Hamsters are small, mouse-like rodents native to many regions of the world, but were initially discovered in Syria, reportedly by British zoologist George Waterhouse in 1839. Given the name “Golden hamster”, this species was first bred in captivity around 1930 in Jerusalem. They arrived in the United Kingdom the following year and reached the United States in 1938. Since that time they have become quite popular as pets, as they are easy to tame and require minimal space and maintenance.
Types of Hamsters
Although Golden hamsters are the most common, there are four smaller varieties available, referred to as “dwarf” hamsters: the Chinese hamster, Roborovsky hamster, Dwarf Winter White Russian hamster, and Dwarf Campbell’s Russian hamster. Each type has its own physical and behavioral characteristics to consider when choosing one as a pet.
Golden hamsters are 12-16 centimeters long, practically tailless, and females are larger than males. They are still found in their original brownish-golden hue, but captive breeding has now led to many other available colors. There is also a long-haired variety commonly called the “Teddy Bear” hamster.
Chinese hamsters are among the least common types, and reach a length of 10 centimeters. They have a hairless tail about 2.5 centimeters long and a brownish-gray coat, with a dark stripe along the spine and light gray bellies.
The Roborovski hamster has a distinctive yellow-brown color and white marks above its eyes. It is the smallest dwarf hamster, averaging only 5 centimeters long, so an aquarium may be more adequate housing than a cage.
Dwarf Winter White Russian hamsters may reach 8-10 centimeters in length. They will develop a white coat in colder temperatures while remaining dark gray during warmer seasons, and they also have furry feet.
Dwarf Russian Campbell’s hamsters are a yellowish brown with a dark stripe along the back, and grow to 10 centimeters long. Their coats are usually thicker compared to the other dwarf hamsters, and may become grayish during the winter months.
All hamsters are nocturnal, being active mostly at night, and normally live 2-3 years. They usually become quite tame if frequently and gently handled, especially from a young age. They are gnawing creatures who may nibble at a person’s hand, but rarely bite unless frightened. Most have an easygoing nature, however, both Chinese and Golden hamsters will become territorial after 8-10 weeks of age and must then be kept alone. The other dwarf hamster varieties may be kept together in same-sex groups, preferably if introduced when they are young.
Pet hamsters may be kept in an aquarium or a wire mouse cage that is cleaned weekly, and an exercise wheel is a must. Shredded tissue or toilet paper makes an ideal bedding, while wood chips, especially cedar or pine, should never be used as they can cause an allergic skin reaction.
Food mixes for hamsters containing grains, seeds, and corn will suit their dietary needs. The occasional fresh fruit or vegetable supplement is acceptable, but junk food and candy must be strictly avoided.
Many first time pet owners seek out low maintenance small pets. For this reason, hamsters are a popular choice for a pet. However, despite the low maintenance myth, hamsters can require a lot of upkeep and handling.
Hamsters are nocturnal, so they are often most active right when young children are going to bed. Children may be disappointed that their pet never wants to play with them during the day but it’s likely that you will find some great time for handling.
Another consideration is that hamsters, just like people, can be grumpy when they first wake up. Hamsters can bite and trying to handle a hamster when it’s trying to sleep increases the chance that the handler may get bitten.
However, despite the possibility of nipping, it is very important to handle a pet hamster because it will create a bond between owner and pet.
Although it may be difficult to resist, it is best to avoid handling the hamster until after it has settled in to its new surroundings.
This will decrease the chance of the hamster nipping since it will no longer feel threatened by its new environment.
In order to gain a pet hamster’s trust, as well as make the handling experience more enjoyable, owners should offer a small treat or bite of food in their hands the first few attempts they make to handle their hamsters.
The hamster will learn to trust its owner if it is allowed to crawl into the owner’s hands on its own terms.
Once the pet hamster is comfortable enough to crawl into the owner’s hands, the next step is to condition the hamster to be comfortable being scooped out of its cage.
The owner should scoop the hamster from under its belly with one hand, holding it in a cupped palm.
By holding the other hand over the top of the hamster’s body, the owner can prevent the hamster from leaping back and hurting itself.
Handling and socializing a new pet hamster is important in keeping a happy and healthy hamster. This will teach the hamster to trust its owner, as well as give it social interaction which it would otherwise lack.
Once the hamster is comfortable enough to be held for a period of time, owners can supervise their new pets while they play with toys outside of the cage.
Hamster cages come in a wide variety of sizes, colors and materials. Choosing the appropriate cage for your pet hamster is imperative and yet can be fun.
One of the most important things to contemplate when deciding on a hamster cage is safety and security.
The general principal for selecting a cage is to buy the biggest one you can afford.
Hamster that don’t get ample exercise can acquire cage paralysis (generalized weakness) usually resulting from a cage to small or not enough activities within the cage that provide opportunities to exercise.
Traditional wire cages may serve the need for the larger Syrian hamster. However, they are not always ideal for the dwarf hamster.
Wire cages can allow for the dwarf hamster to become stuck in between the bars or even escape if the distance between the wires are not close enough together.
Another reason why a wire cage may not be suitable for you is if you don’t want to have to clean up the bedding that your hamster may kick out of the cage.
Most of the popular cages for hamsters are wire cages and they can be a great, simple choice as long as you ensure that there is plenty of activity. They are easy to find at most pet stores and discount department stores as well as being relatively cheap. These are the easiest cages to clean and are therefore the most hygienic. This is because the wire frame is often detachable from the plastic base and wire can be cleaned much more successfully than wood (which your hamster is likely to chew) and plastic.
Other types of enclosures that are common are the glass and plastic aquarium style. The glass ones are likely to be more expensive.
Some people prefer to buy an aquarium fish tank and kit it out for your hamster. These however, are much more difficult to clean as the bedding from the base is difficult to remove.
Other draw backs of this type of cage are that they are cumbersome to move which makes them harder to clean. Problems with condensation may occur if you have a solid top for your glass aquarium.
To solve this problem, using a wire lid will suffice – make sure it is secured so your hamster doesn’t play a Houdini trick on you. The benefits of these aquariums are that there are zero worries of your pet getting caught in the bars.
The perfect window view to watch your pet hamster’s burrow. Aside from being lighter the plastic aquarium tends to have the same advantages and disadvantages as the glass.
Brightly colored plastic tube cages are quite appealing to the eye and can be a quirky home for your hamsters. Many of these type of cages tend to be very small and so you will need to ensure that your hamster still gets plenty of exercise.
Plastic homes that are too intricate can also be difficult to clean, although they can be a great way for your hamster to get exercise. Other options that can go inside the cage for pet playtime are running wheels, slides and seesaws.
Activities for your hamster are very important as they are very active, nocturnal creatures.
Adding a sleeping area for your hamster to nest will ensure a happy pet. Providing your hamster with a comfortable home will ensure its health and happiness.
Bedding for Hamsters
There are many different types of bedding for small pets on the market, however not all of them are not appropriate for hamsters.
Hamsters need bedding in their cages because it provides a soft, comfortable surface for a hamster to walk on and it absorbs their urine.
Hamsters also enjoy digging and making nests in their bedding, so it is important to pick the right kind that is practical but also, that your hamster can enjoy.
The best types of bedding will be sterilized and dust-free for the benefit of the hamster.
It is also best to use dye-free and fragrance-free bedding – the fewer chemicals in a bedding, the better it will be your hamster.
Most good bedding options available for a hamster are also biodegradable and environmentally friendly.
One popular option for bedding is wood shavings made specifically from Aspen or wood pulp. This type of bedding is gentle on a hamster’s feet, will not contain harmful chemicals, and is readily available at most pet stores.
While there have been problems in other countries across Europe and the USA in terms of finding chemicals in the bedding, most US bedding has been shown to be safe and you can always check the packaging for chemical-free bedding.
There is also bedding available in the form of recycled paper. This bedding usually comes in the form of pellets of paper that are especially good at absorbing moisture and are longer-lasting than wood shavings.
It is also possible to make bedding for a hamster instead of purchasing it. Hamsters enjoy shredding paper, so strips of toilet paper or paper towels can be used for bedding.
It is important that any paper towels or toilet paper used be soft and ink and fragrance free. If a hamster ingests some of this type of bedding, it should disintegrate without harming the hamster.
There are several kinds of bedding available that one should avoid using. This includes towels and blankets.
While this may seem like a good way to save money and be environmentally friendly, towels and blankets quickly become dirty and wet and then pose a health hazard to hamsters and humans alike.
Similarly, bedding made from cotton or wool should be avoided because if a hamster ingests some, it can cause stomach and intestinal blockages.
Also available are beddings that are to be avoided include certain wood-based beddings.
Under no circumstances should one use pine or cedar: this wood contains a substance called phenol that, when combined with the ammonia in urine, can produce toxic fumes.
Pine shavings may also contain chemicals harmful to hamsters. Both pine and cedar can also irritate the hamster’s feet because of their roughness, as well as causing respiratory problems. For this reason, sawdust should also never be used.
Corn cob-based bedding is also available, but should be avoided because it can go mouldy and hamsters may be tempted to eat it, which can cause problems because the bedding swells when wet. Corn-cob bedding is best used in bird cages.
Using the correct type of bedding in a hamster’s home is vital. It is always important to lay a thick layer of bedding – 2 inches thick is recommended.
A hamster’s bedding will need to be changed regularly; once per week should be sufficient ut twice per week is suitable for many.
If the hamster’s bedding becomes wet, however, it should be replaced with fresh litter as soon as possible.
One should always remember that a hamster’s cage is his home, and a comfortable hamster will be happier and live a better life.
Hamster Food Diet
Hamsters are plant-loving little creatures, and for their basic every day meals can be found at any of your local pet stores.
A majority of these mixes are made of seed mixes, and others will be basic pellet food. They will require everything that your little hamster needs in terms of nutrition.
When feeding your hamster sprinkle some around their bedding so they can search and forage for their food naturally, and also put some in a small dish for easy access. Many hamsters will love to go and find the food as it allows their natural instincts to flourish.
You’ll be surprised when your little hamster takes its food out of the dish and buries it underneath his bedding for safe keeping!
An important part of a hamsters diet includes small amounts of fresh fruits and veggies each day. While it is not necessarily needed, if you’re using food pellets or mixes, it is the hamster’s natural diet and so they are likely to enjoy the variety.
When we say ‘small’, we mean ‘small’. Hamsters need very little fresh fruits and vegetables.
An over abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables can cause serious diarrhea. If you find that a food causes diarrhea in your hamster, avoid giving it to your pet.
Because hamsters love to eat, they’ll eat them right up without thinking twice. So it is your job to monitor their intake.
Some of the fresh veggies and fruits that hamsters love include:
- corn on the cob
- cooked rhubarb
- sweet peppers
There are few things hamsters should not eat however. These are:
- kidney beans
- potato tops
- rhubarb stalks raw
- rhubarb leaves
- tomato leaves
- other leafy greens such as lettuce, kale, chard etc.
Like any pet, hamsters really enjoy the occasional treats! But keep in mind that treats are meant to be occasional. Try practicing the once-a-week method. Your little friend will appreciate and love you for it. Some of the treats they love the most are:
- hard boiled eggs
- mixed bird seed
- raw nuts
- fish liver oil
How To Feed Your Pet Hamster
All food should be cut into small bite size pieces or crumbled. This makes the food easier to access and then the hamster can bury it for safe keeping wherever it feels is fit.
Ensure that you remove any food from the cage that is likely to go rotten – such as egg.
Also, provide your hamster with a full fresh drinking bottle every day. You’d be surprised how much those little guys can drink!
You and your family will come to love this small but fun pet quickly. Take good care of it, feed it the right foods and the occasional treats and your new family member will stick around for many years to come!