The Chinese Hamster (A Useful Guide)

By Dawn | Filed under:  Hamster Species

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Featured Image: Ultrasleeper2 / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

The Chinese hamster is an interesting animal that is quite different to the other hamsters that we have looked at in this series.  They’re not officially a ‘dwarf’ hamster because they don’t belong to the Phodopus genus like the Winter White, the Roborovski and the Campbell’s hamster.  That being said, they are sometimes referred to as dwarf hamsters due to their small size.

Although the Chinese hamster is not as common or as well known as the Syrian hamster they are nevertheless a delightful pet to own.

Let’s take a step back in time now and look at where the Chinese hamster was first discovered and then we’ll take a look at how the Chinese hamster finally arrived on the pet market.

When were Chinese hamsters discovered?

The Chinese hamster was first documented as early as 1773 and was originally given the name Cricetulus Barabensis by Pallas but was then named as Barabensis Griseus in 1867 by Milne-Edwards.  

There have even been some other names for the Chinese hamster since but it is now known by the Latin name Cricetulus Griseus, or simply, the Chinese hamster.  The Cricetulus genus in which the Chinese hamster is a part of is also known by the common name rat-like hamster because they are more rat-like in appearance compared with other hamster species.

Pet market

Chinese hamsters were kept as pets in China long before they were used in laboratories but in 1919 they were used at the Peking Union Medical College for research on the Pneumococcus bacteria.  Later on, Chinese hamsters were no longer used for research purposes and were replaced by the common mouse and rat because they were found to be easier to keep and breed.

Attempts to breed Chinese hamsters were initially unsuccessful despite shipments of potential breeding colonies being made to the Near East, India and England.

Researchers didn’t know how to prevent the females being so aggressive towards the other Chinese hamsters and nor did they realize how important it was to provide short and long day cycles.

Success finally came in 1957 when a breeding colony was finally established at Harvard University.  Once the breeding techniques had been mastered, it wasn’t long until they made the leap in the pet market.  

Despite this success, they haven’t proven to be as popular as Syrian hamsters or dwarf hamsters.  Some of this popularity has been hindered by the fact that anti-vermin laws in some states prohibit people from owning Chinese hamsters as pets.  

This is especially the case in California and New Jersey.  These states actually require you to hold a permit because they are classed as exotic animals, so before you go out and buy one, be sure to check out your local rules and regulations.

Where do Chinese hamsters come from?

The Chinese hamster comes from northern China and Mongolia where they inhibit rocky terrain, steppes and desert fringes.  Living on such rocky terrain also explains why they are excellent climbers!

The Chinese dwarf hamster in the wild

In the wild Chinese hamster hamsters live in burrows, like all hamsters, but their burrows are often shallow, probably because it’s difficult to dig in the rocky terrain.  However, they can be up to 3-feet in depth, have about two entrances to them and contain chambers that branch off the main tunnel which are used for sleeping and for storing food.  

During the spring and summer Chinese hamsters are active both day and night although they do become more nocturnal as the days shorten.

Although they don’t hibernate, they do sleep longer in the short days and if they are discovered they will either freeze on the spot or run.

How long do Chinese hamsters live?

Chinese hamsters tend to live slightly longer than other species of hamster and on average they can live for between 2.5 and 3 years although they can live up to 4 years.

What does a Chinese hamster look like?

Chinese hamsters look a bit like a mouse in many ways, more so than other hamsters.  Their body is more slender than broad and measures about 4-5 inches in length.  They weigh about one ounce and they carry their body on short slender legs.  This makes them quite a lot smaller than a Syrian hamster which weighs between 5 and 7 ounces and are about 6 to 8 inches in length.

Chinese hamsters have tails that have prehensile qualities and there are reports that they use them to help balance themselves when they scurry around on the rocks.  

The tail itself is twice the length of the Campbell’s or the Syrian hamster but it is still quite short at about one inch long. 

The cheek pouches on Chinese hamsters are very large and their head looks triangular if you look at it from above.

The color of their fur is brown-grey and they have a black stripe down their back with ivory to gray fur on their belly.

Telling the genders apart

You can easily distinguish males from females because male Chinese hamsters have prominent scrotal sacs under their tails and they are literally as big as their head!  

These become evident at about 8 weeks of age but before that the difference between the gential openings will enable you to tell the genders apart.  Basically the distance between the genitals and the anus on the male is twice that of the female.

Chinese hamster colors

There are only three known color mutations for Chinese hamsters.  These are:

Both the normal and the dominant spot are readily available in the pet trade within the United Kingdom (UK).  However, the black-eyed white is extremely rare and occurs randomly within litters where the parents are the Dominant Spot.  Only a few of these rare hamsters are owned by hobbyist breeders in the UK.

Reproduction

When females have mated there is a gestation period of between 18 and 21 days.  During this time when the female is pregnant, the female can get very aggressive towards her male mate and therefore the male will tend to hide away quite a lot to get out of the way.  

Therefore, if you plan on having a pair of Chinese hamsters that you wish to breed, then make sure that there are plenty of hiding places available inside the cage!

Interestingly you wouldn’t be able to tell that the female is pregnant until a few days before she’s about to give birth.  At this point it becomes very obvious as it can look like she has swallowed a barrel!

When the female gives birth, usually there are between 2 and 7 pups in the litter that are all born blind and naked.  The female is also able to get pregnant again within hours of giving birth!

Although the pups are born blind and naked, they do develop very quickly and begin to grow fur within about five days.  At the 14 day mark, they have developed even more and begin to look like miniature versions of their parents and at this point, they are able to eat and drink indpendantly.

Chinese hamsters can be kept singly, in single or mixed-sex pairs and even in same-sex groups but they can be highly terrritorial (especially females) and they aren’t as sociable as dwarf hamsters.  If two males or two females are brought up together then they will tend to get along better than a male and a female hamster.

If you do plan on owning more than one of these hamsters, it’s important that you monitor them for any signs of aggression and may need to be separated if you find any signs of injury.

Although it’s possible to have a group of Chinese hamsters that are happy to live together, some hamsters refuse to live with others as they want their own space.  Like us humans, the animals have their own personalities and there are no hard and fast rules.

Are Chinese hamsters friendly?

Chinese hamsters are friendly and can be relatively quick to tame.  When tame, they are easily handled and will happily sit in their owners hands.  They have even been known to cling to their owners fingers with all four of their paws!

Chinese hamsters can also be very shy, especially when they’re young and often choose to hide underneath their bedding and substrate.

Are Chinese hamsters good pets?

Chinese hamsters can make excellent pets.  They love tunneling, they’re excellent climbers and they don’t move as quickly as other species (although they can be a little nippy sometimes).  

They appreciate small branches and ropes to play with.  This makes them very interesting and entertaining to watch but because they can be a bit skittish, they are more suitable for older children and adults.

Still, the Chinese hamster isn’t as popular as the Syrian or the dwarf hamsters mainly because their appearance is less beautiful (they have long tails and have a likeness to rats), they’re harder to breed than other hamster species and the genitals of the male are very much in evidence which some people may find obtrusive.

Do Chinese hamsters like to be held?

Yes, Chinese hamsters do like to be held and are good natured animals, but they need to be tamed and you will need to consistently spend time handling them (and from a young age) so that they will get used to you.  It’s also important that you continue to handle your hamster so that you can maintain the bond that you have with your hamster. 

How to tame a chinese dwarf hamster

Chinese hamsters can sometimes be difficult to tame because they are naturally very shy and their natural instinct is to hide most of the time.  However, with time and lots of patience, it will be possible to tame your hamster.

Assuming that you have let your hamster settle in for a good few days, you can begin the taming process.  However it’s important that you continually talk to your hamster even during the settling in period so that it can get used to your voice.

At this point you should try putting your hand inside your hamster’s cage and offer your hamster some treats.  Try not to make any sudden movements when you’re doing this and make sure that your hamster sees your hand approaching as you don’t want to surprise or startle your hamster.

Next, see if your hamster will climb onto your hand voluntarily.  If it does then you can gently lift up your hamster whilst holding your other hand around it so that it can’t jump or fall.  If your hamster wont climb onto your hand, you can try lowering a cup with some treats inside and see if your hamster climbs into it.  Once your hamster climbs inside, gently lift the cup out of the cage and allow it to climb out onto your hands.

The key to taming your hamster is time and lots of patience.  Chinese hamsters are notoriously shy and you may find taming difficult, but it’s important to persevere.  If your hamster is still very shy, you may find that the size of their cage is a little overwhelming for your hamster, so you could try downgrading to see if your hamster feels more comfortable.  You can always upgrade the cage size again at a later date. 

Chinese hamster care

Caring for a Chinese hamster needn’t be difficult but there are some things you need to consider, many of which have already been covered in my hamster care guide.  

One of the most important things to get right is the cage size and type because Chinese hamsters are very small and can easily fit through the tiniest of gaps.  You also need a good quality substrate, a good quality hamster mix, enrichment for inside their cage and plenty of chews and chew toys for them to gnaw on.

Let’s go over these in a bit more detail.

Cage type

The best cage type for a Chinese hamster in my opinion is a glass aquarium with a lid that’s made out of wood and mesh and one that fits tightly.  This will allow your hamster to get enough air through the ventilation holes in the mesh.

Alternatively, you could go for a bin-cage, which is basically a repurposed plastic storage box.  You simply cut out windows on the side and in the lid and cover with mesh.

You’d have to be mindful however about the size of the gaps within the mesh because a Chinese hamster will have no trouble squeezing through them and escaping.

You could also look at wire cages like this one on Amazon (#CommissionsEarned) because Chinese hamsters like to climb, but you would need to make sure that the gaps between the bars are small enough to prevent your hamster from escaping.  Some cages that are suitable for other hamster species like Syrians will not be suitable for a Chinese hamster.

Cage size

Your cage should be a minimum of 450 square inches of floor space and generally speaking, bigger is always better when it comes to cage size and you should go as big as your budget will allow.  

However, having said that, according to Vectis Hamstery in the UK, Chinese hamsters in particular can be very shy (especially when they’re young) and can find large cages quite difficult and will often freeze or stay close to the edges of the cage.  

So it’s important that you observe your hamster’s behavior and you may find that you have to start with a slightly smaller cage and gradually work up to larger sized cages.

Substrate

Substrate is basically the stuff that lines the bottom of the cage floor and for this you should choose either Aspen wood shavings (Amazon, #CommissionsEarned), Megazorb or paper-based substrates such as Carefresh (Amazon, #CommissionsEarned) or Kaytee Clean and Cosy (Amazon, #CommissionsEarned).

Anything that is paper-based is fine, you just need to stay away from Pine and Cedar wood shavings as they phenols that are given off are bad for your hamster’s respiratory system (and yours).  You should also avoid ‘unspecified’ wood shavings as you can’t guarantee the type of wood shavings that have been used, and will probably contain Pine and Cedar wood.

You can also use natural materials such as compost, chopped hay and sand which will help to replicate some of the materials that hamsters encounter when they’re in the wild.  Try to stay away from straw however because the ends can be sharp and could cause injury to your hamster’s cheeks.

When it comes to substrate depth, you should aim to have a least six inches in your cage to allow your hamster enough room to burrow.  The more substrate you have the better it is for your hamster.

Nesting material

We like to provide our hamster with unscented, shredded toilet paper for nesting material because it is soft and cosy and won’t harm your hamster if swallowed and won’t get stuck in their cheek pouches or wrapped around their limbs.

Enrichment

When Chinese hamsters are active, they can literally whiz around their cages and therefore need a lot of things to keep them occupied.  They especially need things to gnaw on to help keep their continually growing front teeth in check.  I personally like to buy orange or apple wood sticks as they’re natural.

Chinese hamsters also love to climb so put things in your cage that they can climb onto such as ladders, platforms or branches. You can even add things like Cork log (Amazon, #CommissionsEarned) or Grapevine wood (Amazon, #CommissionsEarned) which will help to give your cage a natural look.  Just make sure that the things that your hamster can climb onto aren’t too high as you don’t want them escaping or falling.

Chinese hamsters in the wild live in rocky environments, so consider adding some pebbles and rocks into the cage.  This will help to keep their claws in check too.

Other good options include children’s toys, toilet roll tubes and houses that they can hide in to make them fail safe.

Sand bath

Sand baths are an excellent addition to your hamster’s cage and bathing in sand or dirt is a natural instinct for hamsters.  Although Chinese hamsters clean themselves regularly, they will find it beneficial to roll around in it, though they’re not a necessity.

The sand bath is exactly as it says which is basically some sort of bowl or section of their cage that contains either Chinchilla sand (Amazon, #CommissionsEarned) or children’s play sand.

If you use children’s play sand you can optionally cook it in the oven at 350 degrees to remove any pathogens.  You should also be careful not to confuse Chinchilla sand with Chinchilla dust because the latter can be harmful to your hamster if they breathe it in.

Dwarf hamsters like the Roborovoski love sand baths and their coats will get very greasy without one but Chinese hamsters seem to have different ideas.  For example, on the Hamster Central forum, owners have reported that their Chinese hamsters don’t roll around in them and instead use it as a toilet, a place where they can store food or a place where they can dig around in.

However one owner on the Hamster Hideout forum reported that two out of their six Chinese hamsters loved their sand baths so I think it comes down to the individual personality of the hamster.

Wheels

Chinese hamsters love to run on wheels and they’re very important given the distances that they can cover in the wild whilst foraging for food.  Make sure that you stay away from the metal ones with gaps between the rungs as they can get their limbs trapped in them.  

You also need to be mindful of the size of the wheel as you don’t want it to be so small that your hamster’s back is arched when running.  This is more of an issue with Syrian hamsters that grow much bigger but it is certainly something to keep in mind.  Again, you can go as big as your budget will allow.  

I personally recommend this 12 inch wheel on Amazon (#CommissionsEarned).  Alternately, Chinese hamsters can also run around on these satellite dish type wheels like this on Amazon (#CommissionsEarned).

If you have more than one Chinese hamster in the cage, then you’re going to need to buy two wheels to help prevent any squabbling.

Diet

In the wild hamsters are used to eating grasses, shoots, seeds and even the odd insect.  In captivity you can replicate this diet with a good quality hamster mix (Amazon, #CommissionsEarned) and supplement it with fresh vegetables, cooked chicken and a little sliver of apple on occasion.  For extra protein you can offer your hamster mealworms or crickets.

If you have a very young pup, a nursing mother or an elderly hamster, then you can also try offering them some milky porridge.

In order to keep your hamster’s teeth trim you can also try adding a dog biscuit to your hamster’s cage as long as it doesn’t contain any garlic and only contains natural ingredients.

In terms of vegetables, Chinese hamsters like broccoli, cauliflower, and cucumber but keep it varied and offer it daily.  Make sure that you only offer them very small portions and be sure to remove anything that hasn’t been eaten from your hamster’s cage as it can quickly deteriorate and grow bacteria on it.  You should also monitor your hamster after trying them with new foods to see how they react.

Chinese hamsters are prone to developing diabetes but this can be prevented by diet and making sure that it is low in sugar.  You should avoid foods such as fruit, peas, sweetcorn and raisins as these have naturally occurring sugars in them.  

Wild hamsters don’t come across refined sugar so their digestive systems can’t cope with it so you should also avoid giving your hamster sweet foods or treats.

There are a ton of other foods that hamsters can’t eat and should be avoided at all costs, so be sure to check this list (although it’s not exhaustive) before offering it to your hamster or leave it out.

Water

It’s essential that your Chinese hamster has access to clean, fresh water every day and it’s advisable to use a water bottle rather than a bowl because of their tiny size and small risk of drowning.  Make sure that the water bottle is easily accessible without your hamster having to strain when having a drink.

Wrapping up

I hope you have found this guide on the Chinese hamster useful and hopefully you have a little more knowledge than when you started which will hopefully enable you to make an informed decision as to whether it’s the right species of hamster for you.