Hamsters make great pets but, as with any companion animal, do your research so you understand their needs and requirements for a full, happy life. Learn how to fulfill the special needs of these cuddly creatures, some of whom inevitably end up at shelters.
- Hamsters were living in relative obscurity until just 70 years ago, when a zoologist discovered a family of these rodents in the Syrian desert. Though hamsters were first discovered in Syria, they are native to many parts of the world. The name they go by today was taken from the German word “hamstern,” which means “hoard,” because that is exactly what they do with extra food. Their looks and activities can provoke many a smile.
- The types of hamsters commonly kept as pets are the Siberian, Roborovsky’s, Djungarian, Chinese and Syrian. Hamsters come in a variety of colors – the Syrian, for example, is one of a number of hamsters called “golden” because of the color of their fur – and may be all one color or multi-colored.
- Hamsters are nocturnal animals who live about two or three years. They are very frisky, and can easily escape from a cage that isn’t closed securely. Their eyesight isn’t very good, so they sometimes fall off tables when they are running around loose. Hamsters will bite if they are not used to being handled or if they are mistreated.
- Children caring for hamsters should be supervised by an adult. These animals are not toys and should be treated gently.
Today, hamsters’ friendly nature and adaptability have placed them among America’s most popular small pets.
When putting together a hamster’s temporary living quarters, consider the animal’s natural habitat. In the wild, hamsters live underground, emerging under cover of darkness to search for food. Domestic hamsters still prefer the “night shift,” so it’s best to house them in a quiet, dimly lit room away from drafts, direct sunlight, and noisy animals.
Hamsters should be kept in a wire cage or a 10-gallon aquarium that has a wire-mesh top. (Avoid the colorful plastic rodent homes sold in pet stores, as they are difficult to clean and offer easy escape routes.) The enclosure should be placed away from direct sunlight or drafts. Keep your hamster’s living quarters at room temperature. Avoid areas that are either excessively cold or warm.
Line the bottom of the tank with plain white paper, and add dry timothy hay or shredded white paper for burrowing and nest-building. Avoid using cedar shavings, which can cause respiratory problems. Be sure to change the litter often enough to keep it dry and odor-free.
Give Them Their Privacy
Although hamsters enjoy the company of humans, they are less friendly to their own kind. They are solitary creatures who must be kept in separate quarters; in their native habitats, they come together only to mate and will most likely fight if they are forced to share space. Even hamsters housed in quiet small-animal rooms still need hiding places within their tanks to feel secure in their surroundings.
Disposable cardboard items are probably best for hamsters in shelters; they can be tossed during each cleaning and easily replaced. Empty tissue boxes and round oatmeal containers can perform double duty as both gnawing toys and hiding places. Notorious nibblers, hamsters may harm their internal systems if they ingest soft plastics, but some hamster owners provide PVC piping or hard plastic items that withstand chewing.
Stock the Pantry
Hamsters have high metabolisms and should have constant access to food and water. To avoid spills and maintain a clean drinking supply, attach a water bottle with a metal sipping tube to the side of the aquarium. Some hamsters like to sit in their food dishes, so use a heavy ceramic dish to decrease the likelihood of food spillage. Be sure to clean up any leftover fresh food before it spoils. Respect the hamster’s need for order by placing the dish a good distance from the bathroom and sleeping areas.
Hamster food is available at many pet stores. Hamsters enjoy a varied diet that includes commercial grain and seed mixtures tailor-made for the animal as well as certain kinds of fruits and vegetables. A good commercial hamster mix should have all the necessary nutrients. Round out the diet with dandelion greens, chickweed, alfalfa pellets, spinach, lettuce, carrots, apples, and other fruits. A daily menu plan should include rations of a half-ounce of grain mixture, a small handful of greens, and tasty treats such as a slice of apple and a floret of cauliflower. Stay away from raw beans, apple seeds, sprouting potato buds, parsley, and green parts of tomatoes all foods that can be poisonous to hamsters.
Hamsters like to carry food in pouches in their mouths and then store it in the corners of their cage. To the novice guardian, a hamster with full cheek pouches may look strange and even cause worry, but this is perfectly normal for all hamsters. When cleaning the cage, always be sure to check the corners for any stale food.
Keep Them Occupied
In their native territories, hamsters have to travel great distances to find food, a fact that explains domestic hamsters’ need for lots of exercise. Hamsters like to play, so give them an exercise wheel to use and/or allow them to run explore outside of their cage for a supervised period of time each day. Keep them in one room carefully checked for any openings from which the hamsters can escape, get lost or possibly meet with some harm. Exercise wheels can provide hamsters with a good bit of activity, but they should not be the only source of physical activity.
Hamsters’ teeth are always growing. Complement the hamster’s home gym and entertainment center with chewables such as a dog biscuit or pesticide-free twigs from beech trees, maples, willows, hazelnut bushes, or fruit trees; these will also help keep the animal’s incisors worn down.
Hamsters also like to hide and sleep inside enclosed spaces, so place a small box inside their cage. They love crawling through tubes, which can be homemade or bought in pet supply stores. Cardboard boxes, toilet-paper rolls, and paper-towel rolls are also safe for hamsters to burrow in, chew on, and play with. Wooden ladders and branches fastened securely to the inside of the tank can help hamsters show off their climbing agility.
Practice Good Housekeeping
Hamsters can be cranky if disturbed during their daytime sleeping hours, so schedule cleaning, feeding, and handling in the late afternoon or evening. Be sure to clean out the hamster’s bathroom space every day. Hamsters like to amass treasure chests of tidbits, so check for stockpiles of perishable food. Also clean the water bottle and sipper tube daily to prevent buildup of food, algae, and bacteria; check to be sure it is working properly as well.
Change all the bedding twice a week, disinfecting the tank and letting it dry before laying down fresh bedding and replacing the hamster’s chewing, nesting, and climbing toys. If you must remove a hamster to clean her tank, you can hold a small box near her and she will probably run right in. When handling a hamster, always hold her over a surface such as a tabletop in case she manages to wriggle her way out of your hands.
Can Hamsters Live Together?
Hamsters can be aggressive toward one another. If you elect to house more than one hamster in the same living area, AAHA recommends choosing hamsters of the same sex and purchasing them at the same time. Avoid introducing a new hamster to other hamsters who have already become accustomed to their home. Doing so will result in fighting and possibly in injuries.
Lots of shelters and rescue groups have adoptable hamsters. Be sure to check Petfinder’s adoptable hamster listings to see if there are any for adoption in your area.
Are Hamsters Good Pets for Kids?
Contrary to popular belief, hamsters might not be the best pets for kids, according to the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA). Hamsters can bite if startled or handled roughly. In addition, they are small and delicate so they need to be handled gently. Even older kids should be supervised when holding a hamster.
Also, hamsters are nocturnal, which means they sleep during the day and have their fun at night. Placing a hamster in a child’s bedroom may interfere with the child’s rest. The hamster’s nightly activities might wake the child and make sleep difficult.