Chinese Dwarf Hamsters

By Pamela Milward

The Chinese Hamster - Critetulus Griseus - comes from Northern China and Mongolia and has been kept in laboratories since 1919 but has only recently come on to the pet market. They are about 3 to 4 inches in length of a mouselike build but with short tails, and are brownish - grey in colour with a black back stripe and greyish belly fur. The males have prominent genitals and the feet are hairless. The young are more greyish in colour than the adults. At present there is one colour variation, which has a white spotted coat caused by a dominant gene. They are sociable hamsters and are best kept in pairs or small family groups.

Housing. As Chinese hamsters are slender and can escape through small holes they are best kept in plastic aquariums with wire covers or in plastic cages of the Rotastac type. If they are kept in the latter the tubes need to be lined with cylinders of wire netting or given a rough surface in some way so the hamsters can climb them. The bottom of the cage should be covered with sawdust or wood shavings and shredded toilet tissue or soft hay given as nesting materials. The cage should be furnished with hiding places such as cardboard tubes, plastic houses, coconut shells, etc. and they enjoy ladders or branches to climb. They also enjoy the small metal wheels designed for mice.

Feeding. The diet is much the same as the Syrian hamsters but they appreciate small seeds, such as a bird mixture and like small bits of meat or fish, meal worms and insects, and should always have some vegetables, green food or fruit. It is vital that fresh water is always available, and as in the wild they would get this from moisture on leaves they prefer it from water bottles rather than water pots.

Behaviour. Sight, hearing and smell are all good and they make squeaks when excited or quarrelling. Most of the time they live happily together but even established pairs may suddenly start to fight. On the whole, pairs must be introduced to each other when young, although an older male will usually accept a young female but not vice versa. Sometimes two of the same sex will live peacefully together. Chinese females often bite the tails and genitals of the males especially when pregnant but after the female is beyond breeding age this usually ceases. Their life span is normally 2 to 3 years. They are easy to handle and are most easily picked up by the scruff of the neck like a kitten.

Breeding. Females start to breed at about 3 months and often the first sign of pregnancy is when they start to attack the male. The usual number in a litter is between two and six and they seem to be good mothers. When the babies are small the female will sometimes exclude the male from the nest but will let him return as the babies grow. The young are born naked but soon develop fur and are running about with their eyes open at 2 to 3 weeks. If the hamsters are kept as a group the dominant female may not allow younger females to breed or may take their young and rear them herself. There is usually about 6 to 8 weeks between litters.

Illnesses. Chinese hamsters seem to suffer from few illnesses and most die from old age or accidents. If they do escape they are not easy to catch as they run fast but a small fishing net can be useful to re-capture.