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When is a Campbell not a Campbell?

Author: Melissa Chamberlain

From Issue 35 Oct 2000

Answer: When it's been crossed with a Winter White

I have been asked by several worried members of a hamster club to comment on the dwarfs at a show I attended recently. As the judge was a trainee I was book stewarding which meant that I could see all the hamsters. I had been pre-warned that there were some odd-looking hamsters coming up. When we came to the Winter White class I was even more surprised to find a Campbell's colour on a Winter White body and vice versa. This is a scenario that until now myself and other judges hadn't come across. What do we do with them? My first thought was to disqualify them but under the rules they weren't ill, didn't carry any contagion and weren't missing any bits. They just didn't conform to either standard so after discussion with another eminent judge is was decided to reclassify them as non-standard.

This raises several serious questions. Firstly, these hamsters are being bred (I gather) for commercial sale to pet shops. I know that pet shops are rather naive about dwarf hamsters and tend to lump all russians, be they Campbell or Winter White, under one category. With the introduction of larger pet stores and the demise of some of the smaller back street ones this may change, but for a member of a hamster club to be doing this, a mistake once, yes maybe but to do it time and again and then show them is inexcusable. Secondly, think of the damage that could be caused to the hamsters themselves.

With these points raised I started going back through articles and books looking up hybrids. Unfortunately, several books do mention this idea as a way of expanding the breeds. It has certainly been done in dogs and rabbits as a way of producing a new breed of animal but it has only been done with a group of like-minded people all working together for the good of the breed.

The Campbell and Winter White are similar species but are slightly different genetically. On the whole, they are from different areas of Russia. In the wild they would eat slightly different foods and if they did meet would ignore each other.

Captive bred hamsters don't have that luxury. We choose the mates for them. Some of us don't care if they carry or suffer from diabetes, kidney failure, glaucoma, cancer, missing limbs or ears. I could carry on but here we have a breeder who totally disregards the rules of breeding hamsters and crosses species.

So, to go back to basics, the word "hybrid" describes a cross-breed, a mixture which means that they will carry the characteristics of both parents. This is similar to a cross-breed dog rather than a mongrel. A cross-breed requires two different parents. A mongrel requires the two cross-breeds mated again resulting in four or more different breeds. But (and this is a big but), it cannot be bred out. If you have a cross-breed or a mongrel you will not, by selective breeding, come back to a pure bred animal.

Mating Winter White to Campbell can, and probably will, produce no end of problems. Firstly, any resulting offspring may be infertile which is good to the extent that if they are, the problem stops there, but this has to be proven and there will always be the odd on that isn't infertile.

Problems may arise in the production of litters, especially if it is the Winter White that is producing because of the slightly wider head of the Campbell. The Winter White birth canal is not geared up for the big-headed babies. Result - lost litter and lost mother.

Secondly, both species are flushing up health problems. The biggest is diabetes in Campbells and glaucoma in Winter Whites. Crossing the two species will inevitably cross these two diseases.

So, now ask yourself the next question: what if these hamsters did carry on breeding and were then crossed with mottled, argente etc. How would we know? How would we ever be able to trust dwarf breeders again that what you were getting was a true bred Campbell and not a hybrid?

I implore all dwarf breeders to stand together with regard to this. Please keep careful records of your stock and keep your lines pure. For the NHC, BHA and all clubs it is time to take action to educate pet shops and to request that breeders, old and new, become better educated when breeding these hamsters.