How to Care for a Syrian (Golden) Hamster
The Syrian hamster, also known as the golden hamster, has enduring appeal for children and adults. Now available in a wide range of colours as well as the attractive golden of the first pet hamsters, they can be kept cheaply and smell less than some other rodents, which is a plus in a small apartment. For people who are put off by the tails of mice and gerbils, the hamster's naturally very short tail is a bonus.
The average lifespan of a Syrian hamster is 24–30 months. Although it can be sad to have a pet for such a short time, it makes them ideal pets for people who don't want a long-term commitment. It's also reassuring for parents who worry that they will be left looking after a pet for years after their child has lost interest.
What Does a Hamster Need?
Should be spacious and minimise the chance of escape.
Lots of commercial hamster diets are available.
Supplied in a water bottle or heavy dish.
Something to gnaw
e.g. apple wood or willow wood
Shredded kitchen paper towel is good for a bed with shavings for the floor of the cage.
Not all hamsters like to sleep in a house, but most enjoy the sense of security. A small cardboard box will do.
Daily handling and explore time
Ideally in the evening as hamsters are nocturnal.
Twice a week for long-haired varieties.
To live alone
Syrian hamsters are naturally solitary animals and are rarely happy sharing their space with another hamster. Do not try to keep two in the same cage.
Syrian Hamster Housing
There are lots of different designs of hamster cages available, but these can be divided into three categories:
- Cages which mimic a burrow system: These have 'rooms' and connecting tunnels such as the 'Rotastack' and 'Habitrail' systems. These tend to be the most expensive option but can be fun for the hamster if you purchase lots of different sections. They can be fiddley to clean and I found hamsters quite often escaped from the rotastacks.
- Fish tanks: With a heavy lid made from wire tacked to a frame of 1" square wood these are the most hamster proof option with a low escape rate! They are good for providing a hamster with a depth of shavings if it enjoys burrowing (not all do). A tank topper is a good way of converting a smaller fish tank in to a quite spacious hamster apartment.
- Traditional cages: These are lightweight, easy to transport and reasonably easy to clean. The smallest wire cages make a dull option for a hamster, but ones with multiple floors give the hamster room for exercise. Despite the fact that they were not designed for running around in trees hamsters are remarkably agile and many entertain themselves by scrambling up and down the wire sides and using the roof as monkey bars.
Design Your Own DIY Cage
My first home made cage was not a world-class success; it was made from wood, and the hamster inevitably chewed through it and escaped. Since then, I have had some success in cheaply providing quite interesting living spaces for my hamsters. I combined various second hand cages together by means of tubes of weld mesh for example; leading from a hole in a mesh aquarium lid to one of the doors in a traditional wire cage. It was not the easiest thing in the world to transport, but was cheap and gave the hamster plenty of space.
How to Deal With These "Escape Artists"
If you have Syrian hamsters for long, you will very likely have one escape—they are surprisingly strong, agile and determined. As you can see from the picture on the right one of my hamsters easily mastered the trick of squeezing up between the wall and radiator to emerge at the top of the radiator.
An Infamous Getaway
Quite well known at the time of the incident over 20 years ago, several hamsters escaped from a pet shop in Bath, England. When pest control was later called in to sort out a rodent problem in the street 270 hamsters were trapped. They had been living under the floorboards in the shop and adjoining properties. The original escapees had gone forth and multiplied!
Capturing an Escaped Hamster
To capture an escaped hamster, you could use a 'no kill' small mammal trap. These usually have a trip door system to prevent re-escape and a compartment for the hamster to wait in—bedding and a bit of carrot will keep it comfy in the mean time.
Check the trap at least every 8 hours. Hamsters are very curious creatures so you could rig up your own trap, for example a stairway of books leading into a slightly angled steep sided container such as a waste paper bin with bedding and food at the bottom. This should be placed next to the wall of a room where your hamster was last seen.
Safe Ways to Explore: Hamster Balls
Because they are prone to escape and general rodenty mischief (mine chewed a pile of my school books) if allowed loose in a room, lots of people opt for a hamster ball to allow them freedom to explore with out getting into the space behind the cupboards or between the floorboards. Allow them 20 minutes at a time in the ball - they will want a comfort break by then and the chance to drink and snack. Even with a ball some hamsters make it to the great outside such as Roly, who was found in his exercise ball running along the M6 (UK) motorway.
I found that the hallway, with all doors closed, is the safest space for my hamsters to roam free without being confined to a ball. They can be remarkably adept at scrambling up and down stairs so makes sure upstairs and downstairs doors are shut and that everyone else in the house knows the hamster is out.
In the wild hamsters have to cover quite a distance finding enough food. As pets they still like to exercise and one of the most used hamster toys is an exercise wheel which many hamsters will use every day. If you keep your hamster in your bedroom you will probably want to buy the quietest wheel available. The Superpet Silent Spinner is definitely worth a go.
Hamsters also enjoy going through tunnels—you may use cardboard tubes and boxes from home or buy some interlinking ones from the pet shop.
There are all sorts of chew toys available for them to gnaw on but you could cut them a hamster sized chunk of apple wood or willow from your garden as an alternative.
You might find your hamster enjoys manipulating a small food-dispensing ball to get it's daily rations or you could try stuffing a mini Kong toy with a mixture of bedding and hamster food and a challenge for your hamster.
Although hamsters eat a mainly cereal and seed based diet – these being ideal for storing in their food caches – they are omnivores and enjoy the occasional treat of a tiny bit of lean beef mince or a mealworm. I remember being very surprised that one of my hamsters eagerly munched a spider which wandered into his cage before I had so much as half a chance to get the spider out.
Extruded Food or a Conventional Mix?
Extruded foods are a pelleted diet formulated to provide all a hamster needs, conventional hamster mixes include a rodent biscuit, grains and sunflower seeds which together provide all the hamster needs. Whichever you choose offer a tablespoon of food each day. You might choose to put this in a bowl or scatter it around the cage thought that your hamster has to hunt around to find it a bit like in the wild.
One thing hamsters are famous for is storing surplus food for later. They often choose their beds as their store. To prevent the stored food from spoiling throw it out weekly when you clean the cage.
If your hamster has a lot of food stored after a week you may be offering it too much. This can lead to selective feeding whereby your pet just picks out its favourite bits to eat and so doesn’t get a balanced diet. However if your hamster is losing weight and has food stored it could be unwell so take it to see a vet.
Which Hamster Food Is Best?
Extruded Pellet Diet
The easiest way of ensuring the hamster eats a balnced diet
Doesn't offer any variety, not as widely available
Katee Forti diet pro health Protein 20%, Fat 4%, Fibre 7%
Conventional Hamster Mix Diet
Offers more variety and behavioural interest such as nibbling open peanut shells and sunflower seeds. Widely available in pet shops and supermarkets
Hamsters can select their favourite bits and leave the rest so may not get a balanced diet
Kaytee Fiesta Max (haster/gerbil) Protein 13.5%, Fat 6%, Fibre 10%
I would recommend avoiding the commercially available hamster treats in favour of any of the following. Treats should make up no more than 5% of the total diet.
The important thing with treats is to remember how tiny your hamster is and to treat accordingly.
- A mealworm (live or freeze dried)
- A tiny bit of raw lean beef mince or cooked chicken
- A piece of dried cat kibble
- Be cautious about offering fruit or raisins as treats. Some rodents are prone to diabetes and though it isn’t known to be a common problem in Syrian hamsters a lot of sugary foods could cause it. A single berry, such as red current, small blueberry or raisin twice a week shouldn’t cause any problems.
- Vegetables—cucumber, broccoli one or two peas or sweet corn kernels, carrot and beansprouts.
In general Syrian hamsters are very healthy pets and over 25 years of keeping them I can recall only having to take one to the vet. However there are some conditions it is worth being aware of.
'Wet tail' is the disease of Syrian hamsters which most people have heard about. Wet tail is a general term used to describe diarrhoea in hamsters. The worst form, usually seen in hamsters under 10 weeks old, is characterised by a hunched appearance and wet matted fur around the tail. It is officially known as Proliferative ileitisand caused by the Lawsonia intracellularis bacteria (Merck VeterinaryDictionary 2011)
Proliferative ileitis can cause the death of the afflicted hamster. It is more common in stressed animals, hence in pet hamsters it’s most common in young hamsters which have recently gone through the stress of being weaned, moved to a pet shop and then moved to a new home. If you think your hamster has wet tail it needs to be seen by a vet who will supply appropriate medication and electrolytes alongside advice on how to keep your hamster hydrated whilst it is unwell.
In adult hamsters a milder form of diarrhoea occurs caused by Clostridium difficile bacteria. It is also often described as wet tail but much less likely to be fatal provided it is treated. Diarrhoea brought on my too much green food or fruit can usually be resolved by eliminating these from the hamsters diet until it has recovered and then reintroducing them in very small quantities.
Overgrown Hamster Teeth
Sometimes a hamster’s incisor teeth at the front of their mouths grow faster than it can keep them gnawed down, overgrow because they don’t have enough to gnaw on or one breaks causing the growth of the opposite teeth to be uneven. Overgrown teeth need clipping – by yourself if you feel competent and have observed it done by a professional or by a veterinary surgeon.
Usually a hamster carries all the food that it has gathered back home to bed and then completely empties it’s pouches, sometimes it is unable to do this, usually because it has too much soft or slightly melty food like chocolate treat drops in there or sometimes because a pointy seed gets stuck there. If this stays in place for a couple of days it may cause and abscess or start to go mouldy and need clearing out and washing out by a vet.
Mites or Mange
Not all that common in hamsters, but if you observe patches of dandruff or baldness or your hamster is scratching more than usual your vet should check it out for mites.
Not an illness but it can be worrying for an owner. Hamster hibernation is usually triggered at temperatures below 5°C or 41°F (Merck Veterinary Dictionary 2011). The hamster falls into a deep sleep with little or no movement. Unfortunately hibernating hamsters sometimes get buried in the mistaken belief that they are dead. However 10 minutes in the warmth of your hands should be enough to start to wake a hibernating hamster and then you need to try to keep the area its cage is in warmer than before. Ideal temperature is 10-25°C (50-77°F).
Although wild hamsters are desert animals they protect themselves from the heat by spending the day in burrows and only emerging during the night. Please note that pet hamsters are susceptible to heat stroke especially if kept on a sunny windowsill in a glass tank or the cage is sited above a radiator. A hamster suffering from heatstroke will be quite still but trembling. Dampen a cloth with cold water to wrap the hamster in and take it to the vet if there is no improvement within 10 minutes.
Do you think Syrian hamsters make good pets?
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.