Roborovski Hamster Guide (History, Facts, Care And More)

By Dawn | Filed under:  Hamster Species

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

I have to admit, before I wrote this blog post, my knowledge of Roborovski hamsters (also known as ‘Robos’) was a bit limited.  I knew that they were the smallest species of hamster in the world, that they like to burrow and have sand baths, but that was about it.  

So, I decided to do some research to see where they originated from, what their natural habitat is, their average lifespan and much more.  Here’s what I found out.

Where are roborovski hamsters from?

Roborovski hamsters (genus Podophus) also known as the Phodopus Roborovski, Robo hamster, Robo dwarf hamster or desert hamster originate from the seemingly inhospitable dry areas of western and eastern Mongolia, China and Russia.

Robo hamsters were discovered in Nansham China in 1894 by lieutenant Roborovski but we’re not named officially until 1903 by Dr. K.A Satin (Director of the Zoological Museum of the Imperial Academy of St. Petersburg).  

In the early 1960s a colony was established at London zoo, although they failed to breed and they weren’t kept as a pet until after 1970. 

The Roborovski hamster was brought into the UK from Holland in the 1990s and arrived in the US around the same time.

Where can Roborovski hamsters be found in the wild?

Roborovski hamsters can be found in the east of Kazakhstan and north of China where they live in desert and semi-desert conditions.  However, you’ll find more of them in south, central and northwestern Mongolia and the Mon­go­lian Gobi deserts.

Roborovski hamsters also live in the Ordos desert of China, in parts of east Kaza­khstan and southern parts of Rus­sia although there aren’t quite as many in these areas.

Other than these areas and those that are transported through the pet trade you generally won’t find established species of these hamsters anywhere else.

Natural habitat

In the wild, Roborovski hamsters are generally found in deserts or semi deserts and grassland environments where there is sandy soil.  Robos also like sparse, shrubby vegetation because it allows them to construct burrows more easily.  In Mongolia for example, the vegetation which surrounds hamster burrows are typically around 75 cm in height.

Roborovski hamsters tend to dig burrows into the sides of sand dunes and have one or two en­trance holes.  These however tend to get covered over by loose sand, which is a good thing because it hides the burrows from predators.  The burrows extend deep into the soil where they con­tain one nest and two to three food caches.

You will also find Roborovski hamsters in agricultural landscapes where sheep and goats tend to graze and they also have burrows in grainfields and even orchards.

How much ground do they cover?

Although Roborovski hamsters are very energetic, they are small and move relatively slowly and so they don’t cover huge areas when they are foraging for food in the wild.

Male Roborovski hamsters tend to cover larger ranges than females especially during the summer months when breeding activity takes place.

Because there aren’t many studies that have been carried out to estimate the ranges that Roborovski hamsters cover, it’s difficult to get accurate figures.  However if they were similar to striped desert hamsters then the following figures will give you an idea:

In laboratory conditions, Roborovski hamsters between the ages of 18 and 30 have been shown to run approximately 3000 wheel revolutions per night.  This is about 1.2 km in total which is lower than other dwarf hamsters.

Therefore, because Roborovski hamsters cover a smaller distance on a wheel when compared with other dwarf hamsters, it suggests that they will also cover a smaller distance in the wild.

Another reason why Roborovski hamsters may only cover small distances is because they’re not as active for as long at night compared with the Campbell’s or striped desert hamsters.  This will therefore inhibit their ability to forage for food over long distances.

Physical characteristics

As mentioned previously, Roborovski hamsters are the smallest of all of the hamster species, have a smaller build than dwarf Campbell’s or dwarf Winter White hamster and are therefore super cute!  

I particularly like their cute mustaches and long twitchy whiskers!

Robos have a body length of between 1.5 and 2 inches and weigh between 17.5g and 27.2g.

They have five digits on each paw which are densely covered in fur to protect against the heat of the sandy soils in their natural environment.

The mouth, chest and both sides of their feet are also covered in thick white fur as is the hair on their back which reaches a maximum length of approximately 9mm.

Colors

In terms of colors, the tail, stomach, legs, nose and eyebrows are all white. Roborovski hamsters also have a pure white belly which helps to reflect in heat away from the baking sand.

Wild Robos have a sandy top coat (Agouti) which provides excellent camouflage from their predators and they also tend to have a slightly greyer tint to their fur compared with captive Robos.  Pet Robos also tend to have fur with less vi­brant colors.

Robos also have white patches above their eyes, which gives them a sort of perpetually quizzical expression, and coupled with the light brown colour of their fur, it makes them very easy to distinguish between other species of hamsters from similar regions.

Because pet robos are relatively new, there aren’t as many color morphs, but be sure to check out the video below which provides a list of known colors for Roborovski hamsters.

Cheek pouches

Hamsters get their name from their cheek pouches because they “hoard” food which they then transport to their nest. 

The cheek pouches are basically an extension of the hamster’s mouth and the skin over them is very stretchy which enables the hamster to store all of its daily food rations in them!

Teeth

All dwarf hamsters have constantly growing, rootless incisors at the front, two at the top and one at the bottom.  The front teeth have a mineral-rich, yellow pigmented plaque and are sometimes almost orange.  They also have six non-renewable molars with a firm root.

Scent glands

One thing that distinguishes dwarf hamsters from other types of hamster is a scent gland which they have on their belly.  This scent gland is not as visible in females as in males and the smell from this can be very strong, especially when the hamster is excited and when it reaches sexual maturity. 

Eyes

Hamsters aren’t known for having good eyesight and find it difficult to estimate distances.  This is mainly because they are short sighted, but they have good all round visibility enabling them to quickly identify predators.

This does however prevent them from seeing things clearly in their immediate vicinity.

Like most mammals they have two types of cones in their eyes (blue/green – dichromatic color vision) and therefore don’t see the full color spectrum.  They can however see colours in the green, blue and UV parts of the spectrum.

Hamsters have more rods in their eyes than humans do and therefore have light sensitive eyes.  In other words, they don’t need as much light to see well but at the same time, they are very sensitive to bright light.

Feet

There are five digits on each paw and internally, consist of short and broad bones.  Robo hamster feet are densely covered in fur to protect them against the heat of the sandy soils.

How long do Roborovski hamsters live for?

Roborovski hamsters live between 19 and 40 months in captivity although they can live up to 4 years old which is a bit longer than most other species of hamster.  Under laboratory conditions natural death occurs around 26 months.

In the wild, life expectancy is much shorter and varies between 12 and 18 months.  Reasons for shorter life expectancies in the wild include increased par­a­site load, pre­da­tion pres­sure, mor­tal­ity dur­ing ex­tremely cold win­ters, im­pact from agri­cul­tural ma­chin­ery and disease.

Do Roborovski dwarf hamsters bite?

Roborovski hamsters are friendly and are not known for biting.  Instead, would rather run away from you and will often freeze when presented with stress­ful stim­u­lus.

Robos are shy in nature, mainly because they are prey animals, and if another hamster approaches, they will usually run away and hide.

When do Roborovski hamsters sleep?

All Roborovski hamsters are nocturnal in the wild, in the laboratory and when kept at home as a pet, which means they’re awake at dusk and active throughout the night.  Compared to other dwarf hamsters, they have a slightly more compressed period of nocturnal activity meaning that they spend more time during daylight hours awake than other species.  

When they’re awake, they can usually be seen running on their wheel exploring the cages and generally being busy.

Robo hamsters generally wake up later than other dwarf hamsters and tend to be mostly active around 9-10pm.  At night they are particularly active and very energetic which can be quite noisy.

Navigating their environment

Roborovski hamsters have a well-developed chemosensory mechanism which helps to navigate during the night.  Robos produce a range of scents in order to navigate their environments which are derived from either their urine, feces, vagi­nal se­cre­tions or se­cre­tions from their two glands.

Although they have many ways of producing scents, urine marking is the preferred method for Roborovski hamsters of both sexes to find potential mates.

Interestingly, Robo hamsters use their eyes whilst foraging for seeds and insects and use their ears and sense of smell to a lesser extent.  If vision isn’t an option, then they will prefer to use their ears over their sense of smell.

Natural predators

The natural predators of the Roborovski hamster is the long eared Owl which makes up about 18% of their diet in the northwestern Chinese range.

Other predators include foxes, weasels, snakes and other mustelids (other animal species in the same family as ferrets, badgers, otters etc).

Hawks and falcons also prey upon Roborovski hamsters but they don’t pose a huge threat to them because of their nocturnal nature.

Protection against predators

Although Robo hamsters are pretty vulnerable, they do have a few tactics and characteristics which can protect them against potential predators:

Impact of Roborovski hamsters on the environment

Let’s have a look at some of the positive and slightly negative effects of Roborovski hamsters on the environment.

are Roborovski hamsters endangered?

Currently the IUCN lists the Roborovski hamster with a status of least concern although threats to its survival still exist.  For example, their ability to colonize habitats is limited by rodenticides, har­vest­ing, live­stock graz­ing, burn­ing, plough­ing and even the con­struc­tion of rail­ways within the range of the species.

Diet in the wild

As with all rodents, Roborovski hamsters and gnawing animals because of their continually growing teeth.  Roborovski hamsters mainly consume plant seeds which makes up between 70% and 90% of their diet as well as plant leaves and plant stems.

On average, Robo hamsters consume about 2 grams of plant seeds but this is highly correlated with the size of the hamster.  Interestingly, juvenile hamsters consume more than adult hamsters and their food intake also increases during the winter months.

An interesting fact is that hamsters are able to adapt to temperature and food availability fluctuations by increasing their ability to digest food.  They are able to convert food into energy at around 80% efficiency but this can rise up to 97% during cold periods.

How much water do Roborviski hamsters need?

Robo hamsters don’t really need much water as they have adapted to living in dry, arid conditions with continental type climates where you get high variations in seasonal and daily temperatures.

So you will often find them in areas where there isn’t much water, such as in seasonal floodplains and mountain valleys with low el­e­va­tion.  In the Alashan desert of Mongolia for example, the average rainfall is pretty low (ranges from 45 to 215mm per year) and although the mean annual temperature is only 8.3 degrees you do see extremes of temperatures such as -35C in January and highs of 40C in July.

Robo hamsters therefore are resistant to dehydration and any water they consume is provided by insects which make up a minority part of their diet.  Beetles, earwigs and locusts are the most commonly consumed insects.

Robo hamsters are able to get by on so little water because their kidneys have adapted over time.  During long periods of dehydration, their urine becomes extremely concentrated and they are able to retain a lot of water in their bodies.  The amount of water that is excreted by their skin and lungs can also be significantly re­duced during periods of dehydration.

Reproduction and breeding

Here are some quick facts when it comes to reproduction and breeding:

Are Roborovski hamsters good pets?

Yes, Roborovski hamsters can make good pets, but unlike Syrians, Robos won’t sit on your lap as they’re hyperactive and prefer to explore their cage, run on their wheel, eat and sleep.  As such, Robos are known as ‘look-don’t-touch’ pets because they’re hard to tame, don’t like being petted or cuddled and don’t need human company.

That being said they can be tamed but you’re going to need a lot of time and patience.  Robos are very lively companions and will quickly scurry out the way when they think you will open the cage, but they are fantastic to watch and when it comes to pure entertainment value, Robos are unrivalled!  

They’re especially good to watch when they’re running on a wheel because they run so fast that their legs appear as a blur!

Because of their skittish and nervous nature they are the ideal pet for working people who simply want to watch them and don’t want to get them out of their cage.

They aren’t however a good choice of hamster for a child because they are simply too fast and can easily jump or get dropped.

Caring for Roborovski hamsters

Caring for Roborovski hamsters is not too different from caring for any other species of hamsters such as Syrians.  Although most of the information around hamster care has been covered in my hamster care guide already, there are a few things that differ slightly when looking after Robo hamsters.  Firstly, let’s address cage size, which is particularly important if you’re considering bringing one home.

Cage size

One of the first things you need to think about when thinking about bringing home a Roborovski hamster is the size of the cage. 

Despite their small size, they still need at least 450 square inches of floor space in their cage.  They will use every last bit of it too!

Remember, Robo hamsters are very small, fast and energetic so they need plenty of space to move around.  If they do end up going in a cage that’s too small for them, then this can cause behavior issues.

When choosing the cage, you need to be especially careful about the grid spacing.   It’s normal for a hamster cage to have 1cm gaps between the bars of the cage, but even this can be too big for a young Roborovski hamster that’s about 8 weeks old.

Ideally you need something where they can’t escape at all such as a large storage container (also known as bin cage) or a large glass fish tank around 3 feet in length.  Basically, the more space you can give them the better.

Because Roborovski hamsters are so fast, they are far too easy to be dropped or to jump so they aren’t suitable for children.  They definitely won’t hang around long enough on your lap to be petted like a Syrian will.

Enrichment

Enrichment is basically a term used to describe the stuff that you put in your hamster’s cage.  With Robo hamsters, it’s best to go for lots and tunnels and tubes – basically you need to to mimic what they would have in the wild.  

In the wild, they would be rummaging through rocks and in tunnels underground etc. so go for lots of little hiding places but don’t go too overboard on height  This is because out of all the dwarf hamsters, Roborovski hamsters are the worst climbers and don’t manage high very well.

Another good thing to have in your hamster cage is a sand bath.  Robo hamsters can have greasy hair so they need a sand bath to keep clean. They are different to Syrians which don’t always like a sand bath and often prefer to use it for other things instead, such as a toilet area or as a place to store their food.

Bedding

The best type of bedding to give a Roborovski hamster is shredded tissue paper or Carefresh (Amazon, #CommissionsEarned).  Other types of bedding you can use include Aspen (Amazon, #CommissionsEarned) and Kaytee Clean and Cosy (Amazon, #CommissionsEarned).  

Basically anything that is paper-based is fine for your hamster but you need to avoid substrates that contain Pine or Cedar wood shavings as they are bad for your hamster respiratory system.   You can read more about hamster bedding in my hamster care guide.

In terms of substrate depth, you need at least 6 inches because that will allow the hamster to burrow without leaving gaps on the floor of the cage.  As a rule of thumb though, you should go for as much substrate as your cage and budget will allow.

Diet

Robo hamsters love to eat small seeds so you should feed them once a day with a mix that is varied with lots of seeds, pulses and nuts in them.

Feel free to feed your hamster not by a bowl but scatter food throughout their cage because that is what they would be doing in the wild.    It’s also a good idea to hide food in the houses, in tunnels and make them work for it like they would in the wild.

In the wild, hamsters rummage around and forage for their food, spending hours searching it and taking it back to their hide.

You can also try a small amount of good quality cat biscuits, dried or fresh mealworms, and you can even offer them fresh foods in very small amounts (at the most once or twice a week) and monitor that it doesn’t upset their stomachs. 

Robos can also eat dandelion leaves, mint, chopped up carrots and small amounts of Apple. 

In the wild, Robos also feed on grasses and herbs which is why you should pay close attention that you are using low-fat small seed mixes with these animals.

Because hamsters teeth (and rodents in general) grow continually, they need constant things to gnaw on to keep them trim.

There are lots of products available that they can chew on such as dried sticks but be sure that they’re natural and not filled with coloring, salts and sugars. 

We like to give our hamster fruit tree twigs (usually applewood) but you can also use willow or orange tree sticks as well as they are very good for their  teeth.  Check out my post on chews and chew toys for more ideas.

You can also use a small amount of dried herbs in their cage once or twice a week.

Water

When it comes to water, use fresh water everyday and clean their bottle out daily.  Make sure that the bottle is at a comfortable level so they don’t have to overreach or bend down to get to the water bottle. 

Water dishes are best avoided with Roborovski hamsters because of the risk of drowning due to their size.

Wheel size

Roborovski dwarf hamsters are highly energetic and have an enormous need for movement.  This can be achieved by having a large amount of floor space in their cage, plenty of climbing opportunities and a species appropriate wheel.

You must never choose a wheel that is too small for your hamster as it needs to be able to walk or run with a straight back.  However this is not so much of a problem with Robo hamsters as it is with Syrian hamsters for example.

The wheel that you choose must be completely closed on one side and open on the other.  Finally go for a plastic wheel instead of a metal one because your hamster can get its limbs trapped between the rungs.

This 12 inch wheel on Amazon (#CommissionsEarned) is ideal.  Alternatively, there is an alternative type of wheel you can buy that looks a bit like a satellite dish like this on Amazon (#CommissionsEarned), which your Robo will enjoy running on.

Bringing your hamster home

When you first bring your hamster home it has to deal with lots of stress and it will take time for it to get used to its new home. For now, all your hamster needs is a quiet location, bedding, drinking water and a few accessories. It should then be left for 2-3 days to get used to its new surroundings.  

How do you tame a roborovski dwarf hamster?

If you want to tame your Roborovski hamster you’re going to need lots of patience!  

On day 2 or day 3, start talking quietly to your hamster but when you approach the cage do so carefully and avoid rapid movements which may frighten your hamster.  Start feeding your hamster out of your hand and offer a treat every now and then.

If your hamster comes onto your hand voluntarily after offering it treats then you can carefully pet your hamster with your other hand. Again, this can take some time to reach this stage.

If you feel your hamster is ready, wait until your hamster is on your hand and cup your other hand on top of your hamster so that you can easily and securely hold your hamster.

Make sure that you hold the hamster securely because they can easily whip out of your hands and run off.

With practice and patience your Roborovski hamster can be tamed and will be happy to be taken out or to climb onto your hand.

When handling your hamster it is best to sit on the sofa or in a playpen on the floor.  Remember, Robos are superquick and can also jump.  Under no circumstances should a Roborovski hamster be left unattended and letting it run around is too dangerous because they are excellent escape artists!

Can two hamsters be in the same cage?

Like most hamsters, Robos are generally solitary animals but unlike Syrians for example, they can live in pairs especially when they’re not rearing their young.

Most of the short-tailed hamster species such as the Campbell, the Winter White and the Roborovski hamster can live together temporarily in the wild in the family however they usually separate for winter.

Roborovski hamsters live quite well in family groups but it’s best to keep family groups of a single sex because once the sexes discover each other, there will be babies as a result.

Same-sex groups of hamsters can live together nicely especially if they have been introduced to each other when they are young, but it is easier to keep mother-daughter pairs or father-son pairs.

Can a roborovski hamster be kept by itself?

Single Roborovski hamsters can be happy as long as they have a wheel and a variety of toys to keep it entertained.  In general a loner life is often less stressful for these animals because a same-sex partner at some point will be seen as a competitor for food.

If you do choose to have a pair of Robo hamsters, then you’re going to have to have two of everything including an additional cage because you might have to separate them if fallouts happen.

Should you get two hamsters or one?

If this is your first time owning a Roborovski hamster you should just go with a single hamster.  But don’t worry, they will still provide you with lots of entertainment!

Will dwarf hamsters kill each other?

The worst case scenario if you do have a pair of Roborovski hamsters is that if they don’t get along, then one or both could become seriously injured and potentially die, so be prepared to separate them immediately if required.

Wrapping up

Roborovski hamsters are amazing hamsters and have some unique characteristics.  We’ve looked at where they originated from, what they get up to in the wild, the predators that they face and what they’re like as pets.  

Hopefully this guide has been useful and you have more knowledge about Robo hamsters (I know I have) that will help you make an informed decision as to whether or not a Robo hamster is the right pet for you.