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Dwarf Hamster Basics
Dwarf hamsters are adorable little rodents who are not just a smaller version of the more common Syrian (also called "teddy bear" or golden) hamster. There are certainly many similarities, but they are different enough that knowing the basics for a Syrian hamster will not completely prepare you for dwarf hamsters. We hope that you will read on and learn more about the specific needs of these little cotton balls of joy!
Dwarf hamsters originally come from parts of Russia and have a variety of common names. There are also at least 3 species that can be found as pets in the U.S. The ones that we have are known as Russian or Campbell's dwarf hamster, Siberian winter white dwarf hamsters, and Roborovski dwarf hamsters. These three species seem to be quite similar in care needs, though we find that the Roborovski's (the smallest of the three) are quite shy and extremely fast, and make it clear that most of them prefer to be watched and not handled. The others seem to tolerate or even seek out human contact.
Dwarf hamsters range from about 2" to 3-1/2" long as adults, not including their stubby little tail. They come in a wide variety of colors, most of which have a white underbelly and colored top. They typically have a dark stripe that runs down the back. In addition to the many colors, there are also dwarf hamsters who exhibit spotted patterning. Winter whites turn white in winter, though we have been told that this is triggered by length of daylight and not temperature.
"Habitrails" and other rodent habitats with tubing are not suitable for dwarf hamsters. Dwarf hamsters have hairy feet and can not grip in the tubes like a big hamster can. I learned this the hard way with my first dwarf hamster, who broke his neck when he slipped down a tube =( Wire sided cages are also not very suitable unless they have a plastic barrier at the bottom because dwarf hamsters love to dig and will make a mess around your cage. A 10 gallon aquarium or large Kritter Keep seems to work nicely. They need a water bottle, food dish, and hidey place, at minimum. Be sure your cage doesn't have any cracks they can enlarge with chewing or can just squeeze through- they will. They are very industrious, curious critters!
Most small animal beddings will work just fine. The exception is cedar. NEVER use cedar with small animals because the phenols are not removed by curing and it remains toxic. Phenols are linked to increased rates of early cancer and respiratory problems. In extreme cases, it can chemically bake an animal. We typically use pine or rabbit food as bedding. Cleaning the cage once a week generally keeps it clean and healthy for your dwarf hamster.
Dwarf hamsters need a water bottle, food dish, and a hidey place. You can use a commercially made hidey places or even just small cardboard boxes (replace when they start to get soggy or chewed up). They enjoy digging and foraging so toys should reflect this tendency. A trip to the local dollar store can usually turn up all kinds of interesting stuff for them to climb on or hide in- just make sure it's nontoxic.
A dwarf hamster's diet is much like that of any other hamster. They eat mostly seeds and other plant materials. A good lab block makes a great mainstay, with the seed based mix as a treat. Most captive hamsters will pick out the seeds they like best, leading to an unbalanced diet and quite a bit of waste if you try to feed an all seed based diet. Fresh fruits and vegetables can also be fed, but greens should be fed only in moderation (they can cause digestive upset).
Dwarf hamsters should be kept at a comfortable room temperature. Be sure that their cage is not in a drafty area. While they come from areas that are cold in the winter, domesticated dwarf hamsters are not prepared to handle the same kinds of temperature extremes as their wild counterparts.
Dwarf hamsters are, in our experience, far more social than Syrian hamsters. You can house a group of dwarf hamsters together comfortably. For it to work best, they should be two (or more) hamsters who are from the same litter, or who are introduced at an early age. Introducing a strange baby to a group of adults (or even one adult), or introducing strange adults may result in fights, injury, and possibly death. In other words, it is good to get two same sexed animals at the same time, but if you have a lone adult- getting a "friend" is likely to hurt more than it helps. If you do decide to get a friend for a lone adult, be prepared with a second cage just in case they do not get along. Some hamsters seem to be natural bullies, so you want to make sure that you aren't accidentally trying to force cohabitation on two little ones who just aren't going to work out as roommates!
We can not stress enough how important it is to very seriously think it through before deciding to breed animals of any kind. Sure, the babies are cute and they are a lot of fun. But, dwarf hamsters can start breeding at two months old and can have babies every 18 days during their February through November breeding season! With an average litter size of about 3 to 4, that's a whole lot of babies. It takes time to find and screen homes, so unless you are very serious about the hobby- please don't do it. If you do decide to breed them, please remember that unlike Syrian hamsters, the father should not be removed from the cage. He actually helps mama with the babies at times, standing guard over the nest while mama forages! Be sure to give them plenty of quiet and plenty of space. We try not to disturb the cage until the babies' eyes open. Most mamas are ok with babies being handled by this age, but you have to pay close attention to each individual mama's preferences.
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