Keeping Chinese Hamsters in Pairs
Father and son, Blackgang and Chale
In general, I don’t recommend keeping Chinese hamsters in pairs for new or less experienced Chinese hamster owners as unfortunately they can fall out with little warning and inflict serious damage on each other.
There is, however, no hard and fast rule like there is with Syrians who must live alone as adults. Some Chinese hamsters are laid back enough and happily stay together. A pair I bred lived as a pair with an experienced hamster keeper until they died within a few days of each other aged over two. They were the laziest Chinese I've ever had so I'm not surprised! Other male sibling pairs fall out by six weeks old; a baby from my first litter needed an anaesthetic to repair the damage caused by his brother at five weeks old when they fell out rapidly with just a couple of warning squeaks the day before.
Baby hamster after his eye operation
If someone does want to keep a pair then I would advise choosing male Chinese hamsters. I’ve found females far more likely to fall out and at a much earlier age, though I know of some pairs, usually mother and daughter, that have lived together. If you keep a pair (of any dwarf hamster species) then I would recommend having a spare cage available and being prepared to have them living separately should they fall out. If you don’t have the space or resources for two hamsters in individual cages then only get one hamster.
If I want to keep a pair together, I start with a small cage (preferably a tank) with lots of substrate, piles of bedding, some kitchen roll tubes and no houses or wheels. If all is well in the small cage, I would move them to a slightly larger cage, making sure to move all their substrate too. I use this approach both for pairs I introduce together for breeding, and also for hamsters who come to me in pairs. I wouldn't put a pair who have just moved in straight into the cage I intend to keep them in long-term as that's likely to cause a falling out.
When the pair is in the cage I plan to keep them in, I would then add each toy one at a time from then and monitor for arguing. Moving from a small cage straight to a large one may precipitate arguments so I make any increase in cage size or arrangement gradually in steps
If they start to squabble or squeak then I would downsize their cage and make the layout plain and keep a very close eye and ear on them.
If there were any further squeaks or if there were signs of bullying/injury, then I would split them up before they hurt each other.
With some particularly awkward pairs that I wished to introduce for mating, I have used a split cage for introductions. I haven't found this as successful an approach as the gradual increase in cage/tank size.
From my experience and talking to other breeders, Chinese stay in pairs better if kept in small cages so neither can establish a territory and without too many toys to fight over. This is the arrangement I now use for my mating tank which has significantly reduced injuries over using a Savic rody/mini duna sized cage with lots of hidey holes and toys. I would not recommend using cages with levels as these can cause arguments.
If you prefer to keep your hamsters in cages larger than a rody/mini duna, then I would advise against keeping pairs of Chinese hamsters.
When choosing toys for pairs, I make sure they have multiple entrances so one ham can't trap another in it. I don't use flying saucers for pairs as the bases can be used as nesting areas and be a source of argument. I prefer upright wheels for pairs and would use two identical ones.
I have found wooden cubes, playsticks and branches good. I never use a food bowl with pairs, but instead scatter food over the substrate. This not only provides a more natural foraging experience but also reduces the risk of one hamster guarding the food from the other.
I like to use a deep layer of substrate so the hamsters can hide from each other if needed. Deep substrate is also useful as it reduces the frequency of cleaning and thus the frequency of disturbing the scent in the cage. I only do partial clean outs, making sure to replace about half of the old substrate to preserve the group scent.
This is a cage set up for a pair of hamsters. There are no wheels as they were both young.
I have used the approach I've seen in Europe of piling lots of soft hay in on top of the substrate too to break up lines of sight, but do take care if using hay that there aren't any sharp bits which can injure pouches.
It's worth checking each of your pair regularly when handling for signs that may indicate they are starting to fall out. Some warning signs are:
- Uneven or plucked patches of fur
- One hamster being thinner or smaller than the other
- Change in temperament of one hamster
Chinese hamsters like to go for the eyes, nose and bottom in bites, though plucking I've mainly seen round the eyes. If there are uneven patches of fur, have a look at the skin underneath as you may find scabs there. If one hamster is getting thinner, the other may be bullying him or preventing him from getting to food (even with scatter feeding).
If there is bullying or wounds have been inflicted then you will need to separate. I'd rather split a pair too soon than too late; serious injuries or worse can happen suddenly.