Syrian hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus), also known as the golden hamster, are the largest species of the domesticated hamster. The species was originated in Syria. Whilst this species was originally first captured in 1930, by Israel Aharoni, it had been previously publicised and described in 1797 by Patrick Russell. They were originally captured for use as laboratory animals. Scientists noted that they became hand tame within a matter of days of being captured and quickly became adapted to captivity. It was only in the late 1940s that they started becoming kept as pets and became very popular. In the years after their first capture, there were further expeditions in order to capture more to widen the gene pool and work with new genetics, which is the reason we have so many different types and colours today!
This species is easily recognised due to its size alone. An adult Syrian is usually around 6-8 inches (14-19cm) in length and generally weighs anywhere between 100-200g, with some being as large as 300g! Females also tend to be larger than males. There are a lot of different colours and coat types in Syrian hamsters, more than any of the other hamster species. The Syrian should have a short tail, and can have either a short haired or long haired coat. The standard Syrian should have a broad and stocky body, with a broad skull and short face and blunt nose. Their head should be large in proportion to their body. They should have large, bright eyes that are widely set. They can have different coloured eyes. Their ears should be large, rounded and set far apart. Their ears should be unfolded and erect when the hamster is awake and alert.
Syrian hamsters are the most popular hamster species, and are known for having good temperaments. They are easy to hand tame and can quickly learn to enjoy human company, and can form a strong bond with their owners. They are also one of the most demanding species, and can often demand for more space and enrichment, so this needs to be taken into account before choosing to own one. They are nocturnal, but do get up a few times in the day for a drink or snack, and some will venture out when they hear their owners voice in hopes for a cuddle or treat. In the wild, they are found solitary unless breeding or nursing a litter, so need to be kept alone. They run miles and miles each night in the wild and dig deep burrows, so it’s important to supply a wheel and lots of burrowing space for them.
Enclosure: A Syrian hamster requires a minimum of 5,000cm sq or 100x50cm. Bigger is always better and some females will need up to 10,000cm sq in order for them to be happy. It is best to always aim for as big as possible in order to prevent needing to upgrade.
Wheel: The Syrian needs a wheel a minimum of 28cm in diameter, however some larger Syrians need up to 33cm. Your hamster’s back should not be arched in any way. If you have a larger hamster, bigger is better so choose the 33cm.
Food: Syrians should be on a high quality food mix, that is tailored for their needs. Always ensure there is added insects to their mix in order to meet their protein needs. They can also have fresh fruit or veg and protein (such as plain cooked chicken) a couple times a week.
Sand: Syrian hamsters should always have a sand bath included in their cage, both for enrichment and for them to clean themselves in. Some hamsters will even use it as their toilet area.
Hides: Syrians should have multiple hides in order to “clutter” the cage and not leave much open space in their enclosure. They should ideally have a minimum of 3 hides, plus 1 multi chamber hide, as this replicates the burrows they would have in the wild. It is a good idea to have the hides on “stilts” or a platform to prevent them falling or sinking into deep substrate when the hamster digs underneath them.
Substrate: It is always a good idea to have plenty of deep substrate for your hamster to dig in. Providing multiple substrates helps to increase enrichment. To allow your hamster to burrow, a minimum of 20cm of bedding depth is required, although 30-40cm or more is ideal for proper tunnel systems.
Winter White Dwarf hamsters (Phodopus sungorus), are a small species of hamster weighing approximately 40-60g. They originate from the dry mountain steppes and semi-desert regions of south-western Siberia, eastern Kazakhstan, and in isolated areas of Russia. This has led to them sometimes being referred to as Siberian hamsters, Djungarian hamsters or Russian Dwarf hamsters. They were first discovered in 1773 by Russian zoologist Peter Simon Pallas. At first, he believed them to be a mouse; afterwards they were considered a sub-species of Campbell’s Dwarf hamsters. In modern times this was considered incorrect, and they are now recognised as a species of their own. However, they are closely related to the Campbell’s Dwarf hamster and these two species are capable of interbreeding. Winter White Dwarf hamsters are so called because they have the ability to change their coat colour as the seasons change and temperatures and sunlight levels fluctuate. This is used as a defence mechanism in the wild. When their coats turn white in winter, it allows them to blend perfectly into the snow, making them almost invisible to predators. Winter Whites also have furry feet which helps to keep them warm as they run across the snow. You may or may not notice your pet Winter White hamster changing colour. That is because of artificial lighting and central heating in our homes. The hamster does not recognise the signs of winter and therefore does not change colour as a result.
Winter Whites come in three different main coat colours: Agouti (wild type), Sapphire, Pearl. Winter white hamsters have a dark stripe that runs all the way down their backs from their head to their tail. This is less obvious on the lighter coloured Pearl variation. They have smaller ears than the Campbell’s Dwarf hamster, their snout is more rounded.
Winter Whites make great pets because of their nice temperament and they are easily tamed. They have a friendly nature and usually resort to running away instead of attacking if they feel threatened. They are very popular as pets throughout Europe, North America and Japan in particular. They are one of the more vocal species of hamster and so you might hear them squeaking in frustration if they are annoyed, scream if they are scared, or make excited chirping noises when they see you. Currently in Ireland there are no ethical winter white breeders, so they cannot be keep in pairs, despite it being possible with proper husbandry and breeding.
Enclosure: The minimum size enclosure for a Winter White Dwarf hamster in Ireland is 4000cm sq. The minimum size of 4000cm sq should be seen for what it is – a minimum – it is NOT an ideal size or something you should aim for. Bigger is always better so please provide the largest enclosure possible ABOVE the minimum size.
Wheel: Wheel diameter should be at least 21cm in order to ensure a Winter White hamster can run without an arched back.
Food: Winter Whites need to be fed a seed mix tailored to dwarf hamsters. They tend to prefer small seeds and grains.
Sand: Winter White hamsters live in semi-desert environments, so to replicate this they need an area of sand in their enclosure. An approximate area of 1000cm sq in their enclosure should be reserved for a sand bath.
Hides: The burrow of a Winter White hamster in the wild has several entrances which allows it to make a quick escape if attacked by a predator. Their burrows consist of many chambers each with a different purpose, such as a food store, sleeping quarters or toilet area. A multichamber hide is a great way to replicate their natural burrows.
Substrate: Sometimes a wild winter white will choose to use an abandoned burrow made by another animal, but they may also choose to dig their own burrow. It is important to have a deep level of substrate in their enclosure to allow them to do so. In the wild their burrows can be over a metre deep, so the deeper bedding you can provide them with the better. Hamster Info Ireland recommends over 15cm bedding depth at the very least, but ideally the enclosure should be filled as much as possible.
Roborovski hamsters (phodopus roborovskii) are the fastest and smallest of the domestic hamster species. This dwarf hamster is named after Russian expeditioner Lt. Vsevolod Roborovski, who first made note of them in July 1894. After being brought to London Zoo in the 1960s, British research commenced into the species in the 1970s rather unsuccessfully. The UK and Irish supply of Roborovskis are descended from a batch imported from the Netherlands in the 1990s as a result of poor research and breeding outcomes. This central Asian hamster species is found in the desert areas of Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and China – these hamsters are rarely found in dense vegetation or on solid clay substrates and are notable for being very efficient in their use of water.
Roborovskis are notable in appearance due to their comically distinct ‘eyebrow’ spots and their very small, round stature. They lack the dorsal stripe associated with other members of the genus. Ten variations of the Roborovski are known, though exploring Roborovski genetics is still quite new. The standard agouti is a natural sandy-grey with a white belly and brow. Other mutations are still very much being explored by breeders, including pied and some colour variants, though some genetic variations derived from the ‘white face’ gene have been linked to severe neurological illness such as spinning. The Roborovski usually spans less than 5cm in length, weighing around 20-30g once fully grown. Pink noses, bright faces, and their energetic demeanours give a huge amount of character to these tiny creatures.
While the Roborovski hamster is increasing in popularity as a pet, many keepers struggle with their handling because of their nervous natures, tiny frames, and notable speed. A not insignificant number of pet Roborovski hamsters become observational pets as a result, though calm and tame examples are not wholly uncommon. Unlike some other dwarf hamsters, Roborovskis are more often found to be solitary in the wild when not rearing young – most groups that are observed are family units with pups below the age of full maturity. In captivity, Roborovskis are quite prone to attacking one another, chasing cage mates and drawing blood from extensive, potentially fatal rump injuries caused by the chaser biting the fleeing hamster. They do better as solitary pets when not part of an ethical breeding program.
Enclosure: The minimum size enclosure for Roborovski hamsters in Ireland is 4000cm sq. Bigger is always better so please provide the largest enclosure possible ABOVE minimum size. Note that a Roborovski is exceptionally small and should not be kept in a standard barred cage where possible to prevent escapes.
Wheel: A Roborovski hamster should have a wheel at least 21cm diameter, but 28cm is a more popular and safer option for them to slow their running to safe speeds and totally eliminate the risk of back issues.
Food: Roborovski hamsters should be fed a food mix specifically for dwarf hamsters, preferably one catered to the slightly higher volume of insect matter found in the wild Roborovski diet. Sprays allow them to forage as the naturally would in the wild.
Sand: Roborovskis require a much larger volume of sand than other species due to their natural environment and physical attributes. For this reason, it is a good idea to provide alarge and deep sand area to replicate their natural habitat. At least 1350cm sq should be dedicated to sand, though many keepers suggest half of the enclosure as a suitable benchmark.
Hides: Roborovskis are naturally nervous and should be given lots of places to hide, dig, and burrow. Multi-chamber hides are a great option for them, as it replicates the “rooms” of their natural burrows. Many Roborovskis appreciate having a sand-bottomed option for nesting as well as a hide on top of warmer commercial substrate.
Substrate: Roborovskis make impressive tunnels that are around 6 feet long in the wild, so they most definitely appreciate ample burrow room despite their small size. The deeper the substrate the better, but certainly no less than 15cm.
Chinese hamsters (Cricetulus griseus) originate from the deserts of northern China and Mongolia. They are the only domesticated long-tailed dwarf hamster.They are unrelated to short tailed dwarf hamsters, for example Roborovskis. Chinese hamsters were first domesticated as lab animals. While they are not commonly used anymore, Chinese hamster ovary cells are still used in bio-pharmaceutical drugs, such as cancer treatments. They were first kept as pets in the 1970s. Some U.S. states, such as California and New Jersey,
regard the Chinese hamster as a pest or an exotic animal, and require a special permit to own, breed or sell them. (There are no special permits required in Ireland.) Chinese Dwarf hamsters are easily distinguishable by their 2-3cm tails, and long, slender bodies which gives them a mousy look. They are the only domestic hamster that have a semi-prehensile tail. They use it for balance when climbing plants and branches in the wild. They are natural climbers, whereas other species of domestic hamsters are more ground dwelling. A healthy Chinese hamster should weigh between 30 – 45g. Chinese hamsters are the rarest of the pet hamster species in Ireland.
Colour varieties: Wild Type (Agouti), Dominant Spot, Black Eyed White. Wild type is the most common colouration. Black eyed whites are extremely rare and there only a few known to be owned domestically. Other (relatively new) variations have occured through breeding, such as white with a dorsal stripe or partial dorsal stripe, and blue which is a similar colouration to sapphire winter white hamsters.
Chinese hamsters are strictly solitary and must live alone. They can be very territorial and can fight to the death if living with others. They can be skittish in nature, but they are friendly towards humans once tamed. When being handled they will often wrap themselves around a person’s fingers, grabbing on with their paws and tail. They are impressive climbers thanks to their semi-prehensile tails and strong gripping feet. We do not usually encourage hamster climbing, but this species is an exception. For enrichment, multiple platforms and natural “climbing frames” such as vinewood or driftwood would be ideal for them. (Safety should still be kept in mind to ensure fall distances are minimal)
Enclosure: The minimum size enclosure for a Chinese Dwarf hamster in Ireland is 4000cm sq, although bigger is always better. Tanks are preferable due to being more escape-proof.
Wheel: Most dwarf hamsters can use 21cm wheels, but it is recommended to use 28cm wheels for Chinese hamsters as they have different proportions and longer bodies to short-tailed dwarves. Ensure your hamsters back does not arch when running on the wheel. If the back is arched, the wheel is too small, so try the next size up.
Food: Species appropriate food is required for Chinese hamsters as they are prone to diabetes, so a food mix tailored for dwarf hamsters would be best. Sprays allow them to forage as they naturally would in the wild.
Sand: Chinese hamsters do not rely on sand as heavily as other dwarf hamsters such as the Roborovski. In the wild they are usually found in grasslands. However, all hamsters should be given some sand in their enclosure for added enrichment and to help them clean their fur. Approximately 600cm sq of sand is recommended for Chinese dwarf hamsters.
Hides: Due to their skittish nature, Chinese hamsters feel much more secure when given lots of places to hide. Hides made of natural materials such as wood are ideal.
Substrate: Burrowing is facilitated by deep substrate. Hamster Info Ireland recommends 15cm as the absolute minimum depth for dwarf hamsters but as burrowing is incredibly important for hamsters, owners should fill the enclosure as much as possible.
Campbell’s Dwarf hamsters (Phodopus campbelli) are named after Mr. CW Campbell who discovered them. At first, they thought it was a subspecies of the Winter White dwarf hamster. Since 1984, scientists no longer see the Campbell’s dwarf hamster as a subspecies, but as a separate species. This is partly based on a 1967 study into the genetic differences between the two species. Scientists compared the DNA of both, and concluded that there are major differences in the sex chromosome. The Campbell’s dwarf originates from the steppe region of the Altai (an area in the border region of Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia & China). Campbell’s dwarves do not live in the same area as the Winter White dwarf.
Unlike most hamster species, Campbell’s dwarf hamsters genes are all recessive except their agouti (natural/ wild) colour. There are quite a handful of Campbell’s colours, unfortunately, there are none here in Ireland (yet) due to crossbreeding with Winter Whites. Because Winter Whites have the dominant genes, most hybrid “Russian Dwarf” hamsters are more Winter White than Campbell’s, as the Campbell’s genes have been more and more diluted over the years. Campbell’s look more like teddy bears than their closest cousins, with a wider space between their ears and shorter nose. They’re also slightly bigger when ethically bred, measuring 7-10cm rather than 6-8cm and being a lot rounder. Average weight is about 30-50g. Campbell’s dwarf hamsters have a similar dorsal stripe to the Winter White dwarf, but the Campbell’s stripe is narrower and not as dark. Red eyes are a feature of some Campbell’s hamsters whereas Winter White hamsters do not have them. Campbell’s eyes are more oval shaped than the eyes of the Winter White.
Campbell’s Dwarf hamsters can be very sociable when bred by ethical breeders from good lines. They are the most sociable of all the hamster species. There is a certain hierarchy within the group. Arguments and fights can arise when determining and re-determining these rankings between the young and old of the group, which is why ethical breeders keep their groups around the same age. Campbell’s tend to feel with their teeth at things that are foreign, which a hand may be at first. This is not something that hurts. This is the hamster’s way of exploring the foreign object and trying to figure out what it is. Therefore, it is not uncommon to get a small pinch in the finger, on the nail or that the hamster bites on everything new and foreign (for example your clothes) at some point in the beginning. Once it has learned what it is, this behaviour tends to calm down.
Enclosure: The minimum size enclosure for a Campbell’s Dwarf hamster in Ireland is 4000cm sq. The minimum size of 4000cm sq should be seen for what it is – a minimum – it is NOT an ideal size or something you should aim for. Bigger is always better so please provide the largest enclosure possible ABOVE the minimum size.
Wheel: A Campbell’s Dwarf hamster should have a wheel at least 21cm diameter, but 28cm is more popular and safer option for them to ensure their back does not arch.
Food: Species appropriate food is required all hamster species. Therefore Campbell’s dwarf hamsters should be fed a food mix specifically for dwarf hamsters. They are very prone to diabetes, so sugary fruit and treats should be kept to a minimum, if fed at all. Sprays allow them to forage as they naturally would in the wild.
Sand: Wild Campbell’s hamsters have territories in steppe and desert areas. For this reason it’s a good idea to provide a large sand area to replicate their natural habitat. Approximately 1000cm sq would be a suitable sand area in their enclosure.
Hides: Campbell’s dwarves should be given lots of places to dig tunnels and burrow. Multi-chamber hides are a great option for them, as it replicates the “rooms” of their natural burrows. It’s best to include stilts on the hides you use, to raise them up from the cage floor, allowing the hamster to burrow deeper once inside.
Substrate: As with all hamsters, Campbell’s dwarf hamsters love to dig and burrow. In the wild their burrows can be over a metre deep, so the more substrate you provide them the better they will thrive.
Hybrid Dwarf hamsters were created when a Winter White Dwarf and a Campbell’s Dwarf were crossbred. Hybrid hamsters are not ethical and do not exist in nature. As these two hamster species exist in different regions in the wild, they would not ever have the opportunity to mate with each other. Hybrid hamsters have been bred by humans. This generally happens within the pet shop and rodent mill industry, as well as backyard breeders, because they do not take the care or time to find out the genetic line of their animals. Hamsters advertised as Winter White or Campbell’s Dwarf in pet shops are extremely unlikely to be purebred, so it can be assumed they are all hybridised to some extent, some more so than others.
We cannot stress the importance of researching hamster genetics before ever breeding hamsters. Crossing Winter White and Campbell’s hamsters not only run the risk of health conditions, temperament issues and birthing difficulties, but they also completely destroy the genetic line of future hamsters bred from the family. Once the gene pool has been diluted, it can never, ever be fully restored. The best that can be done is to breed it out as much as possible, but future hamsters from the line will never truly be purebreds.
The saddest part of this is that hybrid hamsters are leading to the extinction of Campbell’s Dwarf hamsters (as their genes are recessive to the Winter White genes). Ethical breeders of both Campbell’s and Winter Whites work very hard to keep the species as pure as possible. Generally, six generations of hamsters with no hybridised traits is seen as enough to call the line purebred and can therefore by bred from ethically.
When a female Winter White Dwarf hamster is mated with a Campbell’s Dwarf hamster, there is a very good chance that she will not be able to give birth to her young, which almost always leads to death. This is because the newborn babies of the Campbell’s Dwarf hamster are larger and have a somewhat thicker head. Breeding Hybrid hamsters with purebred Winter White hamsters decreases the risk of birthing difficulties, as it means the offspring are more likely to resemble Winter Whites. However… IT IS STILL UNETHICAL TO BREED HAMSTERS WITH UNKNOWN PEDIGREES
Hybrid hamsters can vary in appearance depending on how much of the Campbell’s or Winter White traits they receive, but, as Winter White traits are dominant they are more likely to resemble this species. Hybrid hamsters need a high percentage of Winter White genes in order to be able to change their coat colours in Winter. The first few generation of hybridised hamsters are unable to do so. The Hybrids need to be bred several times with Winter Whites in order to regain the ability. The dorsal stripe will still be seen, but more colour combinations exist due to the Campbell’s genetics. Yellowish colouration in the fur is a characteristic of Campbell’s Dwarves. Red eyes are also a Campbell’s trait which can exist in hybrids.
Although it’s possible for purebred Winter White dwarfs and Campbell’s dwarfs to be housed together in same species and same sex groups, this is not possible with Hybrid hamsters. It is unclear as to why this is. It is possible the hamsters struggle to communicate with each other as effectively as purebreds. Ethical breeders of each species work to ensure they breed good temperament and social habits. This has not been taken into consideration with hybrids, and so many of them have very aggressive personalities towards each other. Hybrid hamsters are strictly solitary and should be housed alone to avoid stress, injuries or death. Unfortunately most pet shops are not even aware their hamsters are hybrids and they will often sell them in pairs which more often than not leads to disaster.
Care standards for Hybrid Dwarf hamster should follow the same guidelines as the Winter White and Campbell’s species.
Enclosure: A cage with minimum unbroken floorspace of 4,000cm sq. Bigger is always better. Hamsters thrive in larger enclosures. Minimum is minimum for a reason, anything below this is unsuitable and cruel. Aim for the biggest enclosure possible.
Wheel: A minimum of 21cm diameter is required, but 28cm diameter wheels are commonly used for Dwarf species.
Food: Hybrid hamsters need a seed mix tailored for dwarf hamsters, with fresh veg fed every other day. They are prone to diabetes so should not be fed sugary foods. Sand: All hamsters require sand in their enclosure in order to clean themselves, and some will also use it as a toilet area. Campbell’s Dwarfs are more heavily reliant on sand than the Winter White. Approximately 1,000cm sq would be a suitable amount of sand to provide.
Hides: Multi-chamber hides are ideal for dwarf hamsters as it replicates the burrows used by Winter Whites and Campbell’s Dwarfs. Hamsters are skittish and will be more confident to come out and explore if they are given a cluttered enclosure with lots of places to hide and take cover.
Substrate: The deeper the substrate in the enclosure the better. Deep substrate should cover the entire enclosure floor, not just on one side or corner. Dwarfs need a minimum of 15cm bedding depth but the deeper it is the more they will be encouraged to burrow.
Photos of Campbells Dwarf Hamsters courtesy of Campbells von den Ravensbergen Hamstery.
Photos of Winter White Dwarf Hamsters courtesy of Valinors Hamstery.