Hamsters are small, furry creatures beloved by many as pets. Before you decide to get one, it’s a good idea to understand the care they will require.
Hamsters are popular for research and as companion pets because of their small size, being disease-free and ability to breed quickly.
Their cardiovascular systems are similar to a human’s system, and this may be why they were used in research.
Hamsters originated in Syria and were initially used only for research after being discovered in 1839 by British zoologist George Waterhouse. They were later introduced as companion pets in 1948 by Albert Marsh. Hamsters arrived in the United Kingdom in 1931 and appeared in the United States in 1938.
The most common domesticated breeds of hamsters include:
- Dwarf Campbell Russian
- Winter white Russian
Hamsters are often known for their “pouches,” the space in their cheeks where they have been known to store extra food.
Setting Up House
Some hamsters prefer to live in pairs while others must be housed alone, so be sure to find out which housing preferences your hamster needs. Refrain from housing males and females together — they breed quickly and often. A couple hamsters can quite quickly turn into your own little furry farm, so take precautions when choosing a cage mate.
Aquariums can be used for hamsters provided there is enough ventilation with a secured cage top, but wire cages are a much better fit as a hamster habitat. Others may choose to use sets of connecting tubes to create tunnels between playing and sleeping areas, and the design possibilities are endless. Wired bottoms on any of these cages are not recommended because a hamster can get its feet caught in the small spaces. Avoid metal because it can rust.
Whichever habitat you choose, make sure there is ample ventilation in all areas of the cage, that the space between bars will not allow escape, and that any doors or latches are completely secure. Avoid placing the cage in direct sunlight, near dampness or areas exposed to drafts — the temperature fluctuation can be uncomfortable or cause illness.
Hamsters like to burrow, so bedding or substrate should be used. Avoid using cat litter or pine and cedar shavings as these could cause complications. Typical bedding types for hamsters include wood shavings, pellets, alfalfa shavings or old newspaper.
Hamster habitats should have separate areas for playing, sleeping and eating. Each area should provide enough space for your hamster to turn around, stand up and move in and out easily. The feeding area should have a sturdy bowl that cannot be chewed, and a water bottle is preferred over a water bowl as a cleaner option.
Cleaning should be done weekly. Remove food, bedding and any other soiled items. Clean the cage, then replace with new bedding. Check hiding areas and toys for food or waste, and inspect any toys that may need to be removed or replaced based on condition or wear.
Exercise is important, so be sure to include an exercise wheel or other means of play. A lack of exercise can cause unnecessary weight gain, lethargy or a hamster becoming paralyzed.
A key concern with your hamster’s diet is monitoring the food intake.
Offering food too frequently can cause the hamster to store and hide the food in other areas of the cage. Rotting food can be unsanitary and require the cage to be cleaned out more often than necessary. This is also true for those who scatter food throughout the cage, so it’s better to use a bowl for feeding.
Avoid plastic or any other material that can be chewed or scratched to prevent bacteria spreading or your hamster chewing and consuming parts of the bowl.
Try to offer the same amount of food every day. This way you can monitor their food intake. Since hamsters are known to hide food, don’t assume an empty bowl always needs to be filled.
Commercial hamster or small animal feed mixes are available, but mixes designed for more than one small animal may have pieces too large for your hamster. Stick to commercial mixes designed only for hamsters, such as a pellet mix made specifically for their diet and eating habits. If bugs are found in the food, it must be discarded.
In addition to commercial mixes, there are other types of food you can offer your hamster to supplement the diet. Carrots, bananas, nuts, fruits, broccoli and spinach can balance out the diet.
Food you should never give to your hamster includes:
- Raw kidney beans
- Raw potato
- Junk food
Stick with the appropriate fruits and vegetables to ensure a balanced and safe diet for your hamster.
Gross Fact: Hamsters have 2 kinds of poop: nutrient-rich and waste. They will sometimes eat the one with nutrients.
Hamsters are nocturnal creatures, and there are 2 times people consider using for feeding. Some people feed at night so the hamster can eat during its most active time; others offer food in the morning so the hamster can snack periodically throughout the day between naps.
Hamsters have fast metabolisms, so offering a few items to supplement their diet can be given periodically throughout the day provided previous supplemental food has been eaten and not stored somewhere in the cage.
Hamsters store food in their cheek pouches, so it’s important not to provide too much food. A hamster will try to store all of it inside the pouches, and too much food or irregular shapes can cause tears.
This video shows Smoke the hamster storing seeds and carrots in his mouth. At one point an extra carrot stick doesn’t fit, so he trims it by chewing off an end and then stuffing it in his pouch:
Hamsters should always have access to clean water. A water bottle is recommended to help keep the water clean. Do not allow your hamster to swim or soak in water; there is a danger of drowning or pneumonia.
A hamster’s teeth continue to grow, so it’s important to provide chewing supplements such as a chew toy, twigs or a piece of wood. Make sure the item was not treated with pesticides, chemicals or paint before offering it to your hamster.
A Healthy Hamster Is a Happy Hamster
Health begins with a clean habitat and a balanced diet. Once you have those covered, there are health considerations.
Isolate sick hamsters since illnesses can sometimes be contagious and spread quickly. If you are ill, you should not handle your hamster or keep the cage in your room. Monitor hamsters outside their cages to prevent injury, and always supervise children if they are interacting with a small animal.
Preventing stress is an important aspect of caring for a hamster. Avoid habitat overcrowding, routine changes, extreme temperatures or soiled and dirty cages. Hamsters have been known to suffer depression during winter months.
Health problems that may plague your hamster include:
- Wet tail (bacterial illness)
- Fleas or lice
- Runny eyes
- Hard lumps that may be cancerous
- Paralysis caused by a lack of exercise, spinal injury or vitamin D deficiency
- Cheek pouch injuries
Teeth falling out is a sign of dental disease and is not normal. Have annual checkups done with a small animal veterinarian and as needed at the sign of illness.
With proper diet, exercise and care, a hamster can be your furry friend for several years.