The term "dwarf hamsters" refers to several tiny species of hamsters suitable for a first pet or classroom environment. These social little creatures differ from their larger, more territorial, cousins, thriving in pairs or small groups as opposed to living alone. They are easy to handle, fun to watch, and require very little care, other than food and water, a clean cage, and an outlet for exercise. Dwarf hamsters are known for biting, but this shouldn't deter you from getting one. Hamsters can be trained not to nip with careful handling.
- Scientific names: Phodopus campbelli; Phodopus roborovskii; Cricetulus griseus
- Lifespan: 3 years
- Size: Adults grow to up to 5 centimeters in length and can weigh up to 2 ounces
- Care difficulty: Beginner
Dwarf Hamster Behavior and Temperament
Dwarf hamsters come in many species and each species exhibits certain characteristics that make them unique. The Campbell hamster is a curious little creature and very easy to handle. The Robo (or Roborovski) hamster—the smallest of the species, weighing in at a mere 25 grams—stays awake during the day, more so than other varieties. And the Chinese hamster (not technically a dwarf species, but just as small in size) loves tunneling, especially through its bedding.
All hamsters are nocturnal, meaning they play and eat during the night and rest during the day. However, this very adaptable pet adjusts to its owner's sleeping and waking times, making it fun to be around when you're ready to play. Most dwarf breeds are easy to handle and the Robos and Chinese hamsters are less likely to nip or bite when a hand enters their cage.
Housing the Dwarf Hamster
A dwarf hamster's habitat should be large, allowing for maximum exercise and play. Their cage should be escape-proof—made of glass, plastic, or metal with a solid bottom and a grated, open-air top. For bedding, provide a 1- to 2-inch layer of high quality shredded paper or hardwood shavings (cedar-based products should be avoided, as they can be toxic to small animals). Change the bedding once a week during regular cleaning and disinfecting of the habitat and remove wet spots daily. Also, provide plenty of wood chew sticks or mineral chews. Chewing on objects maintains a hamster's incisor teeth, which grow continuously.
Hamsters acclimate well to average household temperatures, making them easy creatures to have in your bedroom or living area. But be cautious of extreme temperature changes—these little mammals should never be kept in direct sunlight or in a drafty area.
Dwarf hamsters may be kept in same-sex pairs if they are raised together. Otherwise, keep adult hamsters housed separately due to their solitary nature. And don't house different species of small animals together.
Food and Water
A well-balanced dwarf hamster diet consists of high-quality lab blocks—containing the complete nutrients and vitamins a hamster needs—and limited amounts of grain, vegetables, fruit, and Timothy hay. Supplemental food should not exceed 10 percent of your hamster's total daily diet to assure it is getting the correct nutrition it needs to stay healthy. In addition to fresh food, make sure to supply your hamster with filtered, chlorine-free water daily. Any vegetables and fruit not eaten within 24 hours should be discarded. And do not feed your dwarf hamster chocolate, caffeine, or alcohol, as these food items can cause serious medical conditions. Also, avoid sugar and high fat treats.
Common Health Problems
Dwarf hamsters can succumb to a variety of health problems including abnormal hair loss, skin lesions, digestive problems, complete with diarrhea or a dirty bottom, teeth problems, and diabetes (to name a few).
Hair loss and skin lesions can result from several different issues, the most common being the appearance of bald spots from rubbing up against things or from getting picked on by cage mates. Abscesses or any unknown condition should be inspected by your vet who will, most likely, prescribe a round of antibiotics or other medicine to resolve the issue.
Digestive upset usually goes along with some type of infection of the digestive tract. Wet tail—a bacterial infection—sometimes results from stressful living conditions or improper care and is highly contagious. Hamsters with wet tail should be treated immediately by a veterinarian, as this condition can lead to death within 48 to 72 hours.
Dwarf hamsters, especially Campbell's hamsters and Chinese hamsters, are especially prone to diabetes. However, this can be easily prevented by assuring a diet low in sugar and by providing plenty of opportunity for exercise.
A hamster's teeth must be worn down by chewing to prevent tooth overgrowth which can affect eating habits. Providing high-quality chewable materials prevents both overgrowth and decay. If you do notice your hamster's long teeth becoming a problem, have them trimmed by the vet, and then assure proper care following the procedure.
Generally speaking, a healthy hamster is active, alert, and social and eats and drinks regularly. If you notice the appearance or behavior of your hamster is a little "off," don't hesitate to contact your veterinarian.
Purchasing Your Dwarf Hamster
If your children are begging to get a dwarf hamster as an introduction to pet caretaking, it's best to buy your pet from a reputable breeder. Search the web or contact local pet stores to find one near you. If you plan to purchase a hamster at a pet store, observe the littler first, and then choose one that looks healthy, happy, and alert. Do note, however, that due to a hamster's nocturnal nature, the selection may seem shy and docile in the store. If you have any concerns about the hamsters you're visiting, don't hesitate to look elsewhere and report the vendor to your local chapter of the ASPCA.
Similar Species of Dwarf Hamsters
Hamsters of all types make good first pets. In addition to the dwarf varieties, the teddy bear, or Syrian hamster, is a very popular choice, as it's easy to handle and grows slightly bigger in size than the dwarf varieties. The Syrian hamster likes to talk and prefers a lot of exercise, as well. Fancy hamsters are an equally-as-lovable short-haired version of the teddy bear. And, black bear hamsters look like miniature black bears, making them a favorite of young children.