Russian Dwarf Hamsters.

By Pamela Milward

The Russian Hamster - Phodopus Sungorus - the hairy footed or Djungarian hamster, is common as a pet in the U.S.S.R. and is shown by the Dutch Hamster Club. It has been kept in England at first in zoos, since 1963 and was introduced to the pet market in 1970. There are two varieties the Eastern or Campbell and the Western variety or Winter white, which turns white in winter when the hours of daylight are reduced sufficiently. These two sorts will breed together but this should not be done as the young are normally sterile. Russian Hamsters originate from Central Asia, Northern U.S.S.R. and North China, mainly from the Djungarian region of Mongolia - where they dwell on dry open steppes, often in sand dunes, and are used to great fluctuations of temperature. They live in burrows up to one metre deep, with vertical tunnels and several entrances, sometimes sharing these with other rodents.

Appearance. They are bullet shaped, about 3" in length - the male usually being slightly larger than the female, with a barely visible tail. They have short broad heads with small round ears. The fur is dense with a thick undercoat and is greyish brown with a slate undercoat. The belly fur is off-white bounded by three arches. There is a long black stripe down the back with dark markings on the side and head. The feet are white and covered with fur. The Winter White sub-species are slightly larger, with bigger ears and the fur is more greyish and the belly fur whiter. In this country only some will turn white in winter when they are most attractive. As yet there is one fur mutation - the satin coated - first bred by Peter Marsh.

Housing. They are best kept in pairs or family colonies in aquariums (with wire cover) or plastic cages. The Rotastac type of cages are very suitable provided the tubes are lined with wire cylinders or in some way so that they can get a grip and they can manage these tubes from a very early age. It is important that the cage has 'furniture' - tubes, branches, small boxes, empty coconut shells, etc. They much enjoy wheels. The small metal ones sold for mice are quite suitable. If kept in a large aquarium with plants outside and furnished with hollow logs they can become a decorative focal point of a room. The floor should be covered with sawdust or shavings and soft hay or paper given as bedding. Trays of dry silver sand are used for rolling in. They may be kept in ones but this deprives the owner of the chance to enjoy watching their social life.

Diet. Food is much the same as for Syrian Hamsters. They appreciate small seeds, such as bird mixture, and enjoy bits of meat, meal worms, cheese and fish and they should always be given some roots, fruit or green food. Water must always be available, preferably from a Drinking bottle.

Behaviour and Breeding. Though mainly nocturnal they do come out in the day time. Pairs should be introduced to each other when young, although an older male will usually accept a young female hamster. Sometimes two of the same sex will live together but even established pairs may suddenly start to fight. There is always a great deal of social activity in a group with many minor squabbles. In a colony there is normally a dominant female who may not allow other females to breed or who may rear all the young. At times the females will attack the males but without really hurting them. The males then turn on their backs and utter small cries and may be held like this for some time but if watched it will be noticed that the female is not hurting the male only nuzzling his underparts. Russians are very territorial and quarrels often break out after the cage is cleaned or disturbed. Some strains of Russians can be most aggressive and bite hard, others are friendly, therefore care should be taken when choosing them as pets for children. They are usually happy to be picked up and to climb over you but do not enjoy being 'cuddled'.

Russians are rather difficult to sex. In the wild they breed from March to September but in this country will breed throughout the year. They mature at around 90 days and the gestation period is approx. 18 to 19 days. The female comes into season immediately on giving birth so they often have several litters in close succession. The female will sometimes make a separate nest or banish the male while the young are very small but after the first few days the male or older members of the group will help tend the young. Some form of delayed implantation can occur or else two litters can be carried at once. There is an average of 3 to 4 young in a litter but litters of up to 8 are known. The young quickly grow fur and are weaned by 3 to 4 weeks. The life span is from 2 to 3 years and they seen to suffer from few ills, though Cancers are fairly common. They can get mites and if so, should be treated with a bird anti-mite spray. Sight, hearing and smell are all good and they are very vocal - having quite a range of squeaks. They are very curious and if they escape will usually come out of their hiding place to investigate anyone's feet.