What is a hamster?
Hamsters are small rodents that make fascinating pets. They have individual characters and enjoy exploring their surroundings.
There are five main domestic breeds of hamster: the Syrian, the Winter White dwarf, the Campbell's dwarf, the Chinese and the Roborovski. Most pet dwarf hamster is a hybrid
Lifespan: 1.5-3 years
Size: 4.5-10cm, depending on breed
Most active: night and early morning (crepuscular)
Diet and nutrition
Hamsters are omnivores so need a complete seed mix, specific for the individual species of hamster, for example BunnyNature Hamster Dream, The Hamster Mixologist or Bears Hamster Food.
They also eat fresh vegetables, herbs and small amounts of fruit in moderation, along with proteins like mealworms, freeze dried chicken, waxworms and crickets.
Hamsters require fresh, clean water everyday in both a bottle and bowl.
IMPORTANT: Your hamster's bottle/bowl needs to be cleaned regularly to avoid build up of any mould or limescale that could harm your hamster.
There are lots of treats advertised as suitable for hamsters but they can be loaded with sugar so should be fed sparingly. Other treat your hamster might enjoy are Whimzees, millet spray, small pieces of cheese and unsalted and unroasted peanuts, but again these shouldn't be given too often.
Make sure to thoroughly research what treats are suitable for your hamster's species and, if you're not sure, consult Happy Hamsters UK, or a similar rescue before introducing any new foods or treats to your hamster's diet.
Accommodation and environment
The minimum recommended enclosure size for a hamster is 100 x 50cm.
Syrian hamsters, or any provided with a 28cm wheel require a minimum height of 50cm in order to provide adequate amounts of bedding, while dwarf hamsters or those with a 21cm wheel need a minimum height of 40cm.
Hamsters must be kept indoors - they are very sensitive to temperature.
Hamsters are very solitary animals and all species must be kept alone.
Hamsters need large, unbroken floor space. This might be a plastic and wire cage, but it could also be a glass or plastic enclosure with a well ventilated lid. Whatever type of accommodation you choose, make sure that your hamster can't escape!
Examples of enclosures that are the perfect size and layout are the Savic Plaza or Pawhut, both of which are available online.
Hamsters should be kept in a room with a consistent temperature and must not get too hot or too cold. If they become too cold, they can enter a state called torpor (similar to hibernation) and could be mistaken for dead.
Hamsters need lots of enrichment - they are very active and inquisitive creatures! They love digging, hides, tunnels and, most of all, wheels.
Provide a solid surface, upright exercise wheel for your hamster. This should be at least 28cm for a Syrian hamster and 21cm for dwarf breeds. Avoid wire wheels as your hamster might get injured if it traps a paw, as well as increased risk of infection from bumble foot.
Examples of good wheels are the Silent Runner, Hope's Healthy Treats wooden wheel, or Bucatstate wheels.
IMPORTANT: Having a wheel that is too small can damage your hamster's spine and lead to complications later in life, so make sure you find out the minimum recommend wheel size for you hamster's species.
Your hamster will appreciate hides, huts or hammocks for sleeping, but again it's important to ensure they don't have any small gaps that they could get their feet trapped. Clean cardboard items are a cheap option.
Hamsters love to make a nest/bed so will need plenty of paper-based bedding, e.g. Fitch, Carefresh or Megazorb. It is not recommended to use wood shavings or sawdust for hamster bedding as it can damage their delicate respiratory systems.
Safe wood shaving options include aspen, or spruce-based beddings such as Chipsi Classic or Small Pet Select Aspen Shavings.
IMPORTANT: Although it might look like a comfy choice for your hamster, you should never use cotton wool or kapok type bedding as this can be fatal (even if it is marketed as being safe). It can cause respiratory issues, get trapped around limbs, cause blockages if swallowed, and get trapped in pouches, risking injury, infection and illness.
You should clean you're hamster's cage regularly, but try to avoid overcleaning as this can distress them. When you change the bedding, it's good to keep a bit of the old bedding back and scatter it around - your hamster will smell it and recognise it as home.
All hamster species use sand to bathe and clean excess oils from their coats.
Sand baths should be kept in their cage 24/7, however, requires daily cleaning by sifting sand to remove faeces, soiled areas and other substrates.
Sand should have no added dyes or chemicals or compounds (such as calcium, calcium carbonate or clay)
Generally, as long as the toilet area of the cage is regularly changed, hamsters don't smell. However, you might find there is a detectable odour if a female is in heat or if your hamster is getting older.
IMPORTANT: You should never get a hamster wet. Hamsters are great at keeping themselves clean and will enjoying grooming their fur. They don't need bathing with soap and water, though they do enjoy access to a sand bath as it will help to keep their fur clean.
Out-of-cage time and handling
Hamsters love to explore and, when they feel comfortable and confident in their environment, will enjoy spending time out of their cage. Ideally, hamsters should be able to roam free and explore a secured area. You can buy a playpen for your hamster to roam in, but you can also use large boxes or even a clean, dry bath. Wherever your hamster is roaming, it should be supervised at all times. We recommend filling this space with some hides, a wheel and a dig box. You can sit in there with them to get them used to you and allow them to climb on your lap.
Hamster balls used to be popular, but they are no longer recommended as they can cause distress to the hamster, cause nails to be ripped off and can bang into objects and break apart.
Hamsters are generally happy to be handled following a taming process and adequate settling period. However, the dwarf breeds can be very wriggly and fast, particularly Roborovskis, and all species sometimes bite if nervous, you smell of food or if incorrectly handled. You should always scoop a hamster from underneath with both hands to fully support the hamster. Do this low to the ground, particularly if your hands are quite small.
Syrians are the most suitable hamster for children, when assisted with their care by a responsible adult but, as they are more nocturnal, they may not always be awake when the child wants to handle them. Hamsters should only ever be handled by children with adult supervision, and it's best not to let young children handle a hamster as they are very small, delicate creatures. Instead, you could have a child sit down and let the hamster run and climb on their lap - that way they get to play but there is no danger of pulling or dropping the hamster.
Adopting a hamster from a rescue is the best way to guarantee the tameness of a hamster. Hamsters from pet shops aren't often handled regularly, as the staff are not adequately trained in this area, so it can take far longer to tame them.
IMPORTANT: You should never wake a sleeping hamster, no matter how much you want to play.
Neutering and medical needs
Hamsters do not need to be neutered as they're solitary animals and there are no health benefits to neutering, unless a tumour or abscess develops in the testicles, or if a female contracts pyometra.
Young hamsters (under 16 weeks) can be prone to a condition called wet tail, which can be fatal if left untreated. You should check for any extra moisture near their rear end regularly. Wet tail is a bacterial illness caused by the build-up of bacteria in the gut as a result of stress, so you should aim to keep a young hamster's environment calm and quiet where possible.
If you are worried about your hamster's health then it's important to speak to a vet as soon as possible. A specialist, exotic vet is the best option, but if you aren't able to access an exotic vet you should still contact your local practice for help. It's important to be registered with an emergency, out of hours surgery also as you may only notice a hamster's ailment when they emerge later in the day/evening when vet practices are closed.
Hamsters are generally silent animals, so if you hamster is making unusual noises it might be a sign that something is wrong and they are in pain. Though some hamsters will grunt if in a bad mood or 'screech' if they are surprised or frightened.
Things to look out for when health checking a hamster:
- Are their eyes open, clear and free from fluid? Are there any foggy patches or erroneous spots?
- Are their ears alert and free from redness and lumps? Is there any fur loss around and behind the ears?
- Is their fur thick and dry with no thinning or oiliness?
- Is their skin free from redness, flakiness and lumps?
- Are their scent glands free from redness, lumps and fur loss? (A syrian has 2 scent glands on their hips, while dwarf species' are on their tummies)
- Are their teeth a good length - not overlapping mouth and yellow in colour?
- Are their genitals free from any redness, lumps, wetness and odd smells? (Female hamsters can smell quite strongly from their genitals when in their heat cycle)
- Are their nails short and sharp?