Hamster Care Basics: Tips for New Owners
How to Care for a Hamster
Congratulations on your decision to become a pet hamster owner. Caring for them is a very rewarding experience! I highly recommend that you invest in a few good books to learn more about your pet so that you can offer them a quality life. Hamsters are more fragile than cats and dogs but are robust in their own way when taken care of properly. You should also take the time to seek out a good veterinarian in your area who has experience working with hamsters.
The following information is a list of basic supplies and husbandry concepts every owner should consider:
- Nutritional Needs and Feeding
- Cage Style, Care, and Environmental Enrichment
- The 5 Most Common Pet Hamster Breeds
- Breeding Facts
Hamster Nutritional Needs and Eating Habits
Something all owners learn is that hamsters love to eat! The truth is that they spend a large portion of their time on food gathering and foraging especially at night. They consume about a tablespoon of food per day spread throughout the day, collect it at night and wake every couple of hours during the day to snack. Hamsters require food in regular, small amounts due to their fast metabolisms.
The Staple Diet for a Hamster
Hamsters know which type of food their bodies need at any given time and commercial grains cover most of these requirements. Pellets or mixed seeds and grain are safe to use packaged from the store as the base of your hamster's diet. You will want a base diet of proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, fresh vegetables and the occasional hamster treat to keep your pet healthy and happy. Additional requirements are as follows:
- Proteins: Needed for the building of healthy tissue, additional protein is recommended for young or pregnant hamsters. Good sources of protein include corn, nuts, oats, peas, barley, cooked beans and wheat.
- Fats and Carbohydrates: Eating fats only results in a fat pet if eaten in excess, otherwise your hamster needs fats and carbohydrates to maintain a healthy level of energy. Carbohydrates are abundant in potatoes, milk, sugar and yeast, and readily provided by barley, corn, wheat and oats. Note: Avoid giving your hamster pure milk as this can sour quickly in a warm environment.
- Vitamins and Minerals: Ask your vet if they recommend additional vitamins or minerals when you bring your hamster in for a checkup. Too many vitamins or minerals can cause as many problems as not enough.
- Water: Hamsters require fresh water daily even if they are not finishing the bottle. Clean the bottle regularly and boil it to disinfect it as required. Stagnant water breeds mold which can harm your pet's health.
- Hamster Treats: Hamster snacks can be added to the diet of a healthy pet in moderation. A hamster eats a relatively small amount of food each day, so focus on snacks that have a good nutrient value. Do not feed your hamster human snacks or your pet will eventually get sick.
- Fresh Vegetables: It's important to thoroughly wash all fruits and vegetables to remove any trace of pesticide before feeding them to your hamster.
Occasional Treats to Offer Your Hamster
Hamster Care Requirements and Habitat Facts
Pet hamsters require a safe environment with room to move, eat, sleep and exercise, so your biggest investment will be a hamster cage. Materials should be sturdy enough to withstand chewing, and secure enough to prevent an escape. Avoid wood or soft plastic, as these will encourage a hamster to gnaw. The habitat location should be safely away from other pets, out of direct sunlight and away from high activity areas to keep your pet from getting stressed. A regular feeding and cleaning schedule is recommended. Place cages away from windows and doors to protect your pet from quick temperature fluctuations.
- Food Dish: Hamsters are gatherers and instinctively bring food to their sleeping area. Placing a food dish near their preferred sleeping area will keep them happy. It is normal for pet hamsters to empty a food dish without actually eating the food; they like to hide it to consume later. Placing the food dish near the sleeping area may help reduce this behavior.
- Water Bottle: Hamsters require a constant source of fresh water. An approved water bottle with a stopper that is attached to the side of the cage works best. Make sure your pet can comfortably reach the water bottle and has no difficulty getting water from it. A small bowl can be placed under the water bottle to catch leakage, however, this may fill up quickly with bedding materials.
- Bedding and Substrate: Hamsters will be happier if their bedding allows them to burrow and nest. Commercial bedding consisting of wood shavings is popular, however, you can also use wood pellets and recycled black and white newspaper. Avoid clumping cat litter, edible bedding made with nuts, sawdust or scented material of any kind. Hamsters digest some of their own feces, and any bedding that can obstruct or irritate their intestinal or respiratory systems should be avoided.
- Sleeping Area: Hamsters require a darkened, enclosed area to sleep in because they are active at night and often sleep during the day. A small container big enough to allow them to turn around in will work. Make sure it is made of non-edible materials. Avoid thin, plastic containers so that the hamster doesn't chew off and swallow small pieces. A colored glass jar placed on its side can serve as a sleeping area if the opening is large enough to provide adequate ventilation.
Place the hamster in a safe location while you clean the cage to prevent escape or injury. Recommended locations include another cage or a hamster ball.
- Cleaning: Hamster cages require cleaning once per week. Replace the bedding, change the water and wash the food bowl weekly. A complete substrate change and washing of the bottom of the cage is recommended. Allow everything to dry before adding new bedding. A simple solution of soapy water is enough to clean the hamster cage and remove any odors.
- Hamster Balls: A hamster ball is also recommended to hold your pet during weekly bedding changes. If your home has stairs or larger pets that might play with the ball, place the ball in a safe location such as a bedroom with the door closed. For their own safety, do not let hamsters roam freely unattended because they will burrow into walls or other areas and get lost.
- Cage Supplies: Keep your hamster happy with regular bedding changes and a clean source of food and water. Keep your pet healthy by giving it room to run (consider a hamster wheel). Hamster teeth require maintenance because they grow continuously, and you can buy specially designed chewing tablets that will wear down their teeth. A larger cage with additional areas to explore will help keep your pet entertained. You should offer at least 12 inches by 12 inches of habitat space per hamster.
Which Style of Hamster Cage Should You Choose?
Provides optimal ventilation and ease of cleaning. Interlocking tubes can be placed within a wire cage for added enjoyment.
The bars of the cage must be close together so that your hamster can't get its body stuck between them. Cage openings must be securely closed to prevent escape.
Expandable and made exclusively of plastic tubes and tunnels. Ovo or Habitrail are common manufacturers.
Tube cages are harder to clean than wire cages.
A glass aquarium can be used as a hamster cage if it has a screen top. Opt for a lightweight cage if possible.
Not as easy to empty and clean. Poor ventilation and difficulty cleaning may result in a smelly cage. Some gases from decomposing materials need to be ventilated and are heavier than air; these gases may adversely affect your hamster's respiratory system.
The 5 Most Common Pet Hamster Breeds
This list describes the five most common pet hamster breeds. A wide variety of hamster types exist and most of them make good pets. Each breed has its own personality type, and some are more common than others. The following five breeds are the best known and most popular.
The Chinese Hamster
Also known as the grey or rat-tailed hamster, the adult Chinese hamster weighs 30-45 grams. Significant features include a thin appearance and a longer-than-average tail. This species is an excellent climber and will grip your finger with all four paws when handled. Some states such as California and New Jersey consider this species a pest and a license is required to own, breed or sell it.
Campbell's Dwarf Hamster
Dwarf hamsters originated from Inner Mongolia. They can be kept in pairs of two males or two females if they are introduced to a cage at the same time. Burrowing and scent marking are two traits that potential owners should be aware of. These hamsters are also more likely to create a tunnel to hide in for sleeping and are less visible than other species. They use their feces as a tool to communicate with others of their kind, so odor is common but manageable.
The Roborovski Hamster
The Roborovski hamster originates from China and lower Mongolia. It is, perhaps, the fastest of all tamed hamster breeds and requires a wheel or an abundance of space to run. It prefers a solitary life, and only one per cage is recommended. Roborovski hamsters are smaller than the other breeds mentioned and weigh 20-25 grams when fully grown. They are not particularly fond of basic store-bought pellet foods. For that reason, many owners prefer to feed them small, seed-rich foods such as budgie feed. Robos rarely bite and make good pets in a house with children.
The Djungarian Hamster
Better known as the winter white or Siberian hamster, the Djungarian hamster is found in the wilds of Northwestern China, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Siberia and Manchuria. It is roughly half the size of a Syrian hamster and has a lifespan of 1-3 years when in captivity. Common health problems are similar to other breeds with the exception of a slightly higher rate of tumors. Only dwarf hamsters and Djungarian hamsters are capable of breeding with hamsters of another species to produce live hybrid offspring.
The Syrian Hamster
Also commonly known as a golden or teddy bear hamster, the Syrian hamster makes a great companion and is a good choice for a first pet. They are sociable, good climbers and have cute, puffy cheeks. Their scientific name is Mesocricetus auratus, and they originated from the Aleppinian plateau in Syria. Syrian hamsters are territorial and a limit of one per cage is recommended.
Hamster Breeding Facts
Hamster breeding is initiated by placing a mature female into the male’s cage nightly during estrus. Estrus is the period of time when a female hamster will mate with a male and lasts roughly 12 hours. You will know the female is receptive if she stretches and splays her legs when you stroke her back. Estrus typically takes place at night and the pair may be lightly combative at the onset. If fighting continues for more than a few minutes or seems particularly rough, remove the female and wait a day or two before trying again. Keeping an eye on the pair from a distance or remotely via camera is recommended. If mating occurs, you can safely leave the pair together until morning. If not, it's best to separate them and try another day.
- Pregnancy and Gestation: The female hamster will appear pregnant 2 weeks after mating. Placing the mating cage in a quiet, isolated location is recommended because hamsters easily become stressed. Her interests may shift from running on her wheel, to eating and resting during pregnancy. Nesting and grooming behavior increases before giving birth and the female may seem restless or startle easily. Gestational duration varies slightly by hamster type but one can expect a litter 18 to 22 days after mating.
- Birth and Litter Size: Baby hamsters are called pups. A typical hamster litter will be 6 to 8 pups but can be as small as 3 and as many as 12 pups depending on the breed. Pups are typically born a few minutes apart but may be up to 30 minutes apart as the female cleans the nest between births. Allow the mother to take care of her babies' umbilical cords and adopt a hands-off approach as much as possible. Do not open the cage or handle the babies until they are 2 weeks of age unless necessary. If the mother feels threatened in any way, there is a chance that she will cannibalize one or more of her pups. This can happen anyway, so reduce the chances of it happening by leaving the litter alone.
Caring for Baby Hamsters
Baby hamsters are born toothless and without hair until they reach 11 to 14 days in age. The mom will feed her litter at first until the babies begin drinking water (at 14 days) and eating food (between 16-21 days) on their own. Pups will behave as a group and eat, sleep and play at the same time. Successful hamster weening occurs after 3 weeks, and sexual maturity is reached between 6-7 weeks of age.
- Hamster Sexing: To determine a hamster's sex, hold them gently but firmly on their back in the palm of your hand with their back feet slightly higher than the front. They may struggle as you examine their genital area, so hold them just above a table or hard surface to minimize the chance of being hurt by a fall. The genital opening of a female hamster is next to her anus, while a male's genital opening will be a small distance away (roughly the width of your finger). Male hamster testes appear as two hairless, pink lumps on each side of the anus after roughly 5 weeks of age.
- Signs of Trouble: The female hamster will instinctively know what to do during and after pregnancy, so the less you involve yourself the better. It may be tempting to watch closely or bring the kids around, but you need to be extra careful not to do anything which might make the mother feel threatened in any way. The simple act of opening her cage or touching her pups may cause her to eat one or more of her young as a result. This happens by instinct, and is done to give the remaining pups a better chance at survival. Your best intentions may backfire, so a hands-off approach for at least two weeks before and after birth is recommended. Before breeding, ask your vet what type of complications are common with your specific breed.
- Tips for a Positive Outcome: Bring the mom to the vet for a prenatal checkup before mating. Avoid stressing mom out as much as possible from mating until two weeks after delivery. Don't change the bedding during this time. Have a second water bottle available to quickly swap with the first so that you don't have to return twice. Practice adding food to the hamster's bowl through the side of the cage without opening the door. Use a cage big enough to allow a private area that is largely out of sight. Don't move or otherwise disturb the litter unless absolutely necessary. A small camera outside the cage is better than a big human next to it if you'd like to monitor the process. Trust that mom hamster knows what she is doing. When in doubt, call a vet! Otherwise, enjoy your hamster miracle!
Hamsters Are Prone to Being Cute, Enjoy!
- Food and Nutritional Information: Personal experience and PetMD.
- Breeding Information: Personal experience and several books including Logsdail, Chris, et al. Hamsterlopaedia: a Complete Guide to Hamster Care. Ringpress, 2002.
© 2018 Jean Harris