In Ontario, we recognize four main species of hamsters. Due to the nature of our province, and having no purebred Campbell’s or Winter Whites, we have elected to refer to them as “Russian Dwarfs”.
Coloquially Known As: The Golden Hamster, Syrian Hamster, Brown Bear Hamster, Black Bear Hamster, Teddy Bear Hamster
Colouration of the Syrian Hamster
What is commonly known as the “Teddy Bear Hamster,” as labeled by a large majority of chain pet stores, is more appropriately referred to as the “Syrian Hamster.”
Coming in a variety of colours, including but not limited to black, sable and golden, the Syrian Hamster is often mistakenly categorized into “breeds” such as “panda-bear hamster” and “black bear hamster.” In fact, there is no difference between the different “breeds,” which are merely just differences in color phases and are all categorized under the scientific name Mesocricetus auratu. Technically, hamsters have species, and not breeds.
Wild Syrian Hamster Behaviour, Habitat and Diet
The Syrian Hamster is found only in parts of Turkey and and Northern Syria, in drier climates. There are “large seasonal fluctuations” in their natural habitat, with an average low in the Winter months of 10 degrees Celsius, and reaching up to a high of 38 degrees Celsius in the summer months. Syrian Hamsters are considered vulnerable in the wild, according to the IUCN.
Syrian Hamsters are known to be pests in their natural environments, due to their reputation for destroying crops. In the wild, their burrow depths vary between 36 and 106 cm with an average of around 65 cm deep. It has been noted that there is possible “hibernation-like” patterns of wild hamsters, but this has not been conclusively proven. In laboratory settings, torpor can be induced by keeping a Syrian Hamster consistently below 8 degrees Celsius.
In the wild, Hamsters are notorious for destroying farmer’s crops. As such, hamsters are omnivores and eat both plant and animal foods. In terms of plants, this includes wheat and barley, as well as different types of seeds and nuts. They also eat insects regularly. Foraging behavior and storage is a natural behavior.
Syrian Hamsters in Captivity
Syrian hamsters in captivity live anywhere from 2-4 years, around the same lifespan they have in the wild. There are many diet options for Syrian Hamsters, including many high-quality commercial food mixes and high-protein lab blocks. Because of the limitations of present enclosures, a bedding depth of around 6 inches for Syrian Hamsters is the standard, and recommended to encourage natural tunneling and burrowing behavior. The recommended minimum enclosures size for Syrian Hamsters (and all hamsters for that matter) is 450 square inches of unbroken space, though a bigger enclosure will be appreciated by the hamster. In captivity, Syrian Hamsters are strictly solitary, meaning they must live alone to avoid unnecessary conflicts. These hamsters can get anywhere from 4-7” in size when they’re an adult. They require a wheel that is at the very least 8” in diameter.
Colloquially known as: Roborovski Hamsters, Robo Hamsters, Robo Dwarf Hamsters, “Bobos”
Colouration of Roborovski Dwarf Hamsters
Though you may be able to find slightly different colour of Robos, by far the most accessible color is known as the Agouti color phase, which is a light brown and white mixture. Note that these are not the same as “Russian Dwarf Hamsters” sold at most chain pet stores.
Wild Roborovski Hamster Behavior, Habitat and Diet
Though there has been limited research done on Roborovski hamsters, it is suggested that the range of these hamsters in the wild extends from Mongolia to Northern China, including areas of both Russia and Kazakhstan. They tend to live in areas known as “semi-deserts,” where there is generally shrubs and low amounts of vegetation. Roborovski Hamsters are listed as “Least Concern” by the IUCN.
In the wild, Roborovski hamsters dig burrows up to 90cm deep. They are, like Syrian hamsters, also omnivores but are centered mostly around consuming seeds. They will also consume, from time to time, plant leaves as well as insects including beetles, earwigs and other small insects. They regularly practice foraging behavior and store their food.
Roborovski Hamsters in Captivity
Robo hamsters are the smallest hamsters kept in captivity, and average at around 2” when they are full grown. They can live in pairs, unlike Syrians, but only under the correct conditions. All pairs or trios kept must be the same sex and are suggested to be from the same litter. Please be aware that they may still fight, and there certainly is still a risk. A bedding depth of around 3-4” is recommended for Robo’s, and recommended to encourage burrowing behaviors. Though they are small in size, Robo’s are highly energetic and still require, at an absolute minimum, 450 square inches of unbroken floor space. Otherwise, a wheel that is 6” or larger is necessary to promote exercise. Unlike Campbell’s, Chinese, Winter-White and Hybrid Dwarf Hamsters, Roborovski Hamsters are generally not as prone to diabetes as the other species of dwarf hamsters. Their average lifespan is around 2 to 3 years.
Colloquially Known as: Campbell’s Dwarf Hamsters, Dwarf Hamsters, Russian Dwarf Hamsters, Siberian Hamsters, Winter-White Hamsters, Djungarian Hamsters
Colouration of Campbell Dwarf Hamsters and Winter-White Dwarf Hamsters
Winter-White Dwarf Hamsters and Campbell Dwarf Hamsters come in a variety of different colours. Though referred to as Winter-White hamsters, these dwarf hamsters are also known as Djungarian and Siberian Hamsters. Please note that in Canada, there are no pure-bred Winter White Dwarf Hamsters or Campbell Dwarf Hamsters. All variations, either found through breeders or pet stores, are hybrids. These hybrids are usually listed under the name “Russian Dwarf Hamster,” a commonly used euphemism that indicates hybridization.
Wild Campbell’s Dwarf Hamster and Winter-White Dwarf Hamster Behavior
Campbell’s Dwarf Hamsters are primarily found in Mongolia and parts of China, whereas the Winter-White Hamsters are found around Mongolia, Siberia and Kazhakstan. The Campbell’s and Winter-White Dwarf Hamsters are very closely related.
Both species of Dwarf Hamsters are regularly make deep tunnels, and are omnivores. They mainly consume seeds and insects in the wild.
Russian Dwarf Hamsters in Captivity
The major difference between Russian Dwarf Hamsters, compared to Roborovski Hamsters is their susceptibility to diabetes. Because of this, a limited amount of high-refined sugar foods should be give to Russian Dwarves. They can, on occasion, live in same-sex pairs successfully, but there is still a risk of fighting. They also require a minimum enclosure size of 450 square inches of unbroken floor space, but the bigger the better for individual hamsters. A bedding depth of around 4” is recommended to encourage natural burrowing behavior. The minimum wheel size is 6”. Their average lifespan is around 1.5-2 years, if kept under optimal conditions. They will grow to about 3-4” in size when they are full grown.
The Danger of Hybridization
While many species of animals benefit from crossbreeding and hybridization, hamsters sadly do not. When both species were first discovered, many of the first breeders didn’t recognize the difference between the species and intermingled them. Some breeders wanted to introduce the colours of the Campbell’s onto the laid back temperament of the Winter White. Sadly, this hybridization has lead to thousands of generations of genetically unhealthy offspring.
The first issue when looking at hybrids is the size difference between a Campbell’s and a Winter White, and the shape of their skulls. Campbell’s are quite a bit larger, with a wider skull, while Winter Whites have a much daintier appearance, including a lean “Roman Nose”. This causes considerable damage when a Winter White mother is meant to produce Campbell’s sized offspring. It is not uncommon for the female to haemorrhage and die in labour.
The difference in their skulls also causes damage to brains, and many hybrids are prone to neurological problems, such as spinning, star gazing, and compulsive disorders. As well, hybrids are much more prone to diabetes than their purebred brethren. Most hybrids have from Type 1 diabetes, which they are genetically predisposed to.
As a whole, the OHC does not condone the breeding of hybrids.
Colloquially known as: Chinese Dwarf Hamster, Chinese Hamster
Colouration of the Chinese Hamster
There are only three major color patterns attached to Chinese Hamsters – a brown colour (the most common), white and a colour phase known as “dominant spot.” Out of the major hamster species kept in captivity, Chinese Hamsters are the least commonly kept, as they are generally harder to obtain.
Wild Chinese Hamster Behavior
Chinese Hamsters generally inhabit deserts in Mongolia as well as parts of Northern China, similar to the habitats of the other species of hamsters. Unlike the other species of “dwarf hamsters,” though, Chinese hamsters are strictly solitary, in the sense that they do not exhibit friendly behavior towards individuals of their own species. Although they are solitary, it is true that there are, like with most other solitary rodents, two periods of brief social behavior, which occur during mating and care of the young. Social behavior for breeding generally lasts less than 24 hours, and then brief cohabitation occurs as the father assists the mother in taking care of the young.
Chinese Hamsters will generally make tunnels that stretch anywhere from 15cm to 50cm, and are highly territorial. Same-sex encounters within established territory almost certainly leads in a fight, which usually causes injuries in both hamsters. Their diet, like the other species of hamsters, consists of both plant and animal foods.
Chinese Hamsters in Captivity
Chinese Hamsters are, as noted before strictly solitary animals. This makes them different from the other species of Dwarf Hamsters. Like the other hamsters, they require a minimum enclosure size of 450 square inches of unbroken floor space, with a wheel that is 6” or larger.