A hamster is a popular choice when people are looking for a pet. They don’t need to be taken for walks, are relatively easy to care for, and look cute. These cute critters often don’t get the care they need though, and are kept in improper conditions, affecting their health and welfare.
About the hamster
Hamsters are crepuscular and nocturnal, which means that they are active around sunset/sunrise, and at night. Because of this, they will be sensitive to the time of the day you will handle them. Hamsters do tend to wake up for short periods during the day to go to the bathroom, have a snack, or a sip of water. But their natural behavior is to go back to their nest shortly after.
Hamsters have short lifespans, and with proper care, this averages around 2 to 3 years old. Almost all hamster breeds are solitary, which means they should be kept alone, though some breeds can be housed in groups. Be sure to research if the breed you are planning to get needs to be kept alone, or can be housed in pairs or groups. When housing solitary hamsters as a group, fights may happen that can lead to death.
As hamsters are small and fragile, they might not be the best choice as a pet for a young child. They can be suitable for older children who know how to handle a pet carefully and gently.
The first thing to be aware of is that almost all hamster cages sold in pet stores are too small. More suitable are big reptile tanks, terrariums, and aquariums. Depending on which you choose, adjustments will need to be made to make the enclosure suitable for a hamster. There are also hamster owners that remake IKEA shelving units and boxes into enclosures. When remaking an enclosure, make sure that the cage has enough ventilation.
Depending on the type of hamster, advice varies on the minimum amount of floor space they need, so make sure to research the specific needs of your breed of hamster. Put the cage in a suitable spot, away from loud sounds, out of direct sunlight, and out of drafts. The bedding of the cage needs to be of natural materials. Make sure to put a thick layer of bedding, at least 30 cm, in the cage of your hamster. Compress the bedding as this will give them the ability to burrow.
Most commercial wood shave bedding you will find in pet stores will be unsuitable for your hamster, as often they are too dusty which will create respiratory issues, or contain pine or cedar wood, which are toxic to hamsters and will create health issues long term. Also avoid using cat litter as bedding, scented bedding, and unlabeled materials. Fluffy bedding labeled for hamsters are also unsafe, as they might be ingested and cause blockage, or your hamster can get tangled and injure itself. Safe bedding materials you can use are timothy and orchard hay, aspen wood shavings, or paper-based bedding.
Provide your hamster with a sand bath filled with dust-free and microorganism-free sand. Some examples you can use are chinchilla sand, or children’s play sand. Also create a toilet area, as hamsters are naturally clean animals and prefer to pee and poop in the same spot. You can even litter train your hamster. Make the cage of your hamster interesting to explore and provide them with enrichment.
Exercise and enrichment
Make sure that the cage of your hamster has plenty of opportunity for exercise. Provide your hamster with a suitable hamster wheel. When choosing a wheel, make sure you pick the correct size. The back of your hamster should not be curved or bent when they run in it.
Also, provide them with enrichment. One of the natural behaviors of hamsters is to burrow, so add enough suitable bedding so they can fulfill this need. You can also give them a box to dig in and fill it with a safe substrate like beech chips. Provide your hamster with houses to hide in, chew toys to chew on, and toys to explore. There are many do-it-yourself tutorials online with ideas on how to provide additional enrichment for your hamster.
Your hamster also needs plenty of time outside the cage. A good and safe way to do this, is to set up a gated area (playground) for them. In this area you can put loads of toys, and hide treats, so they can safely explore and interact with their human family. Always supervise your hamster if they are outside their cage.
Hamsters are omnivores. Make sure to feed them a varied diet. Watery fruits and vegetables should be given in small quantities as they can potentially upset their digestive system.
Provide them with a bowl of high-quality hamster mix and lab blocks daily. The optimal hamster’s daily diet should include 16% protein and 5% fat, so try and aim for this when choosing a brand by looking at the labels. In addition, give them small amounts of fresh suitable vegetables, fruit, flowers, herbs, and protein sources. Give (leafy green) vegetables more often than fruits. Keep in mind that hamsters like to hoard food, so make sure there is no food being hidden which could end up rotting.
Suitable vegetables and fruits would be: kale, cucumber, peas, carrots, apples (no seeds!), banana, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, dandelion leaves, and beansprouts. For protein, you can give cooked chicken or turkey, crickets, mealworms, dry cat food, and boiled eggs.
Some foods that you should avoid giving to your hamster are:
Chocolate, spices, salt, onion, garlic, peanut butter, sandwich meats, almonds, foods, canned food, candy, junk food, pork, raw potato, kidney beans, eggplant, fool’s parsley, avocado, raw rhubarb, tomato leaves, fruit pits/most fruit seeds, citrus fruits, watermelon, jams, leeks, scallions, chives, pickles, buttercups
These are not complete lists, if you are unsure about a certain food make sure to check if it’s safe for your hamster to eat.
Daily tasks are cleaning their water and food bowl and replenishing both with fresh water and food. Also, clean the toilet area daily. Spot clean the bedding and fully change it when needed (soiled/wet). Empty out the whole cage weekly to give it a thorough clean including all the toys, tunnels, etc. Make sure to use a non-toxic cleaner.
When handling your hamster, make sure to cradle them in cupped hands and take extra care they don’t slip through your hands.
Hamsters groom themselves, so they don’t need to be brushed or bathed. Bathing your hamster could even potentially kill them, so avoid getting them wet. Your hamster will keep itself clean, the only thing you need to provide is a sand bath.
Make sure to keep a close eye on the health of your hamster by keeping track of their appetite and stool. Loss of appetite, or stool that looks abnormal, needs to be investigated by a vet. Also, regularly check their body for wounds or sores (also under the feet) and their overall appearances like breathing and fur.
The teeth of hamsters grow throughout their lives and naturally wear down by eating and chewing, but sometimes this goes wrong, so keep a close eye on the length of their teeth. Make sure your hamster has plenty of chew toys available at all times. Also, keep an eye on their nails as these grow fast. If they don’t wear down enough through cage accessories, clip them, or have them clipped by a vet.
Any abnormalities require a vet visit rather sooner than later. They are tiny and fragile animals, and health issues can progress very quickly.
Keeping hamsters as pets
Is often underestimated. The care, food, and correct setup of the cage are more complicated than one might think. By providing information to pet owners, we hope to improve the overall welfare of hamsters that are kept as pets and inform people so they can make a thoroughly thought-through decision if a hamster is a right pet for them. Did you know we also pet sit hamsters? Our critter sitters are knowledgeable about hamster care and will love your little hamster like it’s their own. Feel free to contact us for more information about our pet sitting service.