One of the newest species of hamster to hit the pet trade is the Chinese hamster (Cricetus griseus). Originally, they were called the rat-like hamster but that name turned off many potential buyers, so they were rebranded Chinese hamsters because they originated in Northern China and neighboring Mongolia. Sometimes they are known as striped hamsters or Chinese striped hamsters.
But people with rat phobias need not fear the Chinese hamster. Sure, they have longer heads, longer tails and longer bodies than the other species of pet hamsters, but that’s really about it for looking like a rat. They can use their tails as a fifth paw in order to climb or keep their balance. They look more like a wild mouse than a rat.
Chinese hamsters are nearly as large as a Syrian or Golden hamster. They average about 4 – 5 inches in length (10 -13 centimeters) and only weigh about 1 – 2 ounces (about 30 – 40 grams). It is incredibly easy to tell an adult male than an adult female, because the size of their scrotal sac is enormous in comparison to the rest of the body. Males are larger than females, perhaps to compensate for dragging that sac around. However, in Syrian hamsters, the females are generally larger than the considerably endowed males.
The natural color of the Chinese hamster is like that of a wild mouse — a brown agouti with a pale belly, neck and legs. But they also can have a dark dorsal stripe going down their backs, which wild mice lack.
Since becoming domesticated, more colors have emerged, including the rare black-eyed white and a white and brown patched. There is also a silvery white with a light grey dorsal stripe.
Although erroneously classified as a dwarf hamster, Chinese share far more similarities to Syrian hamsters in terms of size and behavior. Like Syrians, Chinese hamsters are incredibly territorial and would rather have a home for themselves and do not get along with other hamsters. But they so affectionate with people that they are one of the favored species of hamsters in scientific experiments. They were first used for experiments in China in 1919 and then in America by 1948.
According to the hamster breeders at Forever Hamster, female Chinese hamsters have been known to kill males when they weren’t in the mood for love. Considering the sparse nature of the Mongolian and Chinese steppes, killing others of your own kind was the only sure way to get enough food to survive.
Chinese hamsters still behave like their wild forebears. In the spring and summer, they are active in the daytime — a rarity in the hamster world. But when winter arrives, they go into semi-hibernation and sleep for about 23 hours a day.
Since the Chinese is so slim, they can easily squeak through the wire cage openings on Syrian hamster cages. The best bet is to keep them in aquariums or wire cages with a very small mesh.
“Hamsters”; Nancy Ferris, et al. Bow Tie Press; 2008.
“Dwarf Hamsters: A Complete Pet Owner’s Manual.” Sharon Vanderlip, DVM. Barron’s; 1999.
Hamsterific. “About Chinese Hamsters.” http://www.hamsterific.com/ChineseHamster.cfm