Getting to know the Roborovskis and dispelling the misconceptions about these common and cute creatures.
By Yvette Tan
Photos by Jeffrey Lim
Species: P. Roborovskii
Scientific Name: Phodopus roborovskii;
formerly Cricetulus bedfordiae
The Roborovski hamster is named after Lt. Vsevolod Roborovski, the Russian expeditioner who first took note of their existence in 1894. Robos grow to about 5 centimeters (cm). They are easily recognized by the small white brow-like spots on top of their eyes and the lack of a dorsal stripe that characterizes other dwarf hamsters.
Robos are extremely fast, and providing them means to exercise is important. Unlike other hamsters, they can be social creatures and do well in colonies. We asked hamster hobbyist Czarina Tan (CT), owner of Betta Diary and Emman Talucod (ET), who owns Wonder Pets petshop and is the chairman of Philippine Hamster Owners, to tell us more about these cute, speedy little balls of fur.
WHAT CHARACTERIZES A ROBOROVSKI HAMSTER?
ET: The Roborovski is one of many kinds of hamsters. It’s the smallest and fastest hamster in the world. Their whiskers are longer compared to other hamsters. A lot of people are attracted to hamsters because of their cute size and want to hold them, but Roborovskis can be hard to handle because they’re so small and fast. They’re aso a bit harder to breed than other hamsters because they have a 30-day gestation period. You really do need a bit more patience when caring for a Roborovski hamster.
WHAT ARE SOME THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN CARING FOR ROBOROVSKI HAMSTERS?
ET: Caring for Roborovskis is similar to caring for other kinds of hamsters. However, you need to pay attention to the temperature; Robos are desert hamsters, so they need direct sunlight. At the same time, hamsters are prone to heat stroke, so keeping their habitats at room temperature is essential. It’s better if Roborovskis have a hide, or a place to burrow and stash their hoard in. Plastic or ceramic hides are okay. Hides made from organic materials aren’t advisable (unless they’re deemed safe and are regularly replaced) because the hamsters will chew on them.
WHAT DO YOU NEED TO CARE FOR ROBOROVSKI HAMSTERS?
ET and CT: When it comes to the basics of caring for a Roborovski, the first thing you’ll need is an enclosure. This can be a metal cage or an aquarium. The kind of enclosure will depend on your lifestyle—if you want to see your hamster all the time, get an aquarium. A hamster wheel in their enclosure is also essential, because they run a lot.
They will also need bedding. This needs to be changed once a week. Beddings protect the hamsters’ fur from their waste. There are many kinds of beddings to choose from. We use palochina (wood used to make crates) shavings as bedding. There’s also a brand called Chipsi that’s available locally. You’ll also need a water bottle and a hide.
Roborovskis also need to be bathed every two days—but not with water. Provide them with a sand bath; you can buy scented sand especially made for hamsters. Roborovskis are the least smelly of hamsters because they are the smallest.
WHAT DO THEY EAT?
CT: I feed them chicken feed (poultry feed) and bird seeds. I also sometimes feed them dry dog food and malunggay. Some owners also feed their hamsters carrots, mealworms, cucumber, and other vegetables. You can give them some fruits like melons and apples as treats once or twice a week. There are some things hamsters can’t eat like chocolates and citrus fruits.
HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH THE HAMSTERS’ NATURAL INSTINCT TO HOARD FOOD?
ET: Hobbyists and breeders go about it in different ways. We as breeders practice scatter feeding. We don’t use food dishes. Instead, we drop small amounts of food in different areas of the enclosure, since we know that the hamsters will end up hoarding them anyway. This is perfect for us because the hamsters end up finishing their stash by the end of the week, when it’s time to clean their enclosures.
It would be better if they provided their hamsters with a food dish so that they can better gauge how much their pets need. Replace the food dish every day. My advice is to do it twice a day, around 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. because hamssters are awake at dawn and dusk.
HOW MANY ROBOROVSKIS SHOULD A NEW OWNER START WITH?
CT: They can start with just one, since hamsters are territorial. Also, if a new owner keeps hamsters together, they might not know what to do if one of their pets suddenly gives birth; that’s a whole different concern, since Roborovskis are prone to genetic illnesses, especially when they inbreed.
WHAT IS THE BEST WAY FOR A ROBOROVSKI OWNER TO ENJOY THESE SMALL AND EXTREMELY FAST CREATURES?
ET: You can provide them with accessories like hamster balls. You can also train them to be held. There are videos that show you how to do it. It’s fun to see them come when you call their names. They also know when it’s feeding time, so they position themselves where they know food will be placed. They also squeak when they want to get your attention. They’re kind of like dogs that way.
WHAT ARE THE THINGS YOU SHOULDN’T DO TO HAMSTERS?
CT: Don’t pick them up by the fur in their nape area because that hurts them. Change their bedding, food, and water regularly because dirty surroundings stress them out. Try not to handle pregnant hamsters as much as possible because that increases the possibility of a miscarriage. Handle your hamster regularly if you want to train it, but leave them alone if you want them to breed.
ET: Timing is important. For example, since hamsters are awake at dawn and dusk, those would be the best times to handle and train them. Don’t disturb them otherwise. Hamsters are very fragile; a three-foot fall could seriously injure them. Keep that in mind when handling them.
HOW DO YOU FIND A REPUTABLE PET STORE THAT SELLS HAMSTERS?
CT: You can tell if a store’s hamsters are well cared for by the state of their fur. Is their fur clean and well-groomed or wet and matted? When I was a newbie, fur was the first thing I looked at. Also make sure that their food, water bottle (they should have a water bottle and not just water in a food dish because their noses are longer than their mouths), and bedding are clean.
WHAT DO YOU WISH MORE PEOPLE KNEW ABOUT ROBOROVSKI HAMSTERS?
ET: Everyone knows that hamsters chew on things, but what not everyone understands is that when properly cared for, they won’t chew on things randomly. Also, many people think that hamsters are smelly, but if you bathe them regularly, they won’t smell. Another belief is that hamsters multiply very fast. This can be controlled (see above). What’s great about the hamster is that it doesn’t need a lot of space compared to, say, dogs and cats.
CRITTERSWHY DOES KEEPING HAMSTERS MAKE YOU HAPPY?
CT: No.1, they’re cute. No. 2, I like collecting pets like bettas (fighting fish) and hamsters. But even though I breed Roborovskis, I only keep five pairs.
ET: I love animals. I started with fish, but since you can’t hold them, I switched to birds, which ended up taking up a lot of space. My wife said we should try taking care of hamsters. I ended up liking them because you can handle them. That’s also how my wife and I bond.
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Juander Pet Store
This story appeared in Animal Scene’s December 2017 issue.