Chinese Dwarf Hamsters (or simply Chinese Hamsters) are natives of Southern China and Mongolia. They belong, unlike the other dwarf hamsters, to the genus Cricetulus. Their full scientific name is Cricetulus barabensis griseus.
In comparison with the other dwarf hamster species, these animals have bodies that are long and narrow. People who see them for the first time often think that they are a rat or a mouse rather than a hamster. Not only is their face long like a mouse, but they also have a long tail – well, long as compared to other hamster tails.
They are also different than the other dwarf hamsters in that Chinese dwarf hamsters are pretty good climbers. Their feet are able to grip much better than those of the other dwarfs, and they can wrap themselves tightly around vertical poles – such as your finger.
The total length of their body, including their head, is 4 in (10 cm), which makes them one of the longer dwarf hamster species. Their tails are about 1 inch to 1 5/16 inches long (25-34 mm); and they weigh between 1 3/8 and 1 5/8 ounces (39-46 g). They live for between one and a half and three years, which is pretty typical of dwarf hamsters.
Whereas some of the other dwarf species have multiple coat colors and patterns, the Chinese dwarf hamster so far has one different color variation. The standard color is called agouti, meaning that the hairs change colors from black at the base of the hair to brown at the tip of the hair. The pattern that is called dominant spot is mostly white, though can have dark spots on its flanks. Both animals have a dark streak that extends from their shoulders to their tails.
Chinese hamsters were used in scientific laboratories before they became pets. They were first used in 1919, and have been used to study pneumonia, influenza, diphtheria, and rabies. For a long time, the hamsters would not reproduce in captivity. In fact, it was this problem that led scientists to look for another type of hamster to use. This search resulted in the capture of the Syrian hamster.
These little critters – yes, Chinese hamsters – have caused men to go to jail. In 1948, right before the communist takeover of China, Dr. Hu of the Peking Union Medical college gave some specimens to Dr. Robert Watson to take to the Harvard Medical school. The animals were literally smuggled into the United States, and both scientists were accused of war crimes by the Chinese government, who thought that the hamsters were part of a biological weapons program. Dr. Hu, in fact, was imprisoned.
Later, in 1957, an ovary was isolated from a Chinese hamster, and the cells were reproduced. Since then, these cells have been reproduced over and over. And the CHO – Chinese Hamster Ovary cells have been used to create an incredible number of drugs, treating everything from infertility to hemophilia to cancer.
So while you play with your pet, realize that his or her ancestors have played an unprecedented role in advancing medicine.