There are around 25 species of hamster in the wild but five are commonly kept as pets - syrian hamsters and four species of dwarf hamster - chinese hamsters, winter white or djungarian hamsters, roborovski hamsters and campbells. Syrian hamsters were domesticated in the 1930s. Hamsters are omnivorous - meaning they naturally eat a mixture of animal and plant matter. Syrian hamsters in particular are strictly nocturnal and, contrary to popular belief, do not, consequently, make good pets for young children.
Housing your hamster
Although hamsters are small they do like a lot of room. In the wild they would travel great distances each night so it’s important to give them plenty of space to stop them becoming frustrated and fights breaking out amongst groups. As a rule, at least 4 cubic feet for a Syrian hamster. For dwarf hamsters we recommend 2 cubic feet for a single and then another cubic foot per extra hamster.
There are three basic types of hamster habitat. A cage, a tank or a modular cage such as a rotastak.
We do not believe rotastak style cages provide adequate, healthy accommodation for hamsters. They have poor ventilation and do not provide the hamster with enough open space to run around in. Tubes are great but they should be in addition to not instead of more open space.
Tanks, whether aquariums or duna style cages, make nice homes for hamsters as long as they have plenty of ventilation and are kept in cool spots. You also need to ensure there are plenty of toys in the cage for them to play with and to make best use of the available space. As it can be difficult to use all of the space, be generous with the size of this type of cage.
Traditional cages provide the best ventilation and opportunities for the hamster to climb and interact with you. But some hamsters might chew either the bars or the plastic base so this is something to be aware of.
If the cage has a wire base, be sure to at least partially cover it or provide solid shelves so that the hamster/s don't have to spend too much time on the bare wire as this can cause foot problems. Hamsters lack much in the way of depth perception so are prone to falls and injuries in tall cages. So a wide, low house is best.
You also need to consider the bar spacing of your cage. 1cm bar spacing is fine for syrian hamsters and larger dwarves. However, if you’re housing roborovski hamsters bear in mind that they can escape through 1cm bar spacing. You can get cages specifically for dwarf hamsters that have narrower bar spacing or consider a tank style house.
Your hamster will appreciate cage furnishings such as tubes, ladders, wheels (solid, not barred) and houses. Do not give hamsters soft furnishings such as hammocks as they can shred and pouch the material leading to blockages. A Syrian hamster should have a wheel at least 8 inches in diameter – any smaller can cause spinal problems. We recommend Wodent Wheels or flying saucers. The cage should be placed away from direct sunlight or drafts. Never put the cage in a conservatory or sun lounge as hamsters can overheat quickly.
Substrate and bedding
This is very important as the wrong substrate can have serious health implications for your hamster. As a basic guide, paper and cardboard-based products are good (eg shredded paper, finacard, ecopetbed). Some paper based cat litters are ok but can be dusty or scented which isn’t ideal (eg biocatolet). Never use cat litters containing clay, any perfumed products or any product containing soft wood (eg wood based cat litters, sawdust and wood shavings). There is considerable evidence to suggest that these can cause liver and lung damage in small animals.
How often this bedding needs changing depends largely on the number of hamsters you have and how much space they have. As a general rule though, you will probably want to do a full clean once a week and possibly tidy up once in between. Hamsters tend to toilet in one area of the cage so cleaning this area every few days will help to keep the cage fresh in between full cleans.
Hamster feeds come in two basic types – muesli or nugget. You may find that your hamster selects just his favourite parts from a muesli based food and, if this happens, we recommend changing to nuggets to avoid any dietary insufficiencies.
In addition to a basic food, your hamsters will enjoy additional treats. These should be introduced slowly and in moderation to avoid stomach upsets. Good things to give them include cucumber, celery, peas, broccoli, carrot, seeds (such as millet and linseed) and small amounts of rice and pasta. Dwarf hamsters sometimes enjoy dried mealworms (available in the wild bird food section of your supermarket or pet shop). Avoid giving hamsters too much salt or foods too high in fat and limit any foods containing sugar (including fruit, corn, and chew sticks made with honey) as hamsters can be prone to diabetes. Never give your hamster onion, garlic, potato or kidney beans.
Water should be provided in a bottle (not a bowl which will soon get messy) and should be changed daily.
Syrian hamsters are strictly solitary and adults must never be housed together or they will fight or even kill each other.
Dwarf hamsters are sociable but can tend to fall out. They should be kept together if at all possible so we recommend starting with a pair. Providing the right home makes a big difference to the chances of them staying together so be sure to give them a big cage and don't use a rotastak type cage as the modules encourage territorial behaviour.
Sexing your hamsters
Sexing hamsters, especially dwarves, can be more tricky than with other small pets because of their size. Like all pet rodents, the females have visible genitals/urinary openings which can be confused with a penis. The important thing to look for is the size of the gap between this and the anus. In females, the two openings are very close together. In males you will see a noticeable gap. Males have visible testicles which should be very obvious in adult Syrian and Chinese males. In dwarf males you should also see the scent gland which looks a bit like a belly button.
If you are not confident in sexing hamsters, be sure to acquire your pets from someone who is. Pet shops often mis-sex rodents and they can breed quickly and prolifically. There are many hamsters looking for homes in rescue centres so please do all you can not to add to the over population problem. If you find you have hamsters of both genders, please seek help from a specialist rodent rescue urgently. Bear in mind that pet shops, vets and rescues which do not specialise in rodents may not be able to determine the gender of rodents reliably.
Interacting with your hamster
You may find that your hamsters are initially shy of being handled. This is natural and normal and all you need is gentle persistence and understanding to help them to get used to you. Begin by making friends with your hamsters while their feet are on the ground by offering them treats and talking softly to them. You can initially encourage them to walk from their cage into a tube and then from the tube on to your lap if they are nervous about being picked up.
Once they are out you can get them used to being handled by scooping them with both hands rather than “grabbing” them. Dwarf hamsters in particular like to get to know you by “tasting” you. This is not the same as a bite and will usually cease after a few days. It is important to be aware of this to avoid being shocked and potentially dropping the hamster. All hamsters have little concept of height so may jump out of your hands. Always handle your hamster sitting down, ideally on a bed or sofa so the hammy has a soft landing!
Remember that hamsters are strictly nocturnal so can be a bit grumpy if woken up during the day. If you need to handle your hamster when he is asleep be sure to wake him gently and give him a minute to get his bearings before picking him up.
Hamsters are extremely active animals in the wild and it’s important that they get exercise and mental stimulation or they can display sterotypical frustrated behaviour (back flips, bar chewing and aggression for example). Most hamsters should have at least half an hour out of their cage several times a week. This should be in a safe, secure area where things which may harm them such as heavy objects they might knock over, other pets, electrical wires, potential toxins and sharp objects are removed. Hamsters can find large open spaces intimidating so, at least initially, you might find it best to free range them in a smaller area. Sitting on the bed or sofa with them is ideal. Bear in mind that hamsters can get into tiny gaps and will seek to do so if scared. So be sure to check for gaps under furniture for example before letting them loose.
There is some debate about whether balls are good for hamsters. Our view is that each hamster is different. You can certainly offer your hamster the use of a ball but allow him to choose whether or not to go in it. Never leave your hamster unsupervised in a ball and do not leave him in there for more than 15 minutes at a time. Be sure that the ball is large enough that his spine is not curved when he is in it.
Your hamster should be handled daily and as part of this you should perform a health check. Check eyes and nose for any discharge, check for lumps and check the hamsters bottom area for diarrhoea. Loss of co-ordination, weight loss and increased thirst are also possible signs of illness. Hamsters have very fast metabolic rates so can succumb to illness quickly. It is therefore essential that you see your vet promptly with any concerns.
This information is intended as a basic guide to caring for this type of animal. If you intend to get a/some hamster/s please ensure you research their needs thoroughly and that you can offer them everything they need for the duration of their lifespan. If you have any questions which are not covered here you are very welcome to