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 (most common and largest), the Winter White, the Campbell, the Chinese and the Roborovski.
Lifespan: 2-3 years
Size: 4.5-10cm, depending on breed
Most active: night and early morning (nocturnal)
Diet and nutrition
Hamsters are omnivores so need a complete hamster food, for example Harry Hamster or Bunny Dwarf Hamster Dream.
They also eat fruit and vegetables in moderation, along with other foods like mealworms and waxworms.
Hamsters require fresh, clean water everyday. It's best to provide this in a water bottle with a metal tube.
IMPORTANT: Your hamster's bottle needs to be cleaned regularly to avoid build up of any mold 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 breed and, if you're not sure, consult a vet before introducing any new foods or treats to your hamster's diet.
Accomodation and environment
The minimum recommended cage size for a hamster is 80 x 50cm.
Hamsters must be kept indoors - they are very sensitive to temperature.
Hamsters are very solitary animals and most breeds need to be kept alone.
Hamsters need a wide but not too tall (to prevent injuries from falling) space to live in. This might be a plastic and wire cage, but it could also be a glass or plastic enclosure with holes/gaps for plenty of air. Whatever type of accommodation you choose, make sure that your hamster can't escape!
Examples of cages that are the perfect size and layout are the Savic Plaza or Barney, 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 exercise wheel for your hamster. This should be at least 28cm for a Syrian hamster and 20cm for dwarf breeds. Avoid wire wheels as your hamster might get injured if it traps a paw.
Examples of good wheels are the Trixie, the giant Rolly Savic wheel and the giant Silent Spinner.
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 breed.
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.
Source: Actually Good Hamster Care (Enrichment Ideas)
1. Willow tunnels - zooplus, pet stores, etsy
2. Multi chamber hides- getzoo, rodipet, niteangel
3. Cork logs at pet and reptile stores
4. Bamboo roots - reptile stores
5. Sanitised Rocks (large/ unpouchable)
6. Apple branches and birch logs -pet stores, etsy, amazon
7. Moss- reptile stores, etsy
8. Coconut husk and soil- amazon
9. Sprays- Etsy, pet stores
10.Forage and flower mix- pet stores, etsy
11. Mix of substrates adding in 3 minimum
12. DIY Borden breakers- on YouTube
13. Ceramic/ terracotta hides
14. Bendy bridges with moss glued in the gaps- amazon, pet stores (may have to purchase moss separately and use childsafe glue e.g. elmers)
15. Grapevine branches.
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
Neutering and medical needs
Hamsters do not need to be neutered as they're generally solitary animals and there are no health benefits to neutering.
Sometimes the dwarf breeds can be kept as a single sex pair, but they often become territorial and fall out so then need to be separated. Neutering males could help reduce this tension but can be quite a risk because of the anesthetic. The procedure is a lot more invasive for females so should only be considered as a last resort.
Hamsters 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 on a daily basis.
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.
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.
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.
IMPORTANT: Although it might look like a comfy choice for your hamster, you should never use cotton wool 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.
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 an area. You can buy a pen 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.
Hamster balls used to be popular, but they are no longer recommended as they can cause distress to the hamster.
Hamsters are generally happy to be handled. However, the dwarf breeds can be very wriggly and fast, particularly Roborovski's, and they can sometimes bite if nervous.
Hamsters don't have great eyesight so, if you have traces of food on your hand, they can sometimes accidentally nip you thinking you're feeding them. They'll often stuff their food into their pouches and then hide it in their bed for snacking on later.
Syrian's are the most suitable hamster for children but, as hamsters are 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.
IMPORTANT: You should never wake a sleeping hamster, no matter how much you want to play.
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)