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Campbell's Russian Dwarf Hamster

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A small hamster species native to the regions of Eastern Russia and China.

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      14.03.2011 14:57
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      Sweet little animal, but not really one for families with children

      While I think that family pets are an important part of life, I really wouldn't be happy bringing a new cat or dog into my home while my baby is so young. So instead of a large animal we decided to share our home with a hamster. I've previously owned Syrian and Chinese hamsters, but for some reason when my partner went to by a new hamster he came home with a very small and very cute Russian hamster, who now goes by the name of Henry.

      ==Basic Info==

      Russian hamsters fall into the dwarf category, meaning that they are far smaller than the more commonly kept Syrian hamsters. Growing to about 10-11cm in length, they are also known as Dwarf Campbell and were first discovered by W.C. Campbell in Tuva, an area on the Russia/China border. The Russian hamster is also native to the Steppes, semi-arid (dry) areas of Central Asia and North-eastern China. As well as being smaller than the more common Syrian Hamsters they are also much faster and consequently harder to handle. Their smaller size also means that they are even more accomplished at escape than their larger cousins, meaning that a little more thought needs to go into their housing.

      As with all small animals, Russian hamsters have a relatively short life-span, averaging 1.5 to 2 years, although as with any animal there are exceptions that can live longer. Unlike Syrian Hamsters, Russians can be kept in pairs or even colonies, in the wild they tend to live in established pairs. But if you do decide to keep a pair (or more) together then they need to be introduced at a young age, preferably before eight weeks, otherwise a newcomer maybe perceived as a threat and a vicious fight will ensue. As with all hamsters, Russians are nocturnal, meaning that they sleep through the day and are then active at night, although I have noticed that Henry does have occasional bursts of activity during daylight hours.

      Russian hamsters come in variety of colours (although not as great a variety as Syrian), Henry is the standard agouti, which is a grey brown with a white belly and black eyes. Other variations include albino (a genetic mutation where there is no colouring and red eyes), argente (sandy/cinnamon with red eyes), black-eyed argente (dull, brownish orange with white belly and red eyes), opal (blue grey with white belly and black eyes) and black (black with black eyes).

      ==Housing==

      Before purchasing any animal it's essential to consider their basic needs, the most important of which is how you are going to house them and Russian Hamsters are no exception. As they are much smaller than Syrian hamsters a standard hamster cage is simply not suitable as the bars are too far apart. One solution is to buy a glass tank, and this is actually a very good solution as it means you can provide a deep layer of sawdust for them to satisfy their natural urge to burrow. I must say though that we already had a hamster cage where the gaps between the bars are only 0.5cm apart, meaning that Henry can't escape. If you are going down the cage route, be sure to let the retailer know that you are buying the cage for a dwarf hamster. You might find that a mouse cage is more suitable as the bars on these are much closer together. In any case, do ensure that the base is deep enough for your hamster to be able to burrow beneath the sawdust, ours is about 10cm deep. One type of cage that certainly is not suitable is the Rotastack, or module type, these are designed for larger hamsters and the smaller dwarf varieties will have difficulty in climbing the tubes.

      Along with the cage you will need a few other accessories, bedding is of course once more essential. When buying sawdust make sure that it is dust-free and avoid pine or cedar shavings as these can cause respiratory problems. The question of actual bedding material is controversial, personally I would avoid the fluffy bedding as it can cause problems if ingested. Paper bedding is, in my opinion, far more suitable, there's something quite satisfying in watching Henry further shred the paper to get his nest just so. Even more economical is to use un-dyed, unbleached toilet paper, tissue or kitchen roll and allow the hamster to shred it themselves.

      Along with bedding, your being a prey animal your Russian hamster will appreciate you supplying him with somewhere to hide. We bought Henry a little house, but to be honest he's not really interested as far prefers a toilet roll tube, so this doesn't have to be expensive. While food can just be placed in a corner of the cage, a food bowl will mean that it's kept in one place for at least a few minutes before the hamster takes it to his preferred hiding place. If you do buy a food bowl then make sure that it's rodent-proof, a ceramic bowl is preferable, but you can also buy bowls made of toughened plastic, just be sure to regularly check them for damage. As well as a food bowl you will also need to find a way of supplying your hamster with fresh water. A bottle is definitely preferable as it prevents the water being contaminated, but a bowl can be used if necessary.

      So that's the basic housing needs out of the way, so what else will your hamster need? Well firstly, as hamsters are rodents, their teeth are constantly growing and so they will need something to gnaw to prevent their teeth from over-growing. There are plenty of specialised gnaw sticks available, ranging in price from under a pound. As well as providing somewhere to hide, toilet roll inners provide a different texture to chew (and add to bedding). If you have an apple tree in your garden (or know someone that does) then apple wood is a firm favourite of Henry's. By providing a variety of different textures for your hamster to chew on, you will also find that they are less likely to gnaw on the bars of their cage.

      Although he sleeps during the day, Henry seems to have boundless energy during the night. So it's important to provide plenty of stimulation and opportunities to exercise. Although stimulation can come simply in the form of hiding food in different areas of the cage, there are also plenty of boredom breaker toys available, including many wooden toys that can also be gnawed. Exercise wheels are a popular, if noisy, choice, Henry will literally spend hours running on his wheel, he absolutely loves it, although we often wonder if he realises that he's going nowhere fast. Exercise balls are also popular, although as Russian hamsters are so fast it can be difficult to catch them to put them in the ball.

      ==Buying Your Hamster==

      When purchasing your hamster you will need to consider whether to buy from a pet shop or specialist breeder. While I would have preferred to have bought Henry from a breeder, I'm not aware that there are any in the area I live. In either case, have a look around the premises, are the generally clean and tidy? If not then walk away and find somewhere else. Next have a look in the cages, are they clean, is there plenty of room for the animals kept in them, or are they over-crowded? Again if you're not happy then walk away. Next have a look at the actual hamsters, now chances are you are going to be choosing your new pet during the day, so the hamsters won't exactly be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. But you should still be able to see if there is any discharge (eyes, ears), if their coats are in good condition and whether they have diarrhoea. In a nutshell, if any of the animals look unhealthy then once more walk away. Only if you are perfectly happy with the general condition of the premise, the specific conditions of the housing and the condition of all the animals should you go ahead and purchase your new friend.

      ==Your New Friend==

      Every time I've purchased a hamster, he (or she) has been placed in a small cardboard box for the journey to their new home and Henry was no exception. In order to cause him the least stress we not only ensured that the pet shop was the last stop before returning home, but we had already prepared his cage before leaving home. Preparing the cage was fairly easy, we did give it a good clean using pet safe disinfectant, please don't use standard, household cleaning products as many are poisonous to animals. Once the cage was clean, it was simply a case of adding a thick layer of sawdust to the bottom, filling the water bottle, filling the food bowl and adding the wheel and other bits and pieces. As soon as we got home we placed the cardboard box in the cage, opening it and the leaving Henry to make his way out in his own time.

      We left Henry alone that day and evening to give him time to settle in, and it's advisable that you do the same if you decide a Russian hamster is for you. It was (and still is) fascinating to watch Henry do his housekeeping, every time we clean the cage out, Henry will spend a good hour reorganising things to his liking. As with other hamsters, Henry will fill his cheek pouches with food from the bowl before taking it to his hiding place. Oh and just so you know Henry eats standard hamster food supplemented with small amounts of fresh vegetable (not too much, a couple of centimetres cubed of carrot, or small handful of herbs).

      Henry does need cleaning out every couple of days, it's amazing who strong his urine smells for such a small animal. Let's put it this way, we can smell across the room when he pees, it's that strong. Luckily though, Henry is pretty regular in his habits and always pees in the same corner, meaning that it's easy to just remove the smelly bit. In fact it would probably be possible to train him to use a hamster toilet (yes you can buy such things), which would make cleaning the pee even easier. If you decide to go down that route, just don't use cat litter as it is dangerous to hamster. When cleaning the cage, we keep a little of the sawdust back to hopefully prevent him from scent marking quite so much, Russian hamsters are territorial, so they do like to scent mark and as I've already said it stinks.

      As well as ensuring that Henry has fresh water and food every day, we also bring him out for regular exercise and human contact. Because he is a prey animal, Henry's natural instinct is to either run or hide, and although he will now take food out of our hand, he's still very nervous even after a year. While just like us, all hamsters have different personalities, I must say that Henry is far more nervous than any Syrian hamster I've ever owned (and I've owned a few over the years). If you're looking for a hamster that will curl up in your pocket, then Henry just doesn't fit the bill. But if you're looking for a very fast, active hamster, then Henry definitely is your man. He's escaped a couple of times, and boy is he fast, if we didn't already own a budgie called Lightening, then that would make a good nickname for him. Even though it can be a bit of a struggle we do try to put Henry in his exercise ball regularly, because he's not happy to be held it's the only way to keep him safe while his cage is cleaned. Once he's in his ball, he is quite inquisitive and will explore the flat, we only keep him in there for about twenty minutes at a time though.

      As Henry is nocturnal, he does sleep for most of the day, making the occasional appearance during daylight hours to check if any food has miraculously appeared before have a quick run on his wheel. So if you're looking for a pet that's active during the day, Henry and his cousins are really not for you. If, however, you work all day and are looking for a pet that is active when you get home from work then Henry and his kind are far more suitable. Henry generally wakes up for the night at about 7pm, and then he's active for most of the night, spending much of his time running on his wheel, which can be quite noisy, especially at 3am.

      Although hamsters are often considered as perfect first pets for children, I would definitely say that Russian hamsters are not suitable as pets for children. Not only are they asleep while children are awake, with them only just making an appearance as the child's bedtime approaches. But they are also far too small and fast for children to be able to safely handle, I as an adult struggle to hold Henry, I really couldn't imagine a child being able to keep a hold. So if you want to get a hamster for your child, go for the Syrian variety, these are slower and much friendlier. I will say though, that Henry has not once attempted to bite (unlike some of the Syrian hamsters I have owned), he just doesn't particularly like being handled.

      Although I would never consider breeding Russian hamsters or even recommend that anyone else would, they do seem to be far easier to breed than Syrian hamsters. As they will happily live in pairs, there are no concerns that they will fight after mating and the male will even help the female in raising the young. Gestation is approximately 21 days and after giving birth the female will be immediately ready to mate again. But before even thinking about mating Russian hamsters, do ensure that you have good homes for the babies, because you could easily end up over-run.

      ==Health Considerations==

      As with any pet, there is the possibility the Henry may become ill, with there being s few conditions that they are susceptible to. It's therefore important to investigate local vets to ensure that there is someone to take your Russian hamster to if he gets ill, and of course to put some money aside to pay for any treatment he may need. Being prey animals, all hamsters are extremely good at hiding any illness, but there are things to look out for. If your hamster appears less active than normal, then that's a pretty good indicator that something is wrong. All hamsters are prone to a condition known as wet tail, which is fairly easy to recognise, by the loose stools (a hamster's poo is normally fairly solid, black and a little sticky) and by wet fur around the back end. Wet tail is a particularly nasty condition, and although the occasional hamster may survive with treatment, in my experience it is almost always fatal. Another potential problem is overgrown teeth, which is easily prevented by supplying your hamster with plenty of material to gnaw on. Russian hamsters are also susceptible to tumours.

      ==Everything Has It's Price==

      Although in the scale of things Russian hamsters are relatively cheap to buy and keep, there are still an initial and ongoing outlay that needs to be considered. I would say that you would need to put at least £50 aside for purchasing the cage or tank with all the necessary accessories and then the hamster itself will cost in the region of £7. I find that we need to spend about another £5 a month on sawdust, bedding, treats and food. And then there are any trips to the vets to consider, vet trips can get expensive, especially considering the initial price of the hamster. But if you are going to buy a hamster then you should be a responsible owner, we have an emergency fund of £50, which will just about cover an initial visit and any medication. If you don't think you would be able to afford the vet bills in an emergency, then please don't buy any animal. Pet insurance isn't available for hamsters, but you could always put £5 a month in a pot to cover any unexpected bills.

      ==Final Words==

      Although I wouldn't swap Henry for the world, he's not really the most interactive of pets. He's in no way as friendly as any of the Syrian hamsters I've owned, he certainly doesn't like to curl up in my pocket. But he is still quite fascinating and has his own little personality. All things considered, although I love Henry dearly, when his time comes I won't be replacing him with another Russian hamster. That's not to say that I'm not really recommending that you don't buy one, I'm just saying that you should consider your purchase very carefully to make sure that a Russian hamster is for you.

      While I do think that family pets are an invaluable part of children's life, I don't think that Russian hamsters are really suitable. And that's not because of their short life-span, Syrian hamsters have a similar life-span and they make far better family pets. It's more because they are so small and fast that they are almost impossible for children to handle. Not that I would suggest that any child was left to care for and handle any pet by themselves, adult supervision is definitely needed. But these are just so fast that even with supervision children would struggle. Of course, should you buy a Russian hamster then you can still involve your children in their care, which is a good way of teaching them a little responsibility. They can still help feed the hamster, and clean his cage out, but they just really stroke or cuddle them.

      You should also consider the amount of noise that the hamster will make during the night. If you are a light sleeper, then Russian hamsters are simply not the pet for you, in my experience they are far more active than Syrian hamsters and Henry will literally spend hours on his wheel. Then you have to consider the rather strong smell of the urine, although the smell would be less with a female Russian than male, the fact that Henry's urine is so strong (much stronger than male Syrian's) tells me that even a female's is likely to be quite distinctive. Finally you have to consider whether you are likely to be going away every weekend, or even for a week long holiday. If so, who will care for your hamster, they will still need to be fed and watered while you are away.

      Basically I would say that Russian hamsters are more suited to adult owners, who are out during the day and are looking for an interesting pet rather than one they can cuddle or stroke. And so I'm giving Russian hamsters three stars out of five, because although I do love Henry and find him fascinating, he's just not as friendly and easy to handle (and therefore lovable) as Syrian hamsters.

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