The Chinese hamster (Cricetulus griseus or, some argue, C. Barabensis) is sociable and best kept in pairs or groups of the same sex, or mixed sex. If you keep mixed-sexed pairs or groups, know that litters of two to eight hamster pups can be produced every three weeks.
Introduce Chinese hamsters that will be kept together at a young age, preferably when they are 5 to 8 weeks old. Chinese hamsters purchased from different sources should be taken from a group so that they have not become used to living alone. They should be introduced to the hamster cage together so that neither hamster has previously established the cage as its own territory. Otherwise, the original hamster cage occupant may resent what it perceives as an intruder.
The best cages for Chinese hamsters are aquariums or large plastic storage tubs with a suitable wire-mesh lid. You must have a wire-mesh lid on any aquarium or tub containing the Chinese hamsters because they are extremely agile climbers and can jump. A wire-mesh lid prevents escapes and prevents any objects from accidentally falling into the cage and injuring the hamsters.
Although the Chinese is one of the smaller species of hamster (but is not one of the dwarf hamsters), it requires a surprisingly large amount of cage space. As a guide, two same-sex Chinese hamsters kept together require a hamster habitat with a minimum of 2 square feet of floor space. A minimum of 1 more square foot should be added for each additional hamster. As with all hamster species, provide the Chinese hamster with the largest hamster home that you can, and particularly so if keeping mixed-sex groups.
Because Chinese hamsters are extremely timid, they require a shelter in the corner of the cage into which they can retreat and sleep, feeling comfortable and secure. Many hamster homes are too large and open to provide the Chinese hamster with a real sense of security and privacy. A better shelter can be provided with a piece of arched bark — sold in pet stores and reptile specialty shops — or with a length of plastic drain pipe. A small flowerpot cut down the center (ensuring no sharp edges remain) to form an arched cover that can be pushed down into an area of deep litter will also provide Chinese hamsters with a shelter where they can burrow. Always provide several smaller hiding shelters where one hamster can retreat to hide from another in the event of a quarrel.
Two nesting shelters and several small hiding shelters are vital when keeping mixed-sex pairs or groups of Chinese hamsters, as pregnant females have a tendency to become aggressive toward the males. Nesting shelters are larger and have several points of entry, as opposed to smaller, one- or two-entrance hiding shelters. Nesting shelters accommodate several hamsters, but hiding shelters are for a single hamster.
A nesting shelter should be placed at both ends of the hamster home so that the males have a separate nesting shelter away from the females if the females banish the males from their nest. Small hiding shelters placed around the housing unit are also vital to ensure the male hamsters have a nearby shelter where they can retreat and defend themselves if a bad-tempered female pesters them.
If keeping a mixed-sexed group of Chinese hamsters, keep more males than females. The males will have more difficulty avoiding the females or defending themselves if they are outnumbered. Also, place food and water an equal distance from the two nesting shelters or provide two areas where food and water are available. This allows males a quick retreat to their nest when they are eating should an aggressive female approach.
In a breeding situation, the males should not have to travel too close to the females’ nesting area to feed or drink; neither should the females be invited to encroach on the males’ “safe” area to feed and drink. Without these precautions, the chance of a fight and injury to the males increases.
Since Chinese hamsters love to explore and climb, their home should be furnished with interesting objects that allow them to do this. There are many products created especially for hamsters available in stores or online. Also, some of the ceramic and polyresin ornaments designed for fish and small reptiles can make ideal cage furnishings for Chinese hamsters. These provide interesting items to climb on and contain many small holes in which the hamsters can climb in and out. Many also have a small cavity that provides just enough room for one Chinese hamster to climb inside, providing an ideal retreat where a pestering cagemate cannot follow. Pieces of pesticide-free apple branch arranged within the aquarium or cage will also allow Chinese hamsters to display their acrobatic skills and clinging abilities.
Excerpt from the Popular Critters Series magabook Hamsters with permission from its publisher, BowTie magazines, a division of BowTie Inc. Purchase Hamsters here.