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Hello to the hamsters - John C. Kirk

Dec. 3rd, 2007

12:53 am - Hello to the hamsters

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A couple of weeks ago I adopted three Robo hamsters from Furry Friends; "Robo" is short for "Roborovski" (i.e. they're not cyborgs), and rhymes with "yobbo" rather than "hobo". They're dwarf hamsters, so they're a bit smaller than the normal Syrian variety, and they prefer to live in groups. In this case, someone bought two hamsters, thinking that they were the same sex, but it turned out that one was male and one was female, so this resulted in pregnancy as soon as the female was physically able. There were five female babies, who were kept with their mother at the animal rescue place; since they're so close in age, it's hard to tell them apart, and I either have three sisters or two sisters and the mother. For now I'm assuming that I have three sisters, so I'm naming them after the women from Charmed (Piper, Paige, and Phoebe), although Phoebe is the only one I can (sometimes) recognise so far.

My family had a Syrian hamster when I was a kid, but I never had much contact with it because it slept all day. The main thing I remember is that it used to enter its plastic house by pushing off the roof rather than going through the front entrance: Hazzard hamster! It also used to horde sunflower seeds in the house, so I'd tip them back into the bowl every week or so.

A few years later, when I was a Deputy Grecian at school (effectively lower sixth), one of the other boys asked me for a favour. His girlfriend had a pet hamster in her boarding house, but this was against school rules so she'd been told to get rid of it; she gave it to him to look after, since he could get away with it more easily. On this particular evening, he needed to work late in his study but the hamster was disturbing him, so he wanted to leave it on my desk overnight. I said that was fine, since I was going to bed and it wouldn't affect me. The following day it was still there, but it was peacefully sleeping so I couldn't see what the fuss was about. In the evening I settled down to do my prep (homework), and then the hamster woke up. It was quite lively, and enjoyed climbing the bars of its cage. I also learnt that I shouldn't put paper too close to the cage, otherwise he'd pull it in through the bars! I had to hand in one set of Maths answers with chewed edges, and explain to the teacher that "The hamster ate my homework!"

Still, I enjoyed the company, and I wound up looking after the hamster for a week or so. He was quite tame, so I'd often take him out of the cage and let him run around the shelves or just pass him back and forth between my hands. On one occasion I got a bit careless, and the hamster dropped a short distance before I caught him, so he nipped my finger. However, I think that he showed restraint; given that hamsters can crack open nuts with their teeth, I'm guessing that he could have left dents in my bone, but he didn't even break the skin. In other words, he just wanted to send a message of "Oi, watch it!" rather than actually trying to hurt me. I like to think that's a sign of intelligence, although I know that other people disagree with this.

Here are the three of them in their cage:
All three hamsters in the cage
Are they the cutest hamsters in the whole world? I think they just might be. I make sure that I see all three of them every day, so that I know they're all healthy.

I brought them home in a carry case with plenty of bedding, and they burrowed into this to keep warm. I'd see movement under the surface every so often, so it was a bit like Tremors. I found that random people stopped to ask me about them while I was walking along, and on the bus, and they all seemed to share my opinion about the cuteness factor. When I got home, the main problem was actually finding the hamsters to transfer them to the main cage: it was "lucky dip", hamster style! I wound up moving handfuls of bedding into the cage, and as the level dropped in the carry case they eventually came to the surface.

I'm using a Savic "Mickey Max" cage, which has 5mm gaps between the bars; since they're dwarf hamsters, they might be able to squeeze through a 1cm gap. The bottle came with the cage, and I initially assumed that it was supposed to hang outside (so that I could refill it without opening the cage). However, the metal tube at the bottom is too big to easily fit through the bars, and I wound up bending them apart to force it through. shuripentu kindly helped me out by moving it inside, although the new snag is that it has to rest on the shelf to stay up. Since it's opaque, it's a bit hard to see whether the water level is dropping when the hamsters (try to) drink from it, so I'll replace it with a clear one soon.

The wheel is also a bit tricky; it would be really helpful if these things came with instructions! It basically comes in two pieces: the main wheel, and a spindle (?) with a mounting piece behind it that clips onto the cage. I assumed that the main wheel went inside and the mounting piece went outside, but when I did this I found that the hamsters couldn't actually turn it. I could spin it with my finger, but they're obviously a bit smaller than me! It turns out that the whole thing goes inside, and then you just twist it slightly to mount it.

There was a plastic food bowl that came with the cage, and clips in between the bars of the shelf. However, I noticed that the hamsters sometimes put their legs between the bars when they were walking around, and we were concerned about injury, so we put down some newspaper to cover it. I've found that the best approach is to get a double page, then fold it into thirds (a bit like putting an A4 page into an envelope) and tear off a strip (about 3cm wide) from one end to match the length of the shelf. As a fringe benefit, the hamsters seem to like being undercover, so they spend most of their time in the loo rolls under the shelf. Anyway, this meant that the plastic bowl wouldn't balance very well, so I've replaced it with a ceramic bowl that came with a cheese selection; I've had it in my cupboard for a year or two, assuming that it might come in handy one day, and I'm glad that I've found a use for it. I quite often see two of the hamsters sitting in the bowl together!

That thing in the bottom right corner was intended to be a shelter (and claw/tooth sharpener), but as I mentioned they seem to prefer the loo rolls, so they just climb over it every so often. Speaking of the loo rolls, it's quite funny watching all three of them try to get out at the same time, by squishing past each other; they haven't quite learnt to take it in turns. Still, it's nice to see that sibling behaviour doesn't change much between species.

Two hamsters on the wheel

This is a bit blurry, but you can see two hamsters on the wheel at once; they get up a pretty good speed on that. The side effect of this is that if one of them stops then she gets spun around and then flung off; I've seen them do a complete loop that way. At first I thought that they were just a bit dense, and hadn't realised that they need to slow down gradually, but I now wonder whether it's deliberate (like a kid jumping off a swing at the high point).

I've noticed that they tend to be a bit hyperactive whenever I put them back in the cage (e.g. after cleaning it), and all try to use the wheel at once. Unfortunately, it's not quite wide enough for all three to run side by side, so they wind up rotating around: two side by side at the front and one behind, then the rear hamster pushes forward and right, which means that the left hamster has to drop back to avoid being pushed off altogether.

In the foreground you can see a "Coconut Hut" which has replaced the egg carton. They seem to like it, since they've been chewing on the side and climbing through it. It does look quite sweet when one of them sticks her head out through a hole, although I don't have a photo of that yet.

Hamster in my hand

This is another blurry photo, so sorry about that; it was taken one handed, using my left hand. Anyway, here you can see one of the hamsters sitting on my hand. The interesting point is that all of the articles/books I've read say that Robo hamsters don't like to be handled, so they're just pets to watch rather than to play with. However, these hamsters obviously haven't learned to read yet! I haven't brought them out of the cage very often (except for the transfers between the cage and the carrying case), but that's mainly because they move like greased lightning: I picked one up when I was collecting them, and she promptly dashed up my arm, so Sarah (from SprogPages) had to retrieve her from my shoulder.

For now, my main approach is to get them comfortable with me, so I rest my hand on the shelf and wait for them to come to me. This did require a certain amount of patience at first (and bribery with treats in the palm of my hand), but the more I do it the quicker it gets, and nowadays I quite often have two of them sitting on my hand at once. I tried to do something similar with Cruiser (the stray cat at my last house), as described here, but unfortunately I never managed to tame him completely. With the hamsters, I'd say that they're not all equally comfortable with me yet, but I'm getting there. I'm pretty sure that they recognise me by smell, but I still try to avoid startling them with sudden "predator" movements.

Anyway, I'm intending to have a hamster-warming party in due course (mainly when I've had a chance to tidy up my flat), but that will probably have to wait until January, so let me know if you'd like to meet the new members of my household. For now, I'm enjoying the company.

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From:susannahf
Date:December 3rd, 2007 09:30 am (UTC)
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They do look really quite cute.
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From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 4th, 2007 08:26 pm (UTC)

Cute hamsters

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Your hammys are lovely. I got a couple of Russian Dwarfs in October and had a shocking surprise 2 weeks ago to find several new born baby dwarfs in their cage! You can see them on my website at:

http://www.animalloversweb.com

I've got video footage of them on my blog at:

http://www.animalloversweb.com/blog/?cat=30

or you can join the forum at:

http://www.animalloversweb.com/cgi-bin/forum/Blah.pl?

Hope you continue having fun with your new pets - I think they're lovely

Diane
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From:shuripentu
Date:December 5th, 2007 04:11 am (UTC)
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However, I think that he showed restraint; given that hamsters can crack open nuts with their teeth, I'm guessing that he could have left dents in my bone, but he didn't even break the skin. In other words, he just wanted to send a message of "Oi, watch it!" rather than actually trying to hurt me.
I seriously doubt a dwarf hamster would be able to do any damage to your bones in a single bite. Whilst small rodents can and do gnaw their way through hard objects like nuts, it generally takes them a considerable amount of time and effort. Their teeth are very sharp, so they can ultimately gnaw through harder objects than we can, but their jaws are still fairly weak. (I'm not sure a dwarf hamster's jaws are even large enough to get sufficient purchase on something as large as a human had to do any more than surface damage.) Rodents grind things rather than chomp on them, and that's why it's safe for them to have cooked chicken bones, but not e.g. cats and dogs.

Rodents do recognise a difference between a nip and a bite: the former is a social thing, warning the other individual off; the latter is an instinctive reaction to fear or stress. Whether or not it's a sign of intelligence depends on your definition of "intelligence"; it certainly indicates a basic ability to relate socially to other creatures.

I'm using a Savic "Mickey Max" cage, which has 5mm gaps between the bars; since they're dwarf hamsters, they might be able to squeeze through a 1cm gap.
The Mickey Max actually has a 6.5mm bar spacing, not 5mm, so it's slightly more than the most paranoid of the cage recommendations. Still, it should be sufficiently narrow for Roborovskis: I suspect they would only fit through those bars if they were appropriately flattened and therefore dead. :p

I haven't yet had a reply from the person who appears to be keeping dwarf hamsters in regular hamster cages, but someone else I know who used to have dwarves reckons that 1cm bars would be inadviseable, especially as Roborovskis are the smallest of the dwarf hamster species.

Still, it's nice to see that sibling behaviour doesn't change much between species.
My spinies will attempt to steal food off each other even when there's a full food bowl with more of the same food right next to them.

However, I noticed that the hamsters sometimes put their legs between the bars when they were walking around, and we were concerned about injury, so we put down some newspaper to cover it.
I reckon it's as much about comfort as it is about safety: trying to walk on a surface that you keep falling through can't be much fun. If you notice them having any such trouble with the ladder, it might be an idea to weave some cardboard through it as well, just so they can run up it at a decent speed. If they don't pee much, you'll probably only have to replace it every cage clean.

The side effect of this is that if one of them stops then she gets spun around and then flung off; I've seen them do a complete loop that way. At first I thought that they were just a bit dense, and hadn't realised that they need to slow down gradually, but I now wonder whether it's deliberate (like a kid jumping off a swing at the high point).
Again, this is something my spinies do as well, and I seriously doubt they do it for fun. When they've been catapulted particularly badly, they look visibly shaken and run off somewhere to hide. I think they're just rather slow at linking cause and effect: Charm's managed to mostly work it out now, since she's an avid wheel runner and has had plenty of practice, but Strange still thuds out of the wheel on a regular basis, almost certainly because she runs less often and has therefore had an insufficient number of bad experiences to realise that stopping suddenly in the wheel is a stupid thing to do.

Edited at 2007-12-05 04:12 am (UTC)
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From:shuripentu
Date:December 5th, 2007 04:13 am (UTC)
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I think I may have a solution to both the water bottle and the wheel problems. (The yellow clip on the wheel is supposed to be able to turn all th way so that it's perpendicular to the cage bars, but due to the narrowness of the bars, it can only turn slightly before it starts forcing the bars open. I guess Savic couldn't be bothered to make some customised accessories to go with the unusually narrow bars of this cage.) It may require the purchasing of a wheel stand, but I'll have to check the height of the stand first.

If we can sort the water bottle so it doesn't have to rest on the platform anymore, you could consider placing something hard and rough immediately beneath the water bottle so that the hamsters have to walk on a rough surface in order to get a drink. That's a common method to ensure that small animals keep their nails trim of their own accord, which prevents having to trim the nails yourself, which is particularly difficult (if not impossible) with creatures this small and this skittish.
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From:johnckirk
Date:December 5th, 2007 11:25 am (UTC)
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I seriously doubt a dwarf hamster would be able to do any damage to your bones in a single bite.

Just to clarify, the hamster I looked after at school was a "normal" Syrian one, not a dwarf.
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