Doric Hamsters and Exotics

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Chinese Hamsters

Overview

I won't repeat too many obvious facts about this endearing species that you can read anywhere via google. Instead, this should offer a practical insight to you as a pet owner.

Chinese hamsters are much more like mice in how they climb, how they move, they have a particular scent and can be rather wet at times. They have the pouches that other species have although many don't tend to use them to as good effect. You'll notice a longer, more obvious tail on this animal and you'll notice extremely obvious gender differences!

They are more timid, generally, when compared to the other species but shouldn't be overly shy. A normal, well balanced example may not want to seek you out but shouldn't take flight the moment you try to pick them up. They prefer deeper substrate, hidey holes and cover and don't tend to do well in stressful situations. You can read more about that below.

They are generally a hardy pet, good for children if you get them from a reputable breeder, and tend to be long lived if not afflicted with dreaded diabetes. Usual lifespan in real terms tends to be 3yrs give or take 6 months either side.

Personality and Handling

A Chinese hamster makes a lovely pet. Males tend to be more more cuddly overall and will happily sit on your shoulder making nests in your hair if it's long enough. Females are a little more adventurous but this is very much a generalisation. I'd always recommend a male if its your first hamster.

Sadly Chinese have a reputation for being skittish that is perpetuated online by the somewhat misguided first time owner. A rescue hamster or pet shop bought hamster may not have had the appropriate handling as a baby and this has a strong influence on a Chinese hamsters ability to cope with life's stresses. If your hamster bites, races away in fear of it's life when you feed them or is otherwise unhandleable then it has some behavioural issues that can be addressed in some cases but not all. A truly feral Chinese is best left in a cage with lots of hiding places and plenty of toys, to be disturbed as little as possible. Otherwise, regular handling, patience and treats often score you big brownie points with any hamster.

Unlike other species, Chinese readily grip on to you with their claws and can merrily sit upon your coat like a small furry brooch. You can hold them gently, but firmly, under the armpits and have them cling onto your fingers. This is a useful way to clip long nails!

It's important to handle any hamster with confidence. Be firm but gentle and don't convey your nerves by hesitating too much. When picking up a hamster, the more you hesitate, the more nervous you are telling your hamster it needs to be. Exceptions to this are when handling a poorly animal that may bite as it's ill or in pain. They should always be handled carefully.

Housing

Contrary to current trends, Chinese hamster do not usually do well in massive cages. It depends largely on the temperament of the animal but also on what you want out of your pet. Most of those you see online with extremely large tanks or barred cages do not have animals that are easy to catch, or keen to be handled in my opinion and experience. It's a question, for me, of if you want a pet that will enjoy it's environment but ultimately be stressed by the fact that it's not actually in the wild or if you want a pet that will still enjoy it's environment but be happy that it's a pet and is meant to be handled.

The ideal cage I've found for a Chinese is a cage the size of a mini Duna. Some 50-60cm long at most. If your hamster is skittish in this size then reduce the space until the issue resolves and then try upgrading back again after some time. A baby Chinese will always do better in a smaller space to start with as it will be coping with losing it's parent and siblings.

As before, plenty of tubes, boxes and substrate will make your pet feel comfortable. These can be wooden, plastic or cardboard depending on your preference. A sand bath can be added but isn't essential and you may find it's used a toilet. Likewise a wheel is not an essential piece of furniture and I strongly believe that unless you already have a hyperactive pet that 24/7 unlimited access to a wheel actually promotes hyperactivity. Certainly a no no in a young hamster that needs to save it's energy for growing.

Your hamster will smell a little. It's not a strong odour in my opinion but some find it to be. Don't be tempted to clean your hamsters cage too often. Any more than once a week will just cause them to scent mark more often, stressing the kidneys and the hamster.

Stress

Stress is a big issue in little creatures. Don't keep your cage in a room with cats, don't allow your dog to have unfettered access to your pet. Make sure the room is not too hot or too cold and that there is some break in noise during the day so they can rest. When changing the bedding, only move a few items to new positions in the months your new pet is settling in to provide interest but not enough to completely upset the layout they have become used to. You can even save a very small handful of the previous weeks bedding to offer some familiar smell to the newly cleaned cage. Your hamster will be healthier for it.

Pairs

Your hamster will do well on it's own. They don't usually like to live in pairs for the whole of their lives so be prepared for your pair to fall out. They often do so violently so make sure you check on them daily. Better yet, buy a single pet! They don't get stressed by being on their own but they can feel stressed by being quietly bullied by their friend. This can show as one hamster being bigger than the other as they'll start by guarding food. If you must keep a pair do believe me when I say they can cause serious harm to each other, fatally so, and do keep a careful eye.

Feeding

See the 'mixing food' food section for some ideas. Ultimately you can just feed basic Harry Hamster to a Chinese and it will be happy. Add some fresh food in the form of veg such as kale, broccoli, spinach, green beans, carrots etc. Or some wet cat or dog food. Even ready brek porridge, made with water is eaten readily.

My little tip is to use cup cake cases to feed wet food and this saves on having to clean congealed or hardened food out of a bowl the following day.

Absolutely no citrus fruits and it's not a good idea to feed onions or human chocolate. Otherwise most things go down well. The key is moderation.

Scatter feed your muesli for added entertainment value and feed once every 2-3 days to ensure it's all eaten. If you feed too much they will simply selectively pick the nice bits.

Yes you can feed those seed sticks they sell in pet shops but be mindful these are the hamster equivalent of a takeaway meal so don't feed too often!

Dried mealworms or live waxworms if you can stomach them go down well but watch your hamsters waistline. Chinese should not be round like a russian species would be.

Taurine is not toxic to hamsters in the quantities you will be feeding it. You'd have to stuff several large tins of cat food in your hamster each day to notice a marked effect. Neither is corn a proven carcinogenic food. Leave the corn and peas in your museli and feed it 'complete'.

Lastly, you do not need to be careful of sugar in your Chinese hamsters diet. Eating sugar does not bring on diabetes. Please read more about this on the Vectis Hamstery website.

Health Concerns


Chinese hamsters can suffer from all the things that afflict every animal such as respiratory infections, strokes, wounds and sores, pyometra, cancer and so on. This is not an comprehensive guide nor should it be used for anything other than basic guidance. Please see your vet if you have any serious medical concerns. I'm not a vet, I only give this advice from my own experience and understanding.

Diabetes

The big one. This is the issue that will arise most commonly although breeders are trying to eliminate it from pedigree lines. It's still fairly common amongst the pet shop farmed type of Chinese.

All the main information is detailed extremely well on the Vectis Hamstery website so I won't rehash it too much. From a pet owners point of view you will need to look out for excessive drinking, unexplained weight loss, and becoming suddenly grumpy about being handled if they weren't before. There's some good advice on medication to ask your vet for on the aforementioned website. Personally I don't like the idea of giving medication like insulin to such a small pet without the ability to test the blood regularly but the tablets that Vectis mention are very good. You may need to persuade your vet to order them in for you and reassure them you can give a small dose.

If your hamster doesn't have serious symptoms yet and you've tested the urine and found the levels of glucose are not massive you can control the symptoms by limiting sugar in the diet. Bear in mind though that this does not mean cutting out every bit of refined sugar as eating normal food may cause spikes in glucose. Diabetes is a complex disease and you should make every effort to understand it's effects. You can also risk causing drops in glucose which is a more serious concern. Be wary of using alternative medications whose effects in Chinese hamsters haven't been studied as you may inadvertently overdose your hamster.

Feed your diabetic hamster a food that has no added beet pulp or molasses like the Burgess Dwarf Hamster Harvest. Check the packet labels. Incorporate a seed mix to this if you like. Don't give shop bought treats, rather stick with fresh veg or plain porridge oats made with water. Chicken and rice makes a nice treat too. My point is you still need to feed a varied and balanced diet. Your Chinese may go through ups and downs of the disease despite being careful. This is the natural progression of this condition sadly.

Respiratory Issues

Not all snuffles will be an infection in a Chinese hamster. They have been known to become allergic to woodshavings, for example, so look at the other symptoms. If your hamster has noisy breathing, is sucking it's sides in and out when it breathes and is hunched then you need to see a vet immediately. Vets will usually prescribe Baytril in the first instance which is a good all round antibiotic. Keep your ham warm and in a quiet, darkened environment to aid recovery. Be cautious about adding Baytril to the water as a sick animal may not be able to use the water bottle effectively. You should be prepared to syringe the medication directly into the hamsters mouth. It's worth practising scruffing your animal when it's younger so it will be used to this. Although not needed in everyday handling it is generally needed at times like this.

Be careful of syringing wet food or water into a hamster that is struggling to breathe. You could cause it to panic and that may well result in a heart attack. Antibiotics are usually enough and you can provide pieces of cucumber as a water source until they are strong enough to use the water bottle.

In the case of a mild snuffle, slightly weepy or dry eye but no other symptoms, it might be worth changing to an inert paper or cardboard bedding just to see if that helps. Do so quickly as small animals go downhill fast and if it isn't an allergy you want to be sure as soon as possible.

Sometimes animals that have had an infection continue to breathe noisily when the infection has cleared up. Scar tissue in the lungs or upper respiratory tract (nose down through to the windpipe and top of the lungs) can be left after a nasty infection. If this is the case, simply monitor and get used to the normal sound so you can tell if there is a problem later on.

Stroke/Flipping/Spinning

Neurological symptoms such as these can occur in this species and it's important to recognise them for what they are. It's not cute or funny for the hamster to be moving in an uncontrollable fashion and usually indicates something may be wrong in the brain. This could be a stroke, a brain tumour or something else entirely but it should always be considered seriously. Think about the quality of life the animal has and if it's worsening or staying stable. If stable, a hamster with this issue can live with it assuming it is able to eat and drink. The question is more if it should. You, as an owner, should always be comfortable with the decisions you make.

Split Skin

This arises from time to time in Chinese. The skin on the back of the neck splits, causing a wound to appear and then heals over. It doesn't appear to be genetic or environmental in cause and it's something that's not yet fully understood. We do know it doesn't often reappear although it can do. It's important to keep it clean i.e. make sure the cage is clean. Otherwise it should heal quickly on it's own and doesn't usually warrant any intervention. Take your hamster to the vet if it doesn't heal in a couple of days or you are otherwise concerned. Notably, if it happens elsewhere on the hamster or reoccurs repeatedly it may be something else entirely and then it should be looked at.

Pyometra

The term refers to an infection of the womb. Your hamster may have trouble walking, seem bloated and stop eating or drinking. You may notice a discharge from the vulva. This requires urgent treatment with antibiotics as it can be fatal and may reappear. It's not feasible to spay a Chinese hamster but you might be able to treat with a drug called Galastop which has shown to help in other species.