You'll find much conflicting advice on the internet regarding this delightful species. My advice is to pick one point of view and stick with that or you will tend to find yourself running in circles!
Ultimately, be led by your own experience and what works for your own hamsters.
I write this page from my experience and opinions and hope that it goes some way towards shedding light on this often misunderstood creature, the smallest of the pet hamsters.
Personality and Handling
Above everything, your Roborovski hamster is a runner. They may not seem very streamlined but their main instinct is generally to flee. It's important to understand this point in order to understand what is normal for your pet. They don't jump as such, preferring to launch themselves as if from a cannon.
Roborovski rarely bite, its one thing that makes them so endearing. A 'robo' can be tame but even a tame Roborovski should run the first time you touch it/pick it up. A healthy, tame hamster will then quickly settle but they aren't known for walking or meandering about. When it decides it wants to get down it will do so at speed so always handle over a box.
These hamsters have NO idea of heights. No common sense trigger will kick in to the brain of a running robo to tell it to stop at the edge of a table so please make sure it is a box you are using, with sides! Equally, the cage should not be overly tall so as to prevent injury from falls.
Robo 'juggling' is a term that I use to describe the hand over hand method of handling. It takes some practice if you haven't done it before. Pick up your robo firmly but gently and then allow them to run from one hand to the other (over your box!). After a few seconds, a tame robo will slow down, maybe even sit and look around, sniff your hand or even attempt to run up your arm the wrong way! If your hamster continues to run 'blind' then just carry on for a little longer and then repeat this handling several times a day. You will eventually achieve a tamer hamster although if starting with an adult that hasn't had a lot of handling, it can take a while.
It's often said that quick robos are feral. This is simply not the case. I'll discuss lethargy in the Roborovski hamster futher down the page under 'health'.
In terms of your pet, be aware they do not make good pets for children. Although unlikely to bite, your hamster will likely be too quick for a child to handle comfortably and injury could occur if the hamster is held too tightly. Squeezing is a natural reflex if you think an animal might jump from your hands so this is worth considering when looking for a pet for your family.
Roborovski hamsters are one of the clowns of the rodent world and are extremely amusing to watch if given the right environment. They can live in pairs or small groups but owners should be aware that they can fall out, especially if given too large a cage, so a spare cage should be available.
Although Roborovski do fall out, they can be introduced together too. Fall outs commonly occur between siblings or hamsters of the same build and age. Mixed sexed or same sex groups can fall out. Although related colonies can live happily together they do fall out also.
If you feel your hamster is lonely or you had two and now have one left pining for company, it might be beneficial to introduce a youngster. Mums and daughters have proven to be the most stable grouping in my experience and I've had success with putting young girls with unrelated adult females. A similar approach also appears to work for males.
My approach is to use a small carrier (like an Aladino or a 3l Pet Keeper plastic tank). I place the animals in and let them meet. There will initially be some chasing, squeaking and one way push the other one over on it's back. That's all normal. There shouldn't be biting so if you see any blood then split them up. Make sure the bedding in the carrier is completely fresh. If your hamsters do settle then provide a scattering of food, some cucumber and leave them overnight. It's an important step and you should not then put them in a cage without first taking plenty of time at this stage.
They will bond, groom, sleep in the same nest and learn who is in charge and how to share their resources. You can comfortably keep them in the carrier for a second night if needed although you might want to upgrade them to an intermediate sized space like a 12l tank for a few days.
If you do put them in a cage and they fall out, you can just move them down into the tank and try again the next day but if they persistently refuse to live together in a cage then you may have to accept that your Roborovski wasn't so lonely afterall.
Housing is, as ever, a debated subject. I've found, from keeping both semi feral adults and my own tame hamsters, that this is not easily answered.
If your Roborovski lives by itself and is there for the entertainment of watching it running around and enjoying it's environment i.e. the hamster isn't going to be handled, then you can keep it in a large cage. A long, one level cage filled with lots of hiding places and toys/tunnels but with a shallow depth of bedding will prevent the stress of a small hamster being in a large open space and ensure it can be seen.
However, my personal opinion is that these guys are best enjoyed in a smaller space where they can feel calmer about life and be handled much more easily. If this is the sort of pet you'd like and the way you'd like to enjoy them then all you need is a Ferplast mini Duna style cage. Around 50cm long and enclosed all round with bars on the top. You can go up to a small Zoozone and still retain tameness but I recommend you pack the cage out with a good depth of bedding and plenty of toys. Good depth of bedding means you won't see your Roborovski easily but it will mean your hamster feels safer in it's environment.
I do not subscribe to the idea that hamsters need wheels to be available 24hours a day. I firmly believe that encouraging obsessive behaviour is akin to providing your hamster with alcohol or cigarettes. Roborovski have been known to die while running (not happened to mine but did to a friend's hamsters) on a wheel and will run without eating or drinking in extreme cases.
I advise owners to provide a wheel during playtime. You can use a storage box without a lid and provide a wheel if required. It should not be a rat sized wheel. They can turn these but they require a lot more effort on the hamsters part. If there are any hidden health problems (as discussed below) you are potentially risking harm. You'd have to find an extremely small wheel to cause any spinal deformity in such a small animal but overly large Roboroski should have a 7.5inch-8inch wheel.
If you keep more than one Roborovski then you will have much more success in a Duna and no bigger. Your hamsters run the risk of carving out their own territories and 'declanning' in a similar fashion to gerbils.
Roborovski like to bathe in sand. I use children's play sand that I buy from Argos. I buy plastic hamster houses like this or similar and use a half as a sand bath, providing a comfortable exit and entry point. However, if you notice your hamster prefers to use it's sand as a litter box then you might want to take it out. I would imagine that chinchilla dust would be too fine and could cause respiratory issues.
Roborovski enjoy the same foods as all other hamsters. you can feed them simply with Harry Hamster or you can create a mix as detailed on my other page
This species really does benefit from scattering their food and you do have to pay careful attention to the height of any bowl or water bottle spout.
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. Roborovski's should not be so round that they cannot clean themselves.
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'.
Roborovski 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.
Not all snuffles will be an infection in a Roborovski 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. When syringing medicine into the mouth do so from the side to reduce the risk of getting liquid in the lungs. As a Roborovski is very small you might wish to mix the medication in a small bit of baby food, as long as the hamster eats it all.
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.
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.
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 Roborovski hamster but you might be able to treat with a drug called Galastop which has shown to help in other species.
Tumours are relatively common in Roborovski hamsters compared to other hamster species but not in comparison with mice or rats. Scent gland tumours in males, lumps on the neck, chin or possible mammary tumours. I've not gone as far as testing them for the type of cancer involved but all I have seen tend to be slow growing and don't spread externally. Roborovski can get abscesses, particularly inside the sheath on an older male who may not be cleaning himself like he used to. It's always worth double checking whether your hamsters lump is a tumour or an abscess before taking action. Don't allow the vet to assume, ask them to check with a fine needle aspirate (where the lump is pierced and either pus is observed at the wound site or cells are looked at under a microscope to confirm or deny the presence of abnormal, potentially cancerous cells) or by giving a course of antibiotics to see if the lump reduces. If the lump does reduce on antibiotics then it's likely an abscess.
Bear in mind that a fine needle aspirate may not be in the hamsters best interest and any action should be weighed against possible negative effects such as cardiac arrest. A course of antibiotics is a more common way of ruling out an infection. If in doubt, ask your vet.
Heart Problems - Lethargy and Sudden death in Roborovski hamsters
When purchasing new hamsters I found I had a 50% chance of obtaining an animal that would suddenly die around 6 months old. Often looking as though they were in mid run in the cage. I've received reports of Roborovski dying in wheels. I've seen videos of young hamsters that are worryingly calm, bordering on a degree of lethargy that should involve vet treatment. A normal Roborovski does not freeze when placed upside down and should not remain asleep when picked up. You'd be hard pushed to find a Roborovski that would fall asleep in your hand.
Conditions like heart disease, any valve issues or heart murmurs and even epilepsy are largely invisible in small rodents unless the animal is extremely ill. Gerbils are known to have a type of epilepsy that causes babies to appear to fall asleep when held. They grow out of this. I wouldn't expect epilepsy to cause sudden death but I would expect an increased risk of heart attack in an animal whose heart isn't functioning efficiently.
Because of the lack of observable symptoms it's best to avoid youngsters that are not reacting as they should. They can be calm and tame but they should have an initial running response. I don't breed from animals that don't respond as they should in an effort to avoid any potential problem.
Sometimes, for no apparent reason although possibly linked to stress, your Roborovski may stop using it's water bottle. Always check the spout is working but if you notice your hamster looks skinner than normal, out of condition, slow, hunched or trouble walking then it might be wise to provide some diced cucumber. If your hamster lives in a multi level cage then always provide this on the ground floor. It may well have other problems that are causing this but more often than not your hamster will get better just with this addition and may never have another instance of it. As said above, always consult your vet and use your common sense. If your hamster is displaying one of these signs and is sneezing then it's unlikely to be dehydration alone for example.
A quick note on aging. Roborovski hamsters do not age gracefully! At any time from around 12 months they start to lose some hair around the back end. This does not appear to be a disorder, rather a side effect of running so low to the ground. Boys will get more stained. Hair loss can occur on the chest of females that have had a litter and on the testicles of older males. Your hamster will become skinny and even appear to shrink. They will continue to play happily, run etc but eat and drink much less even if provided with wet food. They will live quite well, looking scruffy until they are 3 and a half or even 4 years old. Show lives are short but overall life is long. There isn't any extra care needed unless they start to struggle to navigate levels and need a single level cage.