Hamsters are rodents belonging to the subfamily Cricetinae, which contains approximately 24 species. Hamsters make very clean, charming, loveable pets, and are easy to take care of. For these reasons hamsters are one of the most popular household pets for people of all ages.
Despite hamsterâ€™s poor eyesight, they have an acute sense of smell and are able to hear very well. A key characteristic of hamsters is their sharp incisors which never stop growing and therefore must be worn down regularly (see hamster toys). Hamsters will eat a wide variety of foods (see feeding hamsters) and will store food in their spacious cheek pouches. They are nocturnal which means that they tend to sleep in the day and are active at night.
 Hamster Breeds
The three categories of hamsters are described below;
 SyrianSyrian Hamster, often called the Golden Hamster, is the most common type of hamster kept as a pet today. They are also the largest breed of hamster, averaging 6-8 inches in length. They are very easy to take care of and the normal lifespan for these hamsters is approximately 2-3 years. Syrian hamsters should live alone as housing them in pairs can lead to fighting occurring.
Species of dwarf hamster include Winter White Russian Hamsters, Roborovski Hamsters and Campbellâ€™s Russian Dwarf Hamsters. The latter are the most common type of dwarf hamster kept as pets. They grow about 4-5 inches in length and have a shorter lifespan than Syrian hamsters. Dwarf hamsters are very social among their own kind and can be kept in pairs if they are introduced at an early age.
These type of hamsters are often categorised as Dwarf Hamsters due to the similar physical characteristics they exhibit but they are actually different and not technically a true â€˜dwarf hamsterâ€™. The Chinese Hamster is the only hamster with a prehensile tail (approximately 4cm long), whereas most hamsters have very short, non-prehensile tails. The longer tail found on Chinese Hamsters means they are often referred to as the â€˜rat-likeâ€™ hamster. Like the dwarf hamsters, they can also be kept in pairs if introduced when they are young.
 Housing for Hamsters
The first and most important thing to take into consideration is the hamsterâ€™s home. Hamsters will spend the majority of time in their cage; therefore the cage should be as big as possible. There is no such thing as a habitat that is too big for your hamster.
Now a day, there are several varieties of cages/homes available to buy for hamsters. Hamsters are most frequently well-kept in a wire cage with a solid tray bottom, solid levels and a coated wire top. The cage should be of a suitable size (minimum of 2 square feet) with no more than half-inch of spacing between bars, to prevent the hamster from escaping. Glass/ plexi aquarium homes are also an option to house your hamster. The aquarium should have a secure, well-ventilated, coated wire, screen lid. Again, it will need to be spacious. It is better to have a long aquarium with more floor space than a tall aquarium with unused height.
Inside the cage there should be:
- A small metal or ceramic bowl where you can keep food (see feeding hamsters).
- A hanging water bottle â€“ to ensure adequate water supply for your hamster. Use a hanging water bottle that has an angled stainless steel sipper tube with a ball bearing in the spout. Some hamsters may refuse to drink out of water bottles. If this happens use a small metal or glass bowl instead. Fresh water should be given to your hamster daily.
- Bedding â€“ the correct dry and hygienic bedding needs to be provided for the hamster. Use products made from recycled wood or paper materials that are chemical-less and non-scented. The best bedding is shredded newspaper or aspen bedding. Never use pine or cedar wood shavings as they are toxic to hamsters and can cause respiratory problems. Never use toilet paper, kleenex, tissue paper or paper towels as these may become stuck in the hamster's pouches, causing infection and quite often death. The bedding needs to be spread thickly enough that your hamster can burrow in it. Hamsters love to arrange their own bedding. Adding cotton to the cage will allow your hamster to mix the cotton in with the bedding make his nest.
- Something to keep them occupied and active (see hamster toys).
 Feeding Hamsters
Hamsters need fresh food and water on a daily basis. There are a lot of choices when it comes to hamster food and all are easily available. The basis of a hamsterâ€™s diet should be a good quality store-bought food designed specifically for hamsters. This can also be supplemented with a variety of healthy human foods and treats. With regards to the store-bought foods your main choice will be between a pelleted diet and a loose mix diet, and each has pros and cons.
 Pelleted Diets
Pelleted foods offer a good balanced diet and for this reason are highly recommended. However, some pelleted diets can be a bit monotonous and thus some hamsters may refuse them. Supplementing the pellets with a variety of other items (such as fresh vegetables), as long as the pelleted food makes up the bulk of the diet can overcome this problem and ensure a well-balanced nutrition.
 Loose Mix
When choosing a loose mix diet for your hamster you should choose one that contains a variety of foods such as grains, dried vegetables and seeds. The potential problem with loose mixes is that hamsters can pick and choose their favourite bits, which could result in a dietary imbalance. This can be overcome by ensuring your hamster empties the food bowl before adding more to make sure your hamster does not just eat their favourite parts.
 Healthy Fresh Foods and Treats
Hamsters enjoy a variety of healthy human foods every day such as whole grains, vegetables and fruit. However, these should be given in moderation to avoid diarrhoea. Suggested fruit and vegetables include apples, grapes, strawberries, carrots, broccoli and spinach. Hamsters may also enjoy (again in small moderated quantities) pumpkin seeds, whole grain cereal, whole grain bread and hard boiled or scrambled egg.
Note: dwarf hamsters are prone to diabetes, therefore fresh fruits as treats should not be given to dwarf hamsters as it is crucial to avoid too much sugar in their diet.
Things to avoid feeding your hamster include raw beans, raw potatoes, garlic, chocolate, processed foods and any sugary or salty foods.
 Hamster Toys
Hamsters are active animals and need a range of toys and other items to provide opportunities for exercise, exploration and play. As well as time outside the cage, there are various things you can place inside the cage to provide this. In short, hamsters need to be able to chew, and they need to be able to exercise. In their native habitat, hamsters travel great distances to find food and this explains why domestic hamsters need sufficient exercise. Exercise wheels are great fun for hamsters and provide a good source of physical activity. When purchasing an exercise wheel it is important to make sure the wheel is the proper size, safe (get a solid surface wheel to reduce the risk of injury) and for your own sanity, quiet. Never use an exercise wheel with metal or plastic bars as the hamsterâ€™s feet or legs can get caught, causing unnecessary injury.
Hamsters love to explore and tend to like play tubes, tunnels and things they can climb in, on, over, under and through. Therefore giving your hamster cardboard boxes, toilet paper rolls, bridges and wooden ladders and branches fastened securely to the inside of the hamsters cage is recommended. Hamsters also need time out of their cage regularly. You can let them run around a hamster-proofed room (although be careful not to step on it by accident), or you can use a large plastic tub as a playpen. Whatever you use ensure the hamster cannot escape or get into a corner where you will find it very hard to bring him/her out.
Complement the hamsterâ€™s exercise facilities and toys with things for them to chew, such as a variety of wood structures. Wood items should be safe and pesticide and chemical free. Items specifically made for use by pets can be purchased from a pet store. Alternatively, pesticide free fruit tree branches or wood blocks that are not chemically treated are suitable for your hamster. These will help keep the animalâ€™s teeth healthy and in good condition.
Note: a variety of natural wood items for chewing and playing are a better option than plastic. Plastic toys can be destroyed very quickly and if your hamster is chewing and swallowing plastic pieces, this can be a concern. If you do use plastic items keep an eye on them and remove them if your hamster is chewing them too much.
 Handling Hamsters
Hamsters that have not been handled before may not be happy about being picked up and consequently may try to bite you. It is important to realise that this is not intentional; the hamster is simply scared and defending themselves. If a hamster does bite you may need to use a hand-glove initially. However, hamsters are very easy to tame and with special handling and some patience you can win your hamsters trust. You should be careful not to stress/shock or frighten your hamster and learn how to hold your hamster without making them feel uncomfortable in your hands. Ensure your hamster is fully awake and aware of your presence first. Then scoop up your hamster slowly and gently using both hands and always hold him/her at a low height or over a surface in case it manages to escape from your hands.
 Housekeeping/ Cleaning
It is important to practice good hygiene, both in keeping your hamsters home clean and with yourself when handling your hamster. Late afternoon or evening is probably the best time to clean, feed and handle hamsters as they can be cranky if disturbed during their daytime sleeping hours. Fresh food and water needs to be provided daily. Also clean the water bottle (and sipper tube) and food bowl daily to prevent build up of food, algae and bacteria. Check to be sure the water bottle is working properly as well.
Full cage cleanings need to take place weekly. This must include emptying the contents of the home, disinfecting it and letting it dry before laying down fresh bedding and replacing the hamsterâ€™s food, water, chewing and exercise toys. It is also advisable to clean out the hamsters bathroom space between weekly cleans. Hamsters like to accumulate things, therefore check for stockpiles of perishable food. To remove a hamster to clean their home you can either pick him/her up or hold a small box near the hamster and it will probably run right in.
Finally, as with any other pet you need to maintain a high level of hygiene with your hamster. Use gloves when cleaning the hamsterâ€™s cage and ensure everyone who handles your pet wash their hands afterwards.
 Hamster Breeding
Before breeding hamsters consideration should be given as to whether the pair of hamsters that is intended to breed are a suitable match in terms of their size, health and temperament. Plans also need to be made for housing the hamsters produced. Donâ€™t necessarily expect a local pet shop to take them off your hands as there are often more baby hamsters out there than they need.
Female hamsters will only mate when â€˜in seasonâ€™ or â€˜on heatâ€™, which is approximately every 4 days. Attempting to get two hamsters to mate when the female is not in heat could result in fighting. The gestation period (length of pregnancy) for hamsters is 16-23 days depending on the type of hamster.
Since Syrian hamsters are solitary animals, breeding can be more difficult with this type. Both Syrian and dwarf hamsters can begin reproducing at 4-5 weeks but it is not advisable to begin breeding until both hamsters are 3-4 months of age. The Syrian hamster has the shortest gestation period of 16-18 days. The average litter size for a Syrian hamster is 7-8 but can be as great as 26. Gestation for dwarfs lasts 18-30 days and the average litter size is 4-6.
Newborn pups do not have any hair and are blind. Once the babies are born it is important not to make a lot of noise or disturb the cage unnecessarily, as mothers will be on high alert and have been known to cannibalise their young when they feel threatened.
 Common health problems
Wounds â€“ usually caused by fighting. Avoid keeping hamsters together, unless they are Dwarf or Chinese hamsters (even still introduce them at an early age).
Dental problems â€“ provide things for your hamster to chew, such as wood structures as this will help to keep the teeth from becoming overgrown.
Abscesses â€“ these can occur in the cheek pouches. Signs to look out for are dribbling and poor appetite. Consult a vet if you suspect your hamster has an abscess.
 Dead Hamsters
Burial at home or cremation are two options when dealing with the disposal of a dead hamster. Some hamster owners prefer to keep the bodies of their hamsters and to bury them at home in the garden or in a small pot. The hamsterâ€™s dead body can be wrapped in cloth or placed in a homemade coffin fashioned from cardboard packaging. Never bury your dead hamster wrapped in plastic because this delays decomposition of the body after burial.
Burial of the hamsterâ€™s dead body should be as deep as possible and a covering of rocks or paving stones should be placed over the top to reduce any disturbances from birds or other animals. When burying your dead hamster in your garden and you move house, you may find it difficult to leave him behind...so the pot method can be used. You can use the same procedure but instead of burying your dead hamster in your garden, bury it in a pot; always place some stones at the top so that there wonâ€™t be any disturbances from birds or any other animals.
An alternative is to ask your veterinary surgeon to arrange a cremation for your pet hamster. The body will normally be retained at the surgery from where the crematorium will collect it. Your hamsterâ€™s ashes are returned to you in a wooden casket with the hamsterâ€™s name inscribed on a brass plaque. The ashes may be buried, sprinkled or the casket retained as a permanent memorial.