarf hamsters, are small rodents native to deserts of China and Mongolia. They’re not technically dwarf hamsters, but they received that name due to their small size in comparison to other common pet hamsters, such as the Syrian hamster. They’re typically brown with a black stripe running down their back and a lighter belly. They also have a longer tail than most other hamsters. As pets, these hamsters are fairly simple to care for. They are generally docile and easy to tame, though some can be a little skittish and nippy. Plus, their housing doesn’t take up much space, and their diet is easy to find in most pet stores.
Common Name: Chinese hamster, Chinese striped hamster, Chinese dwarf hamster
Scientific Name: Cricetus griseus
Adult Size: 3 to 5 inches long, weighing 1 to 2 ounces
Life Expectancy: 2 to 3 years
Chinese Hamster Behavior and Temperament
Chinese hamsters are nocturnal, meaning they sleep by day and are awake at night. But they sometimes might wake up during the day to eat and move around for a short time. Still, it’s best not to wake a sleeping hamster to handle it. That likely will make it grouchy, and it might try to bite you.
As pets, these hamsters are generally good-natured and comfortable being held if you’ve consistently handled them from a young age. But if they’re not used to handling, some can be nervous and nippy. Moreover, because they are very small and quick, they can be difficult to handle. It’s best to sit on the floor when holding your hamster, as accidentally dropping it from even a few feet high can cause serious injury.
Chinese hamsters won’t bond with people like a dog or cat would. But once they’re comfortable around you, they might come to the side of their enclosure if you’re nearby. Chinese hamsters can either be kept alone or in same-sex pairs or small groups. However, hamsters kept together might display territorial aggression toward one another. Your best bet to avoid aggression is to acquire littermates that can grow up together and become accustomed to each other’s presence. Avoid contact between your hamster and any other pets in the house, as they might injure this small, fragile rodent.
They are generally quiet pets, though they might keep you awake at night with their activity if you have their cage in your bedroom. Expect to spend a few hours each week on feedings and keeping the enclosure clean. Also, handle your pet and let it play in a small hamster exercise ball or other safe area outside of its enclosure for at least a few hours per day (likely in the evening once it’s awake).
Housing the Chinese Hamster
While these hamsters are tiny, they still need as large of an enclosure as you can fit and afford. This is typically their primary space for play and exercise, so having enough space is crucial for their health. At minimum, the cage should be 2 feet long, 1 foot wide, and 1 foot high.
Cage options are generally either one with a plastic base and wire top or a glass or plastic aquarium. The wire cage will allow for better airflow, but you have to make sure the bar spacing is narrow enough that your hamster can’t squeeze through them.
Place 1 to 2 inches of bedding, such as aspen shavings or paper-based products, in the bottom of the enclosure. Don’t use pine or cedar bedding, as they can cause respiratory issues in a hamster. Plus, include a nest or small animal hideout in the enclosure, which can be found at most pet stores. And add a hamster wheel with a solid surface for exercise. There also are all sorts of tubes, burrowing tunnels, and bridges that you can add to your hamster's habitat for enrichment. Moreover, make sure to include some wooden chew sticks or other chew toys made for hamsters, as this will help to wear down their continuously growing teeth.
Clean the enclosure at least once a week, replacing all the bedding and washing the surfaces with mild soap and water. Hamsters tend to pick a corner of their enclosure as their bathroom. So it’s a good idea to scoop out and change the bedding in that corner every day to keep it sanitary.
Food and Water
In the wild, hamsters eat a varied diet of seeds, grains, nuts, vegetation, and insects. In captivity, you can feed your animal a commercial hamster food that’s supplemented with vitamins and minerals. Follow the package instructions for how much to feed each day. Most owners put a day’s worth of food in a small ceramic bowl in the enclosure. You can do this at any point during the day, as hamsters like to graze throughout the day and night rather than eat designated meals.
Supplement the commercial hamster food with grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and timothy hay. Put these foods in a separate dish from your hamster’s main diet. Supplemental foods should make up no more than 10% of the hamster’s overall diet. Some options include pieces of apple, carrot, and oats. It’s best to feed fresh foods only when your hamster is awake (often in the evening), so it can eat them before they start to spoil. Remove any fresh food from the enclosure within 24 hours, making sure to look for pieces of food that your hamster might have stashed in the bedding.
Finally, hamsters always need access to clean water. It’s best to use a small animal water bottle attached to the side of the enclosure, which stays more sanitary than a water dish. But make sure your hamster is consistently drinking from the bottle before removing its water dish.
Common Health Problems
Hamsters are generally hardy animals, but they are prone to a few health problems. Wet tail is a common illness in rodents, especially hamsters. Formally known as proliferative ileitis or regional enteritis, wet tail is diarrhea that typically arises from stress or unsanitary living conditions, which bring on a bacterial infection. Besides having diarrhea, your hamster might be lethargic and lose its appetite. Seek veterinary care immediately, as wet tail can be fatal if it’s not treated. Plus, it can be contagious to any other hamsters in the enclosure. So if you do have other hamsters, put them in a separate cage and monitor them for symptoms. Thoroughly clean the primary enclosure, and don't reunite the hamsters until you're sure they're all symptom free.
Hamsters also are prone to respiratory infections. Symptoms include wheezing, nasal discharge, sneezing, and lethargy. This condition also requires prompt veterinary treatment.
Furthermore, when they don’t have adequate chew toys, some hamsters might experience overgrown teeth, which can interfere with their ability to eat. You might notice your hamster’s teeth look longer than normal, or you might just see it’s not eating and losing weight. A veterinarian can trim the teeth if necessary and then advise you on proper dental maintenance.
Purchasing Your Chinese Hamster
Chinese hamsters are legal to keep in most areas. But some places, including California and New Jersey, require an exotic animal permit for them. Make sure you check your local regulations, which can differ from state law.
These hamsters can be found at many pet stores, but it’s better to go through a reputable breeder or rescue organization. Good breeders and rescues should be able to give you more thorough information about the animal’s origin, health, temperament, and care needs. Make sure the seller doesn’t house male and female hamsters together, or you could end up going home with a pregnant female that you weren’t planning for.
Observe the hamsters before selecting one. And note whether the seller keeps its animals’ enclosures clean. A dirty enclosure increases the chance of health issues. If the hamster is awake, it should be active and alert, exploring its enclosure. But if it’s daytime and the hamsters are sleeping, you still can look for signs of a healthy animal. Its fur should be clean and without any bald or ruffled areas. It shouldn't have any mucus on the face or wetness around the tail, which might indicate infection. Also, its breathing should be even and unlabored. If possible, ask the seller whether you can wake the hamster with a treat to make sure it moves normally. But expect it to be a little groggy.
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Feeney, William P. The Chinese Or Striped-Back Hamster. The Laboratory Rabbit, Guinea Pig, Hamster, And Other Rodents, 2012, pp. 907-922. Elsevier, doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-380920-9.00035-3
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