It almost always turns out that an albino hamster is anything but.
Because true albino hamsters are very rare, but there are lots of other ways for a hamster to have white fur, and even pink eyes and pale ears.
Which means many hamster parents are left wondering whether their albino hamster is really albino, or not.
What Is An Albino Hamster?
Albino hamster is a funny old term.
It sounds like it means “white hamster”, right?
But things aren’t so straight forward.
From a genetic point of view, there are several ways a hamster can be white.
Not all of them involve albinism, and not all of them exist in every type of hamster!
But all of them are sometimes mistaken for albinism, or described as albino for the sake of being easily understood. After all, “albino” is an easy shorthand for “white”!
By the end of this article, you will know a partial albino hamster from a completely albino hamster, and when a white hamster isn’t albino at all!
And it all starts with a (little) bit of hamster genetics.
Albino Hamster Genetics
Lots of different genes affect hamster color.
In fact at least 17 different genetic mutations cause Syrian hamster coats alone to look different from their natural golden color in the wild.
And four of them result in a white hamster!
Let’s count them now.
1. The dominant spotting gene
The dominant spotting gene, abbreviated to Ds, causes hamster coats which are covered in large white patches.
In these patches, there are no pigment making cells (called melanocytes) underneath the skin.
Sometimes other colors are visible between the patches, but sometimes the patches cover the entire body, giving the overall impression of a totally white hamster.
These white hamsters have flesh colored ears and dark eyes, so they are known as ‘black-eyed whites’.
2. The acromelanic gene
The acromelanic gene causes a form of partial albinism. It’s pretty special, because it is temperature sensitive!
When hamster coat is determined by this gene, an important enzyme for pigment production – called tyrosinase – is only made where the skin’s temperature is below the normal body temperature. So pigment can only be made in these places too.
It’s the same principle at work in Siamese cats, with their dark ears, nose, paws and tail.
But hamsters have flatter faces than cats, no tail, and short legs tucked under their body. So only their ears get cool enough to make pigment!
Pigment starts to accumulate in the ears from 4 weeks old, and these hamsters become known as ‘dark eared white hamsters’.
Extra Twist: Hamsters with the acromelanic gene and the cinnamon gene have white fur, flesh colored ears and pink eyes. Like this:
This color combination is very unusual.
3. The albino gene
At last, a white hamster which truly is albino!
Complete, or ‘true’ albinism in hamsters is the result of a gene known as Ca.
Animals with true albinism are unable to make pigment at all, because they completely lack that important enzyme tyrosinase.
But this form of complete albinism has only ever been observed in Campbell’s Dwarf hamsters.
It has never been recorded in another breed, including the ever-popular Syrian, or teddy bear hamster.
Albino Campbell Dwarf hamsters have white fur, pink ears and pink eyes.
4. The white-bellied gene
Finally, we come to one last way in which hamsters can appear albino.
When hamsters carry one copy of the white-bellied gene, known as Wh, it does exactly what you’d expect. It gives them a pure snowy white tummy!
But if they inherit two copies of the Wh gene – one from each parent – it makes them white all over.
However, this gene is also known as the anopthalmic white gene.
Anopthalmic white hamsters
That’s because hamsters with two copies of this gene are born with no eyes.
They are also completely deaf, and males are infertile. Both sexes have a shorter lifespan than other hamsters.
Good hamster breeders never deliberately mate two carriers of the Wh gene, due to the risk of creating anopthalmic white babies.
However, it does sometimes happen by accident.
For example if a hamster has the dominant spotted gene and carries one copy of the white bellied gene, their telltale white belly might not be obvious among the white patches.
But does being white affect the health of any of the other hamsters which appear albino?
Albino Hamster Health
Fortunately, none of the other genetic ways that a hamster can appear albino seem to have a negative effect on their health.
However, they are still equally prone to other health problems affecting hamsters.
- overgrown teeth
- cheek pouch disease
- wet tail
- and infectious diseases.
So it’s important to give them the best possible standard of care, and interact with them every day so that you spot any signs of them being under the weather promptly.
How long do albino hamsters live?
In the wild, being albino is usually pretty disastrous for a prey species’ lifespan.
White animals stand out more against their surroundings, which makes them easy pickings for predators.
But luckily, white and albino pet hamsters don’t have the same survival worries at home with us.
So like all hamsters, white and albino hamsters live for about two years on average.
However, eyeless white hamsters have a lifespan closer to 9 months.
Albino Hamster Temperament
What about personality? Do white and albino hamsters have a different disposition to their more brightly colored brethren?
At the time of writing, all the evidence indicates that they don’t.
The factors which most determine a hamster’s personality are:
- their breed
- the temperament of their parents
- and how well socialized they were as babies.
But not their color.
In fact, even the eyeless white hamster is still regarded as a friendly and well-adjusted little pocket pet.
Hamsters don’t rely very much on their sight anyway, but their lack of hearing can make them jumpy.
Owners of eyeless white hamsters adjust for this by blowing gently into the cage when they approach, so their pet realises they’re there.
Albino Hamster Care
White and albino hamsters need the same diligent care as all hamster types.
Albino Dwarf Campell’s hamsters, and other white dwarf hamsters will appreciate having a cage mate to keep them company.
But white Syrian Hamsters and Chinese hamsters will prefer blissful solitude.
Are Albino Hamsters Good Pets?
The only true albino hamsters belong to the Campbell’s Dwarf hamster species.
Campbell’s dwarf hamsters are typically quite confident and friendly, but may be prone to nipping.
Their tiny size and super speed mean they’re better suited to being handled by adults than children.
White hamsters of other breeds, such as the larger, more docile Syrian hamster, are more suitable for households where young children will try and pet them.
Eyeless white hamsters are best left to experienced hamster parents who are confident of meeting their needs.
Your Albino Hamster
So to sum up:
Hamsters with flesh colored ears, black eyes and white fur are black-eyed white hamsters. They have the dominant spotting gene.
Those with white fur, dark colored ears and dark eyes are dark-eared white hamsters. They have the acromelanic gene, which is a type of albinism.
Syrian hamsters with white fur, flesh colored ears and pink eyes are also dark-eared white hamsters, but they have the cinnamon gene too.
Hamsters with white fur and no eyes are anopthalmic whites. They have two copies of the white bellied gene.
And finally, Campbell’s Dwarf hamsters with white fur, pink ears and pink eyes are albino! They are the only hamster with the true albino gene.
Do You Have An Albino Looking Hamster?
Can you recognize what type they are from this article?
Tell us about them in the comments box!
References and Resources
Robinson, Albino and Pink-Eyed Dilution Mutants in the Russian Dwarf Hamster, Journal of Heredity, 1995.
Hodgkinson et al, Mutation at the anophthalmic white locus in Syrian hamsters, Human Molecular Genetics, 1998.
James et al, Effects of the Gene Wh on Reproduction in the Syrian Hamster, Journal of Experimental Zoology, 1980.
Syrian Hamster Genetics and Inheritance, Midland Hamster Club, 2017.
Robinson, Acromelanic albinism in mammals, Genetica, 1973.
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