This information is taken from my own experience keeping Russian Hamsters as pets. Some of the information is my own opinion, so if you do try any suggestions I give (eg food), make sure you keep a close eye on your hamster to make sure it isn't adversely effected.
Russian hamsters are dwarf hamsters. When fully grown they are significantly smaller than "Normal" Golden/Syrian Hamsters, measuring approximately 10cm. They are generally grey-brown in colour with a black dorsal stripe and cream or white underside.
Size aside, the other reason Russians are a popular species of hamsters, is that they can live in pairs (either same or mixed sex.) Golden hamsters fight if put together.
They are very cheap and easy to keep. Just one clean a week, and you can get everything you need: food, sawdust and bedding for less than 50p per week.
I find the cleanest and best place to keep Russian hamsters is in a tank or aquarium. A 45x30 cm tank is a good size and providing the sides are 30cm, they cannot jump out. In case anything falls in, I use a sheet of cardboard with plenty of holes for ventilation as a top.
Glass tanks are better because they can't be scratched by the animals or by scrubbing clean, but they are much heavier than plastic and more difficult to move about. Whatever you use it‘s best to cover over one side or corner (or place against a wall) so they can build a nest in an area undisturbed from the outside.
The advantage of tank over cage, is that hamsters love to dig, and with bars they shoot the wood shavings all over the floor, and also tend to gnaw the bars which can keep you awake if you have them in your bedroom.
Use wood-shavings about 3-5cm deep in the bottom. Don‘t use sawdust or mixed bags that haven't been sorted very well into proper large shavings as sawdust can get up the hamster‘s nose or into its cheek pouches and make them sore.
I have read of some hamsters having an allergic reaction to Cedar wood shavings (the pink coloured chips) so never use these, use pine instead.
For bedding I use the natural fibre (looks like cotton wool.) The hamsters will build a nest with it, but after you have cleaned the tank, you can start them off by making a basic nest shape in the covered corner.
For food I use a heavy, but small, china bowl. Water is best provided in a bottle hanging from the side (water in a bowl gets dirty too quickly).
Something I tried as an experiment that worked really well was a dust bath. I bought a rabbit bowl about 15cm diameter, half filled it with fine chinchilla sand (available from pet shops) and my hamsters love digging and rolling in it.
The basic hamster mix from pet shops is perfectly adequate with a mix of sunflower seeds, little "dog biscuit"-type things, grain, dried peas etc. This can be supplemented by carrot, lettuce (although too-much lettuce makes the urine smell) and many other vegetables. Try a little bit at a time and check the faeces haven't become runny before giving more. Apple can be tried, but avoid acidy foods such as tomatoes and citrus fruit. They also love non-sugar coated cereals like weetabix, Shreddies etc. Just be wary of Cornflakes or anything else that may be a bit sharp if stored in their cheek pouches.
The main drink is water, and to this you can add a few drops of hamster vitamins (available from pet shops). Also they love milk, but if you do give them milk, make sure they can't spill it, as the wood shavings will get smelly. Also don't leave milk in for more than a few hours or it will go off, and finally do check it isn't upsetting their stomachs before providing it regularly.
I clean them once a week, but you could leave them a little longer as long as you clean the "toilet corner" more regularly as this will become smelly if left longer than a few days.
Whilst cleaning, and when I let the hamsters out to play, I use a large cardboard box (with the sides at least 15cm high) with toilet rolls and toys.
The hamsters will get bored without something to do. They love wheels and a free standing wheel for your tank is essential to keep them fit and happy. Also a couple of toilet rolls for them to chew, also a twig from a non-toxic tree eg apple (small -less than 1cm in diameter for them to get their teeth around). They also seem to enjoy some of the wooden shaped climbing toys , but remember wood soaks up urine and will have to be cleaned each week with the tank.
They sleep a lot! They seem to be very active late evening but come out at various times during the day. If you feed them at a regular time, they will come out when they hear you and this is a good time to handle them.
Young hamsters may have play fights; this is nothing to worry about, they may squeak a little, and either roll around or box each other. While play fighting, the hamsters must not be interfered with or it may lead to real fights when they get older.
If they do fight "for real" and often (as a couple of mine did), it could be your scent that has caused it. One of my hamsters was more tame than the other, so I got her out more. This meant she had my scent and the other didn't, so they faught. It took me ages to realise it was my scent that had caused the fighting, so I de-scented them, and from them on I made sure if I got one hamster out, I got the other out straight afterwards.
(To de-scent hamsters that are fighting, put a little, smelly talcum powder on your hands and rub them together. Next, one at a time, handle the hamsters so they too get the smell. When they are put back in the tank, they should be confused by the different smell and stop fighting. It may take a couple of days, and a couple of de-scentings to work, but it did with mine.)
If babies have been handled well by the breeder or pet shop staff, they should be tame. To get them out of the tank, all you have to do is speak to them, put your hand into the tank and lay it flat, don't force your hand towards them, and don't creep up from behind (too much of that and they will start to bite). Provided they have seen you and are not enjoying some food, they will run over and climb onto your hand. You can now take them out.
Russians never seem to stay still so you have to be very careful while they're out.
Be very careful of heights. Until you really know your hamsters and their habits I suggest putting the tank on the floor before taking them out, and kneeling in front of it, making sure the hamster is never more than a few cms above the ground. They have no sense of height and will happily step off your arm while you are standing and could break a bone. After they've really woken up they can be quite fast so don't take your eyes off them.
On the very rare occasion hamsters do nip, but it's only exploratory like a human baby putting things into its mouth. It won't hurt, but it may make you jump which you have to avoid doing if you can or you will make the hamster jumpy. The only time hamsters bite hard is if they have been roughly handled or forced to do something they don't want to do. Even then, it doesn't really hurt, more making you jump.
Hamsters have poor eyesight so one way they get used to you is by your voice. Remember to speak to them as you approach the tank so they know the huge shape appearing in front of them is friendly.
Do not stroke them too roughly, and also don't keep feeding them from your hand or they will begin to think your hand is food and might nip it.
When you get them out separately (which is best as it is almost impossible to handle two hamsters at once), don‘t keep them apart too long. There can be problems when they are re-introduced if they are kept apart for hours. Remember to handle them both during a session (see fighting above.)
Finally, if a hamster gets away and you can't recapture it, close all the doors of the room. Get a bucket or tall box and place at the edge of the room. Put something soft in the bottom - (blanket or wood shavings) and scatter some food. Next put a ramp (not steep) up to the bucket and leave. Check every hour or so, and the chances are, that eventually your hamster will sniff out the food and drop in the bucket.
Russian hamsters are generally very healthy and the average life-expectancy is around 2 years. The only problem my previous ones had once was mites. I‘m not exactly sure where it came from (some sources say that they can be carried in the sawdust). Hamsters scratch naturally as a part of cleaning, when they get hot, and also it seems, when they're out on strange surfaces (such as newspaper). If, however, you notice them scratching excessively, and definitely if you notice bald patches appearing on their fur, I recommend taking them to the vet for a check up. If it is mites, the vet will apply some drops to the fur. Ask if you can buy a bottle to take home with you, and continue the treatment there (it's easier and cheaper!)
Russian hamsters have a gestation period of about 18-20 days. The litter size is usually 3 to 4, although recently I had a litter of six. When born the babies are pink, furless and blind and only about 2cm long. They soon darken, grow fur and as young as 9 days, while still blind, venture from the nest (although at this time, the mother retrieves them quite quickly.) At 12 days their eyes open and they start to try solid food, and by about 3 weeks they are weaned. They can be separated from their parents at 3-4 weeks. Breeding begins at between 2 and 3 months so the sexes must be separated after about 8 weeks.
Finally, enjoy your hamsters, and look out for updates to this text in the future.
by Mark A. Sidey - May 1996 (last updated 03/10/99)
A Step-by-step book about Dwarf Hamsters by Chris Henwood. Pub. T.F.H. Publications, Inc. ISBN: 0-86622-479-3