Zig and Zag, a pair of Russian Dwarf Hamsters who surprised their owner Max.

When Max went to get a Russian Dwarf Hamster, he only planned to get one: he already had a larger, Syrian Hamster who seemed very happy living on his own. Max liked the idea of having another, smaller version of the same pet. When he talked to the pet shop staff, they explained that Syrian Hamsters (the most commonly kept type of hamster) are unusual in their preference for living in solitude. Most animals are social creatures who like to live in small groups. Max ended up coming home with two Russian Dwarf Hamsters, so that they could keep each other company.

He’d been told that the two of them were males, so there was a shock in the household four weeks later when Max found a litter of newborn Dwarf Hamsters in the cage. It was now very obvious that he had been given one male and one female. There were seven tiny, wriggling, hairless pink creatures in their nest. After the initial surprise, everyone was delighted with the sudden, small population explosion. Two of the babies died in the first few days, but the five survivors seemed strong and fit, and Max had to decide what to do with them

When he contacted the pet shop, they told him that they’d be happy to buy the young ones from him, but Max wasn’t interested in the money aspect: he just wanted to make sure that the young hamsters had happy lives. He decided to keep them himself, and so he set about organizing his home set-up to make this possible.

The first thing was to buy a new hamster cage. Max realised that he’d need to have two groups of Dwarf Hamsters in the future: one cage for the males, and one for the females. If the different hamster sexes were allowed to mix again, he’d have more babies within a few weeks.

The second step was the separate the males from the females. In theory, male hamsters can be neutered, and they can then live in the same housing as the females, but it’s a costly operation, especially when there are several hamsters involved. It’s much easier just to set up two hamster houses: one for the males, and one for the females. Max and his parents searched on the Internet to find out how to tell the difference between boy and girl hamsters, but it didn’t seem very easy. They then brought the litter to see me, and I gave Max a one-on-one lesson on identifying whether a hamster is male or female.

The general idea is that you need to turn the little creatures on their backs, and examine their undersides. As hamsters grow older and more physically mature, the differences between males and females become more obvious.  Females have two small openings that are close to each other. In males, the two openings are further apart. When you look at the pictures in a textbook, it seems very simple. In practice, when you have a tiny wriggling bundle of fluff with sharp teeth, it can be a very difficult job to do. A hamster bite may not cause serious damage like a dog bite, but it still hurts.

I showed Max how to tell the difference, and I divided his hamsters into two groups: males in one cage, and females in another. Did I get them all right? Perhaps you should ask Max in another month’s time. If another batch of hamster babies has appeared, it’s back to the drawing board!

Tips

  • Russian Dwarf Hamsters are social creatures who prefer to live in small groups
  • If males and females are housed together, they’re guaranteed to produce a family
  • It’s best to take steps to separate the males from the females, and if you don’t know how, ask your vet

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