Dwarf hamsters are actually several tiny species of hamsters that are native primarily to desert regions around the world. These social little creatures differ from their larger, more territorial cousins, thriving in pairs or small groups as opposed to living alone. As pets, they are generally docile and easy to handle, as well as fun to watch as they tunnel and romp around in their enclosure. They're also simple to care for, requiring a fairly straightforward diet and regular cage cleaning.
Common Names: Dwarf hamster, Campbell hamster, Robo (Roborovski) hamster, Syrian hamster, black bear hamster, Chinese hamster
Scientific Names: Phodopus campbelli, Phodopus roborovskii, Cricetulus griseus
Adult Size: Around 2 inches long on average; weighs roughly 1 to 2 ounces
Life Expectancy: 3 years in captivity
Dwarf Hamster Behavior and Temperament
Dwarf hamsters comprise many species, and each has some specific personality traits. For instance, the Campbell hamster is a curious little creature that's notably easy to handle. The Robo (or Roborovski) hamster—a particularly tiny dwarf hamster that weighs in at just over 3/4 ounce—stays awake during the day more than other species. And the Chinese hamster (not technically a dwarf species but just as small) is known for its love of tunneling, especially through its bedding. Overall, dwarf hamsters make for captivating and low-maintenance pets. They may not necessarily form a strong bond with their humans like a dog or cat would, but they will learn to recognize you and come to the side of their enclosure if you're nearby (especially if you have a treat).
All hamsters are nocturnal, meaning they play and eat during the night and rest during the day, though some hamsters can adjust to their owners' sleeping and waking times. However, if you try to wake a sleeping hamster to handle it, the hamster might become grouchy and bite. In general, many hamsters will wake in the evening hours and happily interact with their humans then. Moreover, while hamsters make very soft and minimal vocalizations themselves, their movement during the nighttime can be an issue if you're trying to sleep. If you're a light sleeper, you probably shouldn't keep your hamster enclosure in your bedroom.
Most dwarf hamsters take well to people holding them, but they will nip if they feel uncomfortable. Calm, gentle handling from a young age can help them to feel safe when held. It's best to sit on the ground in a secured space (such as a small bedroom with the door shut) when holding your hamster, as these animals can move quite quickly and might break free of your hold if you're not paying attention. You don't ever want your hamster to drop from a great height—even a couple feet is a lot for them—as this can severely injure the little animal. It's also important never to squeeze your hamster in your hands, as this can result in injury for the animal or cause it to bite you. Plus, keep your dwarf hamster away from any other pets outside of its own species to prevent injuries.
Housing the Dwarf Hamster
A dwarf hamster's habitat should be as large as possible, allowing for maximum exercise and play. A cage that's roughly 1 foot by 2 feet with a height of around a foot is the bare minimum that some animal groups recommend. Habitat options generally include a glass or plastic aquarium with a secure top that has ventilation or a cage that's wire with a plastic base. Wire cages allow for better airflow to prevent overheating, though they don't protect as well as plastic or glass do against drafts. You must make sure that the wire spacing is close enough that your hamster can't squeeze through the bars.
On the bottom of the cage, there should be a 1- to 2-inch layer of bedding, such as chemical- and dye-free shredded paper or hardwood shavings. Change the bedding once a week when you clean all surfaces in the enclosure with soap and water, and remove wet spots daily.
Avoid cedar-based bedding, as it can be toxic to small animals.
Include an exercise wheel in the enclosure that has a solid surface, not bars, for your hamster to run on. Also provide plenty of wooden chew sticks or mineral chews in the enclosure. Chewing maintains a hamster's incisor teeth, which grow continuously. Plus, add a small nest or sleeping hut (available at most pet shops) for your hamster to rest and hide in when it wants to feel secure.
Hamsters acclimate well to average household temperatures. Just be cautious of extreme temperature changes, and keep the habitat away from direct sunlight and drafts.
Food and Water
A bowl of food and a small dish or bottle of fresh water should always be available to your pet dwarf hamster. Consult your veterinarian on the proper quantity to feed. But in general, you should feed your hamster once per day, ideally in the evening when it's waking up and becoming active. Discard any uneaten food after 24 hours.
Look for a commercial hamster food blend that's specifically formulated for dwarf hamsters. This will provide your hamster with all the vitamins and minerals it needs. You can also offer limited amounts of certain nuts, seeds, grains, fruits, and vegetables, including oats, bananas, and carrots. Supplemental food should only make up around 10% of your hamster's overall daily diet.
Keep sugary and high-fat foods to a minimum and avoid toxic foods: almonds, avocados, and chocolate.
Common Health Problems
Dwarf hamsters are prone to a variety of health problems, and before acquiring one you must make sure there's a veterinarian near you who will treat this animal.
Hair loss and skin lesions can result from several different issues. The most common culprits include the animal rubbing on something in the enclosure or being attacked by a cage mate. Any skin abnormalities should be checked as soon as possible by a vet, as they can quickly become infected.
Hamsters also are prone to digestive upset, which usually goes along with some type of infection of the digestive tract. Wet tail, a bacterial infection that causes diarrhea, sometimes results from stressful or unsanitary living conditions. Hamsters with wet tail should be treated immediately by a vet, as this condition can lead to death within 48 to 72 hours.
Some dwarf hamsters, especially Campbell's hamsters and Chinese hamsters, are prone to diabetes. However, this often can be prevented by keeping your pet's diet low in sugar and providing plenty of opportunity for exercise.
While yellow teeth are normal on a hamster, sometimes its teeth can become overgrown, especially if it doesn't have enough chewable materials to wear them down. Overgrown teeth can affect a hamster's ability to eat, so they will likely have to be trimmed by a vet. The vet can then make sure you're doing everything possible to keep the teeth at a normal length.
Purchasing Your Dwarf Hamster
Dwarf hamsters are legal to own in most areas, though some landlords might have specific rules about small pets. It's best to acquire a dwarf hamster from a responsible breeder or rescue organization where you are most likely to get accurate information about the animal's origin and health history. If you plan to purchase a hamster at a pet store, observe the animals closely to make sure they are being kept in sanitary conditions. Expect to pay around $20.
Regardless of where you're acquiring your hamster, try to look for an animal that is active and alert. But remember if you're observing the animal during its normal sleep hours it might be a little groggy. Still, it should have clear eyes and clean fur, and its droppings should be well-formed. Any eye or nasal discharge, as well as labored breathing, are signs of a potential health issue.
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