Small and furry, these little guys are often kept as pets by children. Sometimes with regret, as their nocturnal nature means they are awake at night, and they may be apt to bite.
Hamsters are one of the most common small animals kept as pets. They are nocturnal rodents, and as such they may keep you awake if they are to be kept in your bedroom. They have expandable cheek pouches ideal for carrying food or bedding material in. Hamsters can live from 2 to 5 years. If you cannot provide a 5 year commitment, select an older animal, or do not even get a hamster.
Gold Hamster kept as a pet, photo from Wikimedia.
As Children’s Pets
Hamsters are often kept as children’s pets but it is important to note they can bite, especially if they are not used to being handled when young. On the whole no pet should fully be a childs responsibility, children are not able to understand or undertake the lifetime commitment of pet ownership. Therefore you should not get a pet hamster for a child unless YOU, the adult, are fully willing to undertake the care should the child get “bored” with it.
It is also important to note that small children may not be able to hold a hamster safely. A hamster must be supported fully from the underneath and held gently. In the hands of a small child, a hamster can easily fall or be squeezed too tight. Children sometimes do not know when they need to let go, and return the animal to its cage. Tame hamsters should not be picked up by the “scruff” of their neck.
Selection and Purchase
There are several different varieties of hamsters, including dwarf hamsters and larger teddy bear (fluffy) ones. Pick a variety that is appealing to you, remember that the fluffy ones will be more prone to problems with their hair and may require some tangles to be gently removed. The best time to pick your hamster may be later in the day or evening as this fits with their time of activity. The hamster should be at least six weeks of age. Males have been found to be somewhat tamer than females.
Do not accept a hamster from a place where they cannot tell you the gender. Hamsters are easy to sex, so if the place is unable to do so, they are not a reliable seller. If the facility is dirty, over crowded, or in otherwise poor condition, it is not a good idea to purchase a pet from them. Sadly most people feel they are “rescuing” animals from horrid situations, but in reality you are merely rewarding them with your purchase price, plus you may be buying a sick or distressed animal. In most places there are excellent animal shelters, or SPCAs, where you can adopt hamsters for less than stores sell them for. Sometimes these shelters have used cages that either come with the hamster, or which you can purchase for a low price. Or you can buy your pet from a private seller whose hamster has had babies.
If the handler is using gloves to pick up the hamsters, then its pretty clear the hamsters have not been handled enough. You always want to get a well socialized animal. Usually the ones from private sellers or animal shelters are more tame than ones sold in pet stores, were most animals come from mass breeders and are not handled regularly.
Select a hamster that is active within a short time of being picked up, has no spots of missing fur, and is well rounded (not thin). If possible ask for a health guarantee.
Housing and Care
As with all pets, the bigger the cage, the better. This is especially true for hamsters who, if bored, will develop negative behaviors such as chewing on their cage bars. In a pinch you can use an aquarium, but over all these are not desirable because they lack good air ventilation. Some cages are plastic on the bottom, sides, top, and have loads of tunnels. These may be great, but might be tricky to take apart to move or clean. The most common type of cage for use with hamsters is a wire cage with a plastic bottom. You need to make a nesting (bed) area. This can even be a tissue box. They love toilet paper rolls to play in and chew on, but make sure they were from non-scented toilet paper. You can also rip up some strips of toilet paper and hang them in the top of the cage. Your hamster will eagerly take them down and make a bed with them.
The cage should be bedded with pine or aspen shavings, (never cedar) or another bedding product made and sold for hamsters, such as those made from recycled paper. You will also require a water bottle and no-tip bowl for feeding.
Your hamster will need time out of his cage at least twice a week, more if the cage is small. It should also have a wheel for exercise. If you can find a solid wheel these are safer because their feet cannot get stuck between the rungs. Even rodents require some mental stimulation so they do not become bored. A bored pet is more likely to become a problem pet. The more you handle your pet, the more tame it will become. Be cautious when waking a sleeping pet. While they are often easy to pick up when they are still dopey, if startled they may bite.
Some owners have reported successfully keeping dwarf hamsters together in the same cage, but this is not recommended. Hamsters are very territorial and will kill each other as they mature in age.
Make sure you have some chew items for your pet to gnaw on or he will chew on the bars. Apple branches are fine, or you can buy “chew sticks” try to get those with no color dyes. Your little critter will also benefit from a salt lick and mineral block.
The cage will need a weekly cleaning. Be sure to pay close attention to the corners.
The easiest thing to feed your hamster is commercially prepared Hamster Food. Usually this is a mixture of seeds and pellets. The food should be put in a bowl, but you will note that your hamster will usually stuff his, or her, cheeks with some food and move it to the den. When the food dish is empty it is important to fill it again, because it will be hard for you to know how much food your little pet has stored in its den.
Hamsters can eat most fruits and vegetables, and should be offered small amounts of these treats every few days to add variety. Some of their favorites are apples, bananas, or carrots. They will also eat dandelions but make sure if you pick them that they have not been sprayed or treated with any herbicide or pesticide. You should wash any fruit or vegetables from the store before giving them to your hamster. Some unsafe foods are onions, garlic, and chocolate. Your hamster can eat meat, like chicken, but some people feel this gives them the “taste of flesh” and may make them more likely to bite, plus it is unnecessary to feed them meat. Do not overdo offering of any treats, or you can cause stomach upset. Do not give your pet excess fresh food, you will have odor issues if fruit is “stored” rather than eaten.
There comes a time when most hamster owners experience the worry of an escaped hamster. The main thing to remember is that they are nocturnal, so they will be sleeping in the day, and awake later in the evening or at night. You need to look for him, or her, at both times. They are fully capable of squeezing under doors, but cannot climb up wooden stairs, however they will fall down stairs. As such you should start your search on the level your hamster lives, and work your way down. They will usually look for a cozy place to sleep, check a pile of clothes or a corner in a closet.
If you cannot find your hamster you need to set a trap. Put down several feed stations and bedding areas, such as empty tissue boxes with a few pieces of torn up toilet paper. Also put out water. Check the feed stations and beds for signs of use, you should be able to narrow down where your pet is. At night have the house all quiet and listen for scurrying sounds.
For more exercise opportunities for your little pet, you can get hamster balls. You put them in the clear ball to roll around in on the floor. Make sure all doors to stairs are closed and that you do not leave them in the ball for too long, as they could over heat or dehydrate.
“Wet-Tail” is the most common disease in hamsters and can be deadly. It is a bacterial infection caused by stress and an unclean environment. The symptom is soft stool or diarrhea. Veterinarian attention is required.
It is not a good idea to breed hamsters unless you know you have buyers for the young. Breeding any animal simply so you can see “the miracle of birth” is actually creating more unwanted pets.
Good Alternative Pets to Hamsters
Because the main draw backs are the biting and being nocturnal, you may want a pet that is neither. Rabbits and Guinea Pigs are your best choices. Being larger they are also more hardy, and longer lived.