Not All Hamsters Are Alike
While they may look similar, not all hamster personalities are the same. Some hamsters prefer to live with other hamsters whereas others are content to live a more peaceful solitary life. Some hamsters are larger with flat fur and others are smaller with fluffy fur. No matter which breed of hamster you choose they all make great pets for people who live in small spaces.
Here are some of the different breeds of hamster you will find at your local pet store, and the characteristics that make each species unique:
Dwarf Hamsters (Lifespan: approximately 1.5 - 2 years)
- Dwarf hamsters are lovely little rodents that are generally curious and easy to handle. These little guys can even learn to recognize their devoted pet parents. Most dwarf hamsters are happiest sharing their cage with a friend. If you decide that a dwarf hamster is a right pet for you, it may be a good idea to buy two of the same sex.
Chinese Hamsters (Lifespan approximately 2.5 - 3 years)
- Chinese hamsters are similar in size to dwarf hamsters but typically prefer to live alone. Chinese hamsters have slightly longer tails than other hamsters and can be easily identified by the dark stripe that runs down their back. This breed of hamster can be a little anxious and needs to be handled gently and often or may become nervous and prone to biting.
Syrian Hamsters or Golden Hamster (Lifespan: approximately 2 - 4 years)
- Syrian and golden hamsters are the largest and most common breeds kept as pets in North America. This breed of hamster prefers to live alone. While they are typically easy to handle and tame with people they will often fight if forced to live near other hamsters. Syrian hamsters can be fun to watch and are generally easy to tame.
Handling Your Pet Hamster
It's important to take some time to get your hamster used to be handled. The more often you hold your pet the more accustomed to being handled your hamster will become. Hamsters that are not handled gently often may nip out of fear. Be sure not to hold your hamster too tightly and avoid bouncing them around. Also avoid suddenly picking up your hamster while they are sleeping, doing so could lead to a bite.
Hamsters are nocturnal, meaning that just as you are sitting down to dinner, they are waking up and enjoying some breakfast. It also means that as you sleep, your hamster will be scurrying around exploring their cage and running on their wheel.
Once your hamster has had a little time to adjust to their new surroundings it is essential to allow them out of their cage once a day for supervised exercise. In the evening before you head to bed is a good time for this. Keep your pet in one room (with the door closed) or a screened-off area that’s been secured. It's important to note that hamsters don’t have good eyesight, so be sure to keep your pet away from stairs and do not allow them to run on tabletops. A fall could injure your pet.
When allowing your pet time outside of their cage, keep all electrical cords tucked well out of their reach!
Choosing & Placing Your Hamster's Cage
There are hundreds of styles of hamster cages available from the most basic to extravagant highrise models with multiple levels. While your pet does not require an expensive highrise model they will need a cage that is at least 16" x 10.5" x 10.5". That said, it is best to provide your new pet with the largest (hamster-appropriate) cage that you can afford and that will fit into your space. Larger Syrian hamsters will especially need more room, but all hamsters need to have enough space to scurry around at night playing and exercising.
The majority of hamster cages are plastic on the bottom with a wire cage on top and a wire lid or door that latches. Glass-sided aquariums with well-fitting wire tops can also be used to house hamsters provided that they are large enough.
Place your hamster's cage in a safe location away from electrical cords, and out of cold drafts or direct sunlight. Also, be sure to keep your hamster's cage out of reach from other pets in your home.
Other Items Your Hamster Will Need to Be Happy
To begin, your hamster will need a water bottle to drink from and an easy-to-clean food bowl. It is essential to provide your pet with food and fresh clean water every day!
Hamsters like to hide when they are sleeping and will make themselves a cozy little nest tucked into a hiding spot. Your local pet supply store will offer a range of cute hiding places appropriate for hamsters such as mini flower pots, little houses, and dens that will help to make your pet feel safe and secure.
Hamsters also love to play and keep busy, so provide your pet with plenty to do. Toilet paper tubes, rodent-safe toys, and an exercise wheel will help keep your pet's mind active and allow for sufficient exercise.
A chew toy to keep their teeth healthy is essential. Unpainted and untreated wood, twigs, a dog biscuit, or another hamster-approved item from the pet store are ideal. Hamster teeth grow continually and chewing helps to keep their teeth at just the right length.
Bedding for Your Hamster's Cage
Bedding provides warmth and comfort for your little pet but also needs to work well at absorbing moisture and odors. Your hamster will spend most of their time in contact with their bedding material so it's important to choose something safe too.
Recommended bedding materials:
- Timothy hay
- Commercially bought paper bedding free from dyes
- Clean blank shredded paper
- Toilet paper, paper towels and rolls
- Aspen shavings
- Processed corn cobs
- Pelleted bedding
Bedding Materials to Avoid:
- Pinewood shavings
- Cedarwood shavings
- Cotton balls
- Polyester stuffing
- Felt stripes
- Coconut fibers
- Cotton batting
Line your hamster's cage with at least 2 inches of bedding to provide a soft home for your pet, and absorb odors and mess. You should scoop out wet and soiled bedding every day, and give your hamster's cage a thorough clean once a week.
To clean your hamster's cage place your pet somewhere safe and supervised then throw out all of the used bedding, scrub down the cage with warm, soapy water and rinse and dry before adding fresh clean bedding. Before returning your pet's toys, bed, water bottle, and bowl to the cage you will need to wash and rinse those too.
Washing your hamster's cage should be done outside, in the bathtub, or a laundry sink, not in the kitchen where food is regularly prepared.
What to Feed Your Hamster
Your hamster should have fresh clean water and healthy food available at all times. Feed your pet a good quality rodent chow consisting of pellets, grains, seeds, and dried veggies to help keep them healthy. Rodent food can be found at your local pet supply store.
Supplement the rodent food every 2 or 3 days with small amounts of fresh fruit or veggies such as apples, lettuce, carrots, or spinach. Whole wheat bread or sugar-free cereal on occasion can be a nice treat for your hamster but shouldn't be given regularly. Never feed your pet candy, chocolate, onions, junk food, or uncooked beans!
Signs of Illness & Injury
Like other pets hamsters can sometimes become ill or be injured. Signs that your pet hamster isn't feeling well include dull-looking eyes, overgrown teeth, matted fur, weight loss, shaking, runny nose, and diarrhea. Respiratory illnesses producing cold-like symptoms are common in hamsters, including bacterial pneumonia, which they can catch from humans or other pets in your household.
If you think your hamster is sick—seek help immediately!
What to Do if Your Hamster Has Babies
Although it is best to keep males and females separated to avoid babies, it is not unheard of for new pet parents to bring home a pregnant mother by mistake.
If your pet hamster gives birth to a litter of babies (pups) here is how you should care for your pet and her little ones:
- Remove other adult hamsters from the cage.
- Do not handle babies for at least 7 days to avoid getting your scent on the pups.
- Provide your hamster with plenty of clean soft bedding such as facial tissue or toilet paper to help her keep her young comfy and warm.
- Feed your pet plenty of high-quality food and supplement her diet with small pieces of protein such as hard-boiled eggs and cheese.
- Babies will wean at about 3 weeks. Once weaned divide them into separate cages for males and females.
Finding a Hamster Vet Near You
Hamsters, like any pet, may get sick from time to time, and not all vets care for rodents. That's why it's important to know where your closest hamster vet is, in case you need them in a hurry.
Locate a vet near you that has training in the treatment of exotic companion animals, and contact the animal hospital before you need them to be sure that they can treat your hamster if illness or injury strikes.