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In this series, we’re taking a look at the various hamster species and previously looked at the Roborovoski hamster and the Syrian hamster. Now it’s the turn of the Winter White, which is another of the ‘dwarf’ hamsters.
The Winter White dwarf hamster (Phodophus Sungrous) is one of three species of hamster in the genus Phodopus and confusingly, is sometimes referred to by one of the following names.
- Western hamster
- Siberian hamster
- Furry Footed hamster
- Russian dwarf hamster
- Djungarian hamster
- Striped dwarf hamster
- Siberian hamster
- Siberian dwarf hamster
In this guide, we’ll keep things simple and simply refer to it as the Winter White. Let’s have a look where they come from.
Where do Winter White dwarf hamsters come from?
Winter White hamsters come from areas of southwest Siberia and eastern Kazakhstan and live in relatively barren grassy steppe areas and in wheat and alfalfa fields.
In these areas, during the winter months there are fewer hours of daylight, low temperatures and persistent snow cover.
Winter White hamster in the wild
In the wild Winter White hamster dick tunnels which are about 1m deep which lead to burrows where they sleep, eat, raise their young and hide from predators such as weasels.
Most burrows have about six entrances and lined with moss in the summer. During the winter all of the entrances are shut apart from one and they’re often lined with animal fur or wool to help keep them warm.
Despite these extremely cold areas Winter White hamsters don’t hibernate but do slip into a morning torpor which gives them a few extra hours of sleep. Despite a drop in their metabolic rate, it is not enough to be considered hibernation.
To ensure the survival of the Winter White in these areas, they lower their body temperature to use less energy and draw on their fat reserves which causes them to lose up to 15 grams in weight. They also have plenty of fur on their feet to protect them from the cold.
Interestingly, research has shown that during the winter, hamsters have more major immune cells and recover faster from fever compared to during the summer.
Like Syrian hamsters, Winter Whites are burrowers and live together with other hamsters in large underground burrows. Each female hamster will often live together with two males whereas male hamsters will share with at least two females.
Diet in the wild
In the wild, Winter Whites survive on food that they have hoarded and whatever they have managed to find from the frozen landscape – usually grasses, herbs and insects. During the winter they consume more food than they do in the summer and prefer to eat more protein rich foods such as insects.
Now that we know a little bit about their natural habitat, let’s find out where they were first discovered and how they became the much loved pets that they are today.
Winter whites were first catalogued in 1773 by Peter Pallas. He spent 6 years exploring Siberia, the Urals and China between 1778 and 1774. Although the hamster wasn’t named after him (although perhaps should have been), several species of birds and mammals were named after him as a result of his explorations.
The Winter White was actually found 62 miles west of Semipalatinsk in West Serbia. Back then, it was classified as belonging to the mouse family but was later reclassified as belonging to the hamster family.
Many preserved specimens dating from 1947 onwards can be seen in the Siberian zoological museum. But the pet Winter Whites that we know today stem from several animals captured in 1968 in western serbia.
Two pairs of these hamsters were brought to the Max Planck Institute in Germany and were successfully bred in captivity. By the Middle of the 1970s, some specimens appeared in the Netherlands and more came from scientific institutes in eastern europe.
It wasn’t until the late 1970s that the Winter White came to the UK pet market, although it still wasn’t as widely available as the Campbell hamster at this point.
The Winter White came to the US pet market later still in the early 1980s, but they weren’t widely adopted because anti-vermin laws in some states prohibited them as pets. To this day, there are anti-vermin laws in the US which have certainly hindered their popularity in the past, but they have become more popular in recent times.
What do Winter White hamsters look like?
Winter whites have an egg-shaped or oval body, a broad head and largely spaced prominent black eyes which are larger than the Campbell’s hamster.
However, their ears are smaller than the Campbell’s and their fur is slightly thicker. Their snout is also shorter and more square than a Campbell’s hamster and their body is rounder and more egg-shaped.
In general, the Winter White is larger than the Campbell’s hamster and they are the largest species of dwarf hamster. However, they are much smaller than a Syrian and grow between 2 ¼ – 4 inches in length.
We’ll come onto colors in the next section, however native Winter Whites tend to have greyish fur which is heavily ticked with black. They also have a black stripe down the centre of their back. Along each flank, there are three arches of a lighter shade which merge into their paler-colored belly fur.
Winter Whites also have tails, although it is short like that of a Syrian hamster (about ⅓ inch) and it is usually tucked into their fur, so you can hardly see it.
Do Winter White hamsters change color?
Yes, Winter White hamsters do change color and this happens as the days go shorter when winter approaches. They shed their gray coat which is then replaced with thicker, white fur, apart from their black dorsal stripe, which remains. This new coat helps them to blend in with the surrounding snowfall and this is where it gets its popular name from!
It’s worth noting that the color changing characteristic of Winter White happens can still be observed today, but this only occurs in pure bred Winter White hamsters and in the absence of any artificial light.
Some hamsters are interbred with Campbell’s hamsters (also known as Hybrids) and these won’t change color. These so-called hybrids are also more susceptible to diseases like diabetes, obesity and nerve damage. It is speculated that over 80% of pets are hybrids because most pure preds are only available from reputable breeders rather than pet shops.
Winter white hamster colors
There are four color variations to the Winter White hamster. These are:
- Normal grey
- Sapphire (a soft blue-grey) with a dark dorsal stripe and white-cream belly and dark eyes
- Pearl (white with varying amounts of gray ticking) and a darker head
- Sapphire pearl (like pearl, with ticking of sapphire color)
Interestingly, none of these color morphs change their coat color during the short-day cycle in the winter.
Winter whites in the wild are fairly outgoing, and unlike Syrians, they are social animals and live well in small groups especially if they have been brought up together or in family groupings.
In fact, researchers Lesley Castro-William and Kathleen Matt found that when the hamsters were paired for three weeks, then separated, the males demonstrated body and behavior changes that are similar to human depression. The males also ate more, gained weight, became less active and spent more time in their sleeping area and less time exploring their cage.
In the wild, Winter White hamsters aren’t afraid of people and most are very curious and are often fairly tame from the start. They usually come quickly on their own and can be picked up.
In terms of temperament, there isn’t much difference between males and females, though if you do want to keep pairs of these hamsters, then you’re better off choosing two males as females have a stronger tendency to fight.
As a pet, they love spending time exercising on their wheels and are generally more tolerant to being handled than other hamster species and are less likely to bite.
They are however very quick and may be too quick for very young children, so in that respect, they are more suitable for older children and adults.
When a pair of Winter White hamsters mate, the mother gives birth to 4-6 young after a gestation period of just 18-19 days. Females can also give birth to another litter, just 24 days after the birth of the first, which is a day or two longer than Campbell’s hamster. Just a month after they are born, the young become sexually mature themselves.
An interesting fact is that both the Campbell’s and Winter White can put pregnancy on pause after being fertilized by males (known as Post Implantation Diapause). This has a benefit in that the pups currently being fed by their mother will weigh more when weaned. This is because the mother can channel her energy to the current set of pups rather than dividing energy between the pups and the embryos growing inside the womb.
Another amazing characteristic is that females can choose not to become pregnant; which can be useful if the male with her is removed or killed after mating. This is an indication of the importance of the role of the male in the family rearing. Although the male contributes to care of the young, he rarely spends time in the nest with young ones.
Another remarkable fact is that the mother’s resting body temperature is actually higher when she is with her pups, presumably to keep them warm in the cold environment.
These three amazing characteristics are why researchers find Winter White hamsters such worthy research subjects!
Winter white hamster lifespan in captivity
In captivity, Winter White’s live between 1.5 – 2 years, which is a similar to the lifespan of the Cambell’s hamster. Interestingly, Winter White’s are thought to live longer in the wild than in captivity (it’s usually the other way around). This may be because in captivity, they have a less varied diet, generally have much less exercise and there are stressors in captivity that wouldn’t be encountered in the wild in places like Siberia.
What is a hybrid hamster?
A hybrid hamster is produced when two different species of hamster, that have the same number of chromosomes, are bred together. The two species that are usually bred together are the Winter White and the Campbell’s hamster because they both have 28 chromosomes and are closely related to each other.
Hybridization of hamsters does not happen naturally in the wild because Winter White and Campbell’s hamsters don’t occupy the same ranges, so they would never have the chance of meeting.
A hamster can also be classed as a hybrid even if two species of hamster haven’t been bred together, but have had genes from either species in their ancestry at some point in time.
Not only are hybrid hamsters unnatural, they’re unethical too. Although these two hamsters can be bred together, they are in fact different species, unlike two types of dogs for example, which are the same species but different breeds.
Problems with hybrids
Although hybrids can make suitable pets and look perfectly healthy in pet shops, they are prone to health problems. Here are some of the issues:
- Hybrids have shorter lives, on average living between 12 and 18 months. There are always exceptions to this rule of course.
- Hybrids can develop diabetes later on in life.
- Hybridization can cause problems at birth for the mother due to the size of her hybrid pups.
- Hybrids are prone to mild to severe neurological problems similar to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) in humans.
- According to research, hybridization results in reduced or abnormal growth, severe developmental defects, and maternal death.
The widespread breeding and distribution of hybrids poses a threat to the two different species as the hybrids could be bred so much that the pure species would begin to die out. Pure species are also hard to identify so it becomes even easier for hybrids to breed and then go on to produce infertile litter.
How to recognize hybrid hamster
Recognizing a hybrid hamster can be difficult as some of them look identical to the pure species. Usually, they have the body shape of one and the color of the other. For example, they might have the slender body and narrow snout of the Campbell’s but the color of a Winter White.
If you’re interested in buying a Winter White or a Campbell’s hamster, then to get a pure species, you would need to get one from a breeder that specializes in breeding pure lines of either species and can guarantee pedigreeness.
If you’re buying one from a pet shop or a hobby breeder, then it’s probably safe to assume that it’s a hybrid.
Are Winter White hamsters friendly?
Yes, Winter White hamsters are friendly and quite placid, they’re very easy to tame and make good pets. They’re also more tolerant to being handled compared to other species of hamster but they are quick on their feet and aren’t recommended for very young children.
With that being said, they can be tamed to sit in your hand and be petted gently. Winter whites, like Roborovski hamsters are also very entainering to watch as they run around their cage and exercise on the wheels at an extremely fast pace!
How to tame a Winter White dwarf hamster
Winter White hamsters are quite easy to tame, but you do need to make sure that when you pick them up, that you do so gently. You also need to do this without making any sudden movements and making any loud noises.
Another thing to bear in mind is that although you’ll be wary and frightened of being nipped (at least for the first few times), when you first put your hand inside your hamsters cage, your hamster will be frightened too. This is because in the wild, hamsters are a source of food to birds of prey, such as owls that come swooping down towards them.
When your hand approaches their territory inside their cage, they associate this with a predator and become very defensive and frightened and therefore have a tendency to bite.
So, rather than clawing your hamster to get your hamster out of the cage, here is a better way to achieve the same goal which will help to build trust with your hamster.
Picking up your hamster using a cup
A simple alternative way to pick up your hamster is take a glass or a cup and lower it into your hamster’s cage and let it climb inside it. Once inside the cup or glass, you can lift the cup out of the cage slowly and let your hamster walk onto your hands.
Once your hamster is in your hands, let it walk on your hands, smell you and climb on you and realize that you aren’t a threat.
It’s very important that you repeat this for five minutes or so twice a day if possible which will help you to build and maintain a bond with your hamster.
It’s also important that you call your hamster by its name and talk to your hamster, not because it can understand you, but it will also get it used to your voice. This will help your hamster feel calmer when you approach it the next time.
It’s normal for your hamster to bite and nibble you at first, but if this continues, then I would advise wearing a pair of gloves until it gets used to being picked up and handled.
When your hamster gets used to you and you gain a little more confidence, you can remove the gloves and maybe give them a little treat. Your hamster will then begin to realize that if it doesn’t bite, then it will be rewarded with a treat.
Once you have handled your hamster a few times, your hamster will trust you more, won’t be as lively and will happily sit on your lap whilst you stroke them. The key to getting to this stage is of course time, effort and patience.
Care – What does a Winter White hamster need?
Winter white hamsters need large accommodation, substrate, nesting material and plenty of chews and chew toys to keep them amused and to keep their continually growing teeth trim.
Despite being small animals, in the wild they cover vast distances, so you need to be able to mimic this environment as much as possible by providing them with a large cage.
The recommended minimum size is 450 square inches of floor space but you should go as large as you can afford.
The best cage for a Winter White hamster is a glass aquarium or a large plastic aquarium (or bin cage) and it will need to have a mesh lid or mesh sides to allow for plenty of ventilation.
Because Winter White hamsters are so small, it is possible for them to squeeze through wire cages so it is much safer to go for a glass tank or aquarium to prevent them from escaping.
Inside your cage, it’s a good idea to add platforms for them to climb onto and tubes to climb through. Platforms and tubes greatly increase the amount of floor space in your hamster’s cage providing them with the exercise they need.
Substrate and bedding
In terms of substrate, you can use anything that is paper-based such as Carefresh (Amazon, #CommissionsEarned) or Kaytee Clean and Cosy (Amazon, #CommissionsEarned). Aspen (Amazon, #CommissionsEarned) is also a good option to use on the floor of your hamster’s cage.
You can use different substrates in different areas of your hamsters cage. For example, you can use Chinchilla sand (Amazon, #CommissionsEarned) for your hamster to roll and dig around in (avoid Chinchilla dust) and you can even offer them a small amount of organic soil which they can dig around in as well.
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’ll need at least 6 inches because Winter Whites in particular like to burrow and this will be sufficiently deep enough for them 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.
When it comes to nesting material, soft and unscented tissue paper is fine to use, but you need to avoid any cotton wool bedding types as these are likely to get stuck in your hamster’s cheek pouches or wrapped around their limbs.
It’s really important that you provide your hamster with lots of things to do inside their cage. In the wild, hamsters dig down underneath the ground to create tunnels which lead to their burrows and climb onto rocks and plants when foraging for food. So it’s important that you can mimic this environment in their cage as much as possible. A hamster wheel will enable your hamster to exercise, but it’s important that this is not the only thing that you provide.
Feel free to get creative with this. Consider adding houses, tunnels and even children’s toys to the cage which will allow your hamster to climb into them and hide.
When it comes to hamster wheels, choose one that is completely closed on one side and open on the other. You should also opt for a plastic wheel instead of a metal one because your hamster can get its limbs trapped between the rungs.
You should go for a wheel that is at least 8.5 inches for Winter White hamsters, although due to their small size, the size of their wheel isn’t quite as important as it is for Syrian hamsters which grow much bigger.
Personally, I like large hamster wheels – 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 Winter White will enjoy running around on.
When feeding your Winter White hamster, you can use a dry hamster mix which is made up of seeds, pulses, nuts and other staples such as oat and wheat. You can offer your hamster dried mealworms for extra protein.
Additionally, you can offer them fresh fruit and vegetables, plants such as dandelions though these should be treated as a supplement and given to your hamster in small portions.
Scattering food around your hamster’s cage will prevent them overeating and will also encourage them to forage for their food which they would do naturally in the wild.
Hamster fruit tree twigs such as applewood, willow or orange tree sticks are also very good for your hamster’s teeth. Check out my post on chews and chew toys for more ideas.
How often do you feed a Winter White hamster?
You should fill up the food bowl of a Winter white hamster once per day and this should contain a maximum of one or two tablespoons of food. An even better idea is to get rid of the food bowl and scatter food around the hamster’s cage. This will help stop the hamster from getting too fat and will prevent them from being bored. Searching and foraging for food is what they would have to do in the wild.
It’s important to give your hamster fresh water everyday and clean their bottle out daily. Make sure that your hamster can reach the bottle easily without having to overreach or bend down.
Water dishes are best avoided with Winter White hamsters because of the risk of drowning due to their small size.
Do Winter White hamsters need sand baths?
Winter White hamsters don’t need a sand bath as they’re very good at grooming themselves and keeping themselves clean, similar to the way cats do. However, it is a good idea to provide your hamster with a sand bath as it is beneficial for them as it helps to keep their coat soft and stops it from becoming too greasy.
In terms of sand, go for Chinchilla sand (Amazon, #CommissionsEarned) and put some in a small area of their cage or in a small dish and let them roll around in it. What you want to avoid is Chinchilla ‘dust’, which is far too fine and bad for their respiratory system. If you can’t find any Chinchilla sand, children’s play sand is also okay to use but you may want to cook it in the oven at 350 degrees to kill any pathogens.
In this guide to Winter White hamsters, we’ve learnt where they were first discovered, what they’re like in the wild and how they came to be our beloved pets. We’ve also learned how to care for a Winter White, learnt what a hybrid hamster is and how they threaten the pure Winter White species.