There are five hamster species commonly kept as pets. However, many hamster-loving people substitute the word “breed” for “species.” When reading any hamster care advice, be aware that “breed” may actually mean “species.” The five pet hamster species are the Syrian or golden; the Russian dwarf or Campbell’s dwarf; the winter white (once thought to be a different color of the Russian dwarf); the Chinese dwarf or rat-nosed hamster and the Roborovski dwarf or Robos for short.
Of those species, two species – the Syrian and the Chinese – need to be kept alone. Chinese dwarf hamsters are so anti-social that breeding them is extremely difficult, since the partners tend to attack each other after mating. Keep in mind that there are three varieties of Syrian hamster in the pet trade – the short -hair, the long-hair or Teddy and the hairless or “alien” hamsters. All three are also anti-social.
Why Are They Anti-Social?
The Syrian and the Chinese hamsters evolved in the harsh, arid deserts of the Middle East and Asia. Resources were scarce. It was every hamster for himself. In order to survive, a hamster had to live by himself, keep a stash of food and chase off all intruders who were apt to steal that food. Females would leave powerful pheromones in their urine and scent glands in order to attract males from miles around when she came in season.
Female Syrian hamsters are usually larger than the males, so are powerful enough to chase off a male once his duty to the next generation is completed. However, male Chinese hamsters are often just as large as or even slightly larger than females. Still, the female is feisty enough to chase away a male. In the competition for resources, there can be no sentiment.
What About the Other Species?
Although the Russian dwarf, winter white and Robos have the reputation for loving the company of other hamsters, this is not usually the case. These species do live in small colonies or pairs in the wild, but they are usually family units and all share a bonding colony scent. Any strange hamster that wanders into the colony, even if she is of the same species, will be attacked.
Ideally, dwarf hamsters should meet their prospective colony mates before they are three months old. Dwarf hamsters only live one to three years, so every month counts. When the hamsters are young, they are more likely to accept other hamsters than when they are more than six months old.
Hamsters have complex personalities and can suddenly develop arguments, even if they have living together peacefully for weeks or months. Gerry Bucsis and Barbara Somerville, co-authors of “Train Your Hamster” (Barron’s; 2002) recommend always keeping an extra cage handy when keeping the so-called social species just in case a brawl should break out and the cage mates no longer tolerate each other.
“Hamsters.” Nancy Ferris, et al. Bow Tie Press; 2008.
“Train Your Hamster.” Gerry Bucsis and Barbara Somerville. Barron’s; 2002.
“Name That Hamster.” Sharon Vanderlip, DVM. “Critters Annual 2007.” Bow Tie Press; 2006.