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Dwarf hamsters - group housing

Hardly any other topic is discussed as emotionally between hamster keepers as the question of whether dwarf hamsters should be kept individually or not.

Dwarf hamsters of the Phodopus species such as Djungarian, Campbell and Roborowski dwarf hamsters are not strictly loners in their natural habitat; depending on the species, they lead a loose to close social life with other conspecifics. In a family group, large group, as a couple or in a shared apartment, temporarily or permanently. There are only references to literature (see e.g. the end of the article) and observations that support this, no specialist literature identifies these species as loners.

But why do so many believe this anyway? Why is the opinion so widespread?

Possible reasons for the general error can be:

  1. The golden hamster was known and widespread as the first hamster in pet keeping, this species lives in nature as a solitary animal and is rightly cared for individually in pet keeping, apart from a few justified exceptions. When the dwarf hamsters became known, the majority inferred from keeping the golden hamsters on the dwarfs and also kept them individually. If attempts to keep them in pairs or groups went wrong, hardly anyone asked about the causes or more detailed circumstances, because it evidently proved that they were also loners. That was simply the simple "solution".
  2. In order to prevent reproduction, dwarf hamsters are often kept same-sex as a pair / group. This form of social life does not exist in nature, so the animals have no inherited / acquired knowledge of how to deal with it, their behavior is designed for mixed-sex structures and a correspondingly higher risk of failure must be expected. More obvious than the demands of the keepers on the dwarf hamsters to understand each other as same-sex or otherwise just have to be kept individually, would instead be to refrain from keeping certain species.
  3. There are extensive and numerous documentations about unsuccessful group / pair keeping, each with drastic consequences for the animals (severe injuries to death). On the one hand this is a deterrent, on the other hand it apparently proves the theory of loneliness. Owners experienced in group housing would almost always recognize the reasons for the failure if they knew the exact course of a failed attempt at keeping multiple hamsters. Just as numerous drastic scenes of the end of a group are known from highly social rodents such as Mongolian gerbils, with animals that are sometimes seriously to fatally injured and by no means every gerbil accepts any other gerbil as a social partner, although here one does not deviate from social husbandry forms, but rather Looking for reasons for the failure and also the respective "suitable" partner, this would also have to be done with dwarf hamsters.

Groups that are thrown together from different litters, as is often the case with animals in pet stores, are a risky base. Likewise, a careless device supplies unnecessary ignition material. Stress factors from outside the group must also be taken into account. Dwarf hamsters that only grew up in their family / group for a few weeks are generally less suitable for keeping multiple hamsters.

The species-specific social behavior is largely innate, but it must also be practiced, preferably in a protected family group environment. Young dwarf hamsters learn with each other and from their parents how conflicts can be resolved bloodlessly. Submission and de-escalation gestures are practiced in action and can later be used safely. The entire communication repertoire is practiced together, just like we humans do language. If this togetherness ends with 3-4 weeks and the animals are now confronted with completely strangers, other conspecifics who have the same learning status, as is common in the pet shop, for example, then this can work well, but possible problems are very likely.

Which conditions are decisive for the success of the multi-dwarf hamster conservation?

Origin, degree of expression of social behavior

If the hamsters of the birth population and their ancestors have already lived in group housing / pair housing, the chance that the offspring will also be able to do so is high. In addition, there is the extent to which social behavior was inherited and to what extent the young animals were able to practice this and still learn. If they are separated from their parents at 4 weeks, the chances are lower than if they move out of their family of origin at 6-8 weeks. Hamsters from one group of origin understand each other much more than animals that are socialized from different groups, the latter should only be attempted in special cases (such as a new partner after the death of the first). In nature there are no same-sex groups and when hamsters, so to speak, socialize again, they are always mixed-sex. In this respect, existing groups can also be divided up well, but no new ones can be formed.

Hamsters from mass breeding, as they are mainly offered in pet shops, usually had an unfavorable start in life for groups. As soon as they are independent, they are separated from their parents at around 3 weeks and put together with other litters and, depending on the color, some of them are later re-sorted and delivered to the pet shop. The young age makes the animals attractive to buyers and at least temporarily able to group in so far as they only argue with each other as they get older, i.e. the trade has a certain period of time in which the animals somehow get along with each other and so sit together in a cage can. Hamsters from such groups are seldom permanently harmonious with one another, on the one hand due to a lack of practiced social behavior, on the other hand they come from different litters / families.


Hamsters have individually different characters, some are extremely peaceful, some are quick to confront, but most of them basically get along with each other. But, just like us humans, there are sympathies and antipathies from the first sight, and littermates get on differently and so it always depends a little on the individuals, the constellation and the situation whether a group can be permanently harmonious.

Accommodation, design of the facility

Depending on the type and number of hamsters, you should choose the size of the enclosure. A couple, duo or trio can be accommodated with a floor space of 100 × 40/80 × 50 cm or more. The more space, the more furnishings can and should be introduced. Space alone means little, so a trio can get into a quarrel at 100 × 40 for exactly the same reasons as on 150 × 60 when using the same facility. There is hardly too much space. If a group gets along, it does so even with a large area. However, there are constellations that “understand” each other closely, but then split up if there is enough space, in these cases the group only understood each other beforehand due to the lack of other possibilities. As a group, however, it was not really harmonious, only under the circumstance that the animals behave in a friendly manner to one another in a confined space, compliance with certain personal boundaries is not possible anyway and conflicts cannot be resolved or only at risk of death. This is precisely why there are small groups that work in a tight space such as 50x30cm ("so-called hamster stance"), but then disintegrate over time when kept in an appropriate area and the animals have to be separated.

There are no patent recipes for the area dimensions in relation to the number of hamsters, a little trial and error, feeling and adaptation to the respective individuals are required.

The facility should be well structured, i.e. somewhat confusing and in any case in such a way that there are always alternative routes and basically always two routes lead to a destination (floor, sand bath, cave entrances, ...), dead ends are only there where there are none, e.g. due to corner situations other possibilities exist. There should be plenty of path options between the furnishings such as cork tunnels, half-tubes, caves, paths should be as little fixed as possible, such as running routes on longer bridges without further exits. Straight, long distances are unnecessary, they almost never occur in nature and when they do, then mostly just to get from A to B. For example, observing the daily stretches of a hedgehog in the garden gives you a small impression.

By giving plenty of hay over the facility, one achieves the same effect as the ground vegetation in nature: cover. As prey, hamsters are exposed to great enemy pressure, they are escape animals, this instinct persists even if no birds of prey populate our rooms. An existing cover has a correspondingly positive effect on the basic tension of the animals, i.e. on the possible level of permanent stress that you can never tell from them. Dwarf hamsters use hay extensively, they work it into the duct systems they have created, partially eat it and tunnel it under or set up nests under mountains of hay.

The residents should not be able to see the enclosure from the ground. Conflict situations or small disputes are quite normal, but the animals should definitely have the chance to consciously avoid each other, this is also important so that the mind can calm down again.

Competitive situations are one of the main reasons for territorial defense or disputes. In nature, the factors of food and reproduction are particularly important, in pet husbandry, reproduction is already lost in the case of same-sex husbandry, as far as food is concerned it is indeed sufficient / in abundance, but it should also be offered appropriately in several animals. Hamster duos or trios may still feed harmoniously next to each other from a bowl / in one place, but with a larger number of individuals the food should be distributed in several places so that everyone can eat in peace.

correct interpretation of the behavior of the animals among themselves

Not every brawl and disagreement is serious or has the potential to escalate. Minor quarrels are the order of the day for many hamster groups and are normal. Serious disputes always have a history, an escalation develops, the animals never attack each other in such a way that they injure themselves. You begin to avoid, to drive away, to react to each other differently than before. So you have to watch the hamsters and learn to recognize changes in behavior among each other. Of course, when you first observe a conflict, you are frightened when two dwarf hamsters face each other, creak, one jumps at the other and the other throws himself on his back and squeaks. But this is often completely normal, both have a conflict, one prevails, the other submits. Even harmless pinching can be part of it. A ranking is also checked in the same way. That may look bad, but it is normal for the animals. Only when shrill noises are added during the creaking, the animals persistently pursue each other, no more areas of retreat are maintained, sometimes only when looking at the other one rushes across the enclosure to attack the other, then something serious is on the way and you have to immediately Think about which animal or animals will move to another enclosure together. It can make sense to take out the troublemaker or, for example, the inferior animal with a peaceful conspecific if it is obviously suffering from constant stress due to excessive pressure. This has to be decided individually depending on the animals and their behavior towards each other.

As long as everyone is still sleeping in one nest, the minds evidently calm down sufficiently, on the other hand, not all animals necessarily have to sleep in one nest, groups of hamsters can also have different nests, but still get along harmoniously.

Signs of increasing stress or discomfort can be that there is always food in the cheek pouches, hamsters obviously lose weight, avoid contact with other dogs and much more.

When kept as a couple, tipping harmony is often indicated by one partner's cheek pockets that are always full. The hamster then, so to speak, stashes his supply with himself and believes he is alone and safe, then the supply is unpacked, part of it is eaten and then everything else is hammered back into the cheek pouches.

Recognizing the dynamic processes within a group

Groups of hamsters in nature are characterized by change, entry and exit. On the one hand by birth of litters, decimation by enemies, old age / physical decay and death. In this respect, the rankings are not fixed either. Alpha animals often lose their status at the biological end of their reproductive period, then have to subordinate themselves or are driven away, the subordinate animals then carry on among themselves who asserts themselves as outstanding over the others and thus takes the alpha position again. Hamsters are matriarchal, i.e. the females always dominate over the males. Therefore there is no mating against the will of the female, the male would rather be bitten to death if it does not give up its attempts.

Same-sex groups rarely have such distinctive hierarchy structures as mixed-sex groups, because there is no competitive situation for sexual partners and food. Nevertheless, the social structure of the group can change with age, death or illness of one or more animals. Some groups take care of old / sickly animals intensively, some bully them and marginalize them more and more, the only thing left to do here is to separate the animal.

Which differences should be taken into account when keeping pets depending on the species? Which dwarf hamsters are suitable for individual keeping, which for same-sex keeping?

Basically, both forms of husbandry are a compromise to the detriment of the animals due to the desire to prevent reproduction, if their natural life is taken into account (mixed-sex coexistence), but in my opinion there are acceptable compromises.

Same-sex group housing works best with rodents, in which mixed-sex groups of both sexes contain multiple individuals, especially if they do not all participate in the reproductive process.

Campbells often form large family groups in pet ownership, in which all reproductive females from a certain age (mostly almost adult) are mated, but exclusively by the alpha male. Adult male offspring are tolerated in the group by the alpha male, but only as long as they do not develop their own reproductive activities, then they are expelled immediately. The group is led by the alpha female, to which all other hamsters subordinate themselves, including the alpha male and this also among the other females. From such family groups, animals of one sex can usually be put together to form same-sex groups without any problems, male and female groups get along equally well. Individual animals are not the natural norm and therefore one should always try to keep Campbells in groups of siblings. In this way they cannot live out their entire social behavior, but at least they have conspecifics as social partners.

Djungars are sometimes found as a harmonious, mixed-sex couple, which can live together permanently and would suffer from a separation, or as a temporary couple, which separate again after mating or after the birth of a litter. The offspring are tolerated for different lengths of time, depending on the character / disposition of the parents, before they are increasingly driven away. Only rarely does a couple get along with their offspring on a permanent basis. If you divide the young animals into two groups according to sex (the mother raised the litter alone, then the girls can stay with the mother for the time being), the distance between the individual hamsters increases over time and you have to keep the group continue dividing until you finally hold all hamsters individually. It happens that brothers, sisters or a parent get on well with a child for several months, but extremely rarely for a lifetime. If you want to keep Djungarians but not breed them, individual keeping is the best option from an animal point of view, since same-sex social partners are only accepted permanently in exceptional cases.

Roborowski dwarf hamsters tend to form smaller family groups from the pair of parents with one or two litters. If another litter is born, the oldest offspring are often driven away or the youngest litter decimated or killed, large groups such as are possible with Campbells are likely to be the exception. If the young animals are divided into two sexes, they can understand each other as a group permanently in harmony or divide into further groups through a quarrel or even into individual animals. Because Roborowskis live as a larger family, you should at least try to give them social partners and to keep the young animals as a small group / duo.

As a general rule, one should never keep more individuals in a group than can be accommodated individually in the worst case of total group disintegration.

Group takeovers

What to do if a mixed group is stranded at animal welfare? It is obvious that further multiplication should be prevented, so separation by sex is the first measure. In the emerging groups, ranks are partly redefined, so light and short arguments are normal. On closer observation, you can quickly see which animals get along with each other and who is causing unrest (attention, a clear leader who relentlessly refers the others to the ranks is useful, he keeps the group stable, but should only pursue inferior ones to a limited extent and must retreat areas recognize, otherwise there will be constant stress for everyone involved, an escalation is possible), who prefers to be alone etc. So you can possibly form further groups, in the worst case you have various individual animals. These should be left individually, one rarely knows the previous experiences, the characteristics of the social behavior and it is difficult to assess whether the animals are still capable of partnering / grouping.

A serious breeder will only give Campbell or Roborowski young animals from one group together for same-sex keeping and only when they are old and mature enough, i.e. have practiced sufficiently social interaction. Of course, young hamsters are more attractive and so many interested parties want to keep their hamsters as young as possible, in the interest and for the benefit of the animals one should do without it and comfort oneself with litter photos over the time until the delivery and experience the development. There is no absolute guarantee of lifelong harmony in such a group, too many factors play a role (see above), but it is the best possible starting point. If an animal dies early in such a duo, for example, the remaining animal will show itself after a certain period of mourning whether it needs a new conspecific or not. Whether it behaves clearly different than before, is disinterested, eats less, is less active, etc. Also for hamsters not every conspecific is the same and some hamsters are very related to a certain conspecific, for them no other replaces this one. This is often the case, for example, with harmonious real Djungar pairs.

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