As with many rodents, the Chinese Dwarf Hamster made its entrance as a household pet via the research laboratory. The first animals were used in China to study pneumonia and later black fever. The first group of animals entered the United States in 1957 as research specimens at Harvard. It wasn’t until the 1970s that these animals started to become pets. They became popular in the United Kingdom, but it wasn’t until the 21st century that they started to gain in popularity in the United States. One of the reasons for this is that some states have a ban on owning this species of hamster, presumably for fear that escaped pets would overrun native animal species.
Compared to other dwarf hamsters, the Chinese hamster is long and thin. It looks like a mouse or even a rat. Of all the hamsters kept as pets, this one has a visible tail (although short compared to a mouse or rat). Its typical coloring is agouti, and there is a single mutation called dominant spot. This animal is mostly white, with dark patches of fur over its body. It still has the dark stripe extending from the nape of its neck to its tail as does the standard color variation.
In the world of the Chinese dwarf hamster, females rule. And although they are smaller than the males, they rule with a vengeance. Females regularly fight with one another and with the males. Once a dominant female has established a nesting area, other females, males, and juveniles of either sex are not welcome. Females will also attack and kill any weaker or ill member of their species.
All hamsters can be escape artists, and the Chinese dwarf hamster is no exception. It can flatten out its body such that it can crawl through surprisingly narrow spaces.
These animals have a curious way of marking their territory. According to authors Albert Chang, Arthur Diani, and Mark Connell (Chapter 17, “Biology and Care,” from the book Laboratory Hamsters, edited by G. L. Van Hoosier, Jr. and Charles W. McPherson, Academic Press, Inc., 1987), the most frequently used marking pattern is “scratching the flank gland vigorously with the hind foot, followed immediately by a perineal drag which consists of depressing the anogenital region on the substrate.” Dominant females mark more often.
The scientific name of the Chinese hamster is the subject of debate. Sometimes they are called Cricetulus griseus, and sometimes Cricetulus barabensis. To reduce confusion, some people, including me, have decided to call them the all encompassing Cricetulus barabensis griseus.
Note that this animal belongs to the genera Cricetulus and not the genera Phodopus, to which the other dwarf hamsters belong.
One thing to keep in mind when keeping the Chinese dwarf hamster as a pet is that you need to provide it lots of hiding places. And, as with all hamsters, remember to never wake a sleeping hamster; and do not chase one all over the cage trying to get it out, as that will only teach it that you are an enemy.