A Chinese hamster is a very small, short lived rodent in the Cricetinae family that originated in China and Mongolia but now resides as a pet in homes throughout the world. They are often called rat-like hamsters due to their long, thin bodies, long tails, and sharp teeth. They can be difficult to keep as pets for many reasons including aggression and health problems.
These types of hamsters grow to just 4 inches (10 cm) in length. For this reason, the Chinese hamster cannot be kept in a standard hamster cage, since it can fit between the bars and escape. Glass sided aquariums or mouse cages are safer homes for these tiny rodents.
Most Chinese hamsters are light brown or gray in color and have a black stripe down their backs. They may also be a grayish white all over, but this is far less common. Their bellies are always ivory or white. The long rat-like tails of these hamsters are about an inch (2.5 cm) long and have no hair. Chinese hamsters are nocturnal but are active for brief periods during the day as well. They tend to sleep a great deal during the winter.
In their natural environment, the Chinese hamster feeds on local grasses, seeds, and insects. Those kept in cages should be fed a variety of vegetables, fruits, and grains. They do not require a vitamin supplement but may enjoy mineral licks made just for hamsters to provide calcium and sharpen teeth.
Chinese hamsters tend to be quiet and easy to hold, often clinging to the fingers of those who handle them. Females can become aggressive, however, and may fight when kept together. Pregnant females tend to be the most aggressive, especially when they are in the presence of young males. When these animals feel threatened, they will turn onto their backs and show their teeth, and may make a chattering sound, hiss, or grind their teeth as well.
Hamsters breed when they are as few as three or four months old. A pregnant female will attempt to build a nesting area. Although the gestation period is between 18 and 21 days, the female will not appear to gain any weight until just a few days before the babies are born. Usually between five and nine babies are born in one litter. Baby hamsters should stay with their mother until they are at least one month old.
Like most hamster breeds, the Chinese hamster has a short life span, often just one to two years. They can have many different health problems. Among the most common is diabetes, which is hereditary in these types of hamsters. They can also catch colds easily and need to be kept in a warm area away from drafts. Bowel problems, skin and ear mites, and cancer are also frequent health issues for these rodents.