Courtesy of Oxbow Pet Products
Getting to Know your Pet Hamster:
Easy to keep and fun to watch, hamsters don’t require much attention, so they are an excellent choice for first-time pet owners. However, they are not the best choices for young children, because they are nocturnal—that means they’re busy digging, scratching and running in their exercise wheels at night! Hamsters are intelligent and social. Their name comes from the German word hamstern, which means “to hoard,” and they are famous for hoarding food. It’s fun to watch them stuff their cheeks with food, then push it out and hide it in the corners of their cages. The most common pet hamster is the Syrian, also known as the golden hamster or teddy bear hamster.
Fun Facts about Hamsters:
· Hamsters have a lifespan of two to three years.
· Hamsters will not normally bite, unless frightened or startled. Some hamsters bite when their sleep is disturbed.
· Hamsters are surprisingly good climbers.
· Hamsters can become very tame, if handled gently and regularly.
· Average adult weight for male: 85-130 grams
· Average adult weight for female: 95-150 grams
· Gestation period: 16 -- 30 days depending on the subspecies.
· Pups per litter: 5-9 (depending on the subspecies)
· Optimal weaning age: 20-25 days
What you Need to Start:
Large wire cage with solid flooring and a secure lid
Cardboard box to nest and hide in
Heavy food bowl
A sand bath can provide hamsters with entertainment and help them groom. In their natural habitat (the desert), hamsters roll around in the sand, which cleans their coats and prevents them from getting too oily. Provide about one inch of fine sand in a heavy metal or ceramic dish. Avoid very fine, dusty or powdery sand that can cause respiratory problems for your pet.
Hamsters can be housed in a variety of environments, such as wire cages or aquariums. Some hamsters prefer the security of solid aquarium sides. Others like the freedom and climbing potential of wire cages. Plastic habitats and cages are cute, but are not ideal because hamsters will chew small holes through the plastic through which they can escape. If you choose to keep your hamster in an aquarium, be sure it is well cleaned and has a wire mesh top to provide ventilation. Keep in mind that aquariums are not as well ventilated as wire cages, so they require more frequent cleaning. Aquariums can be awkward for children to clean. A wire cage should have a solid bottom, and the wires should be close enough together that your hamster can’t escape. Make sure the cage you choose has a large door to allow you to reach inside easily to handle or feed your hamster. The cage should be large enough to accommodate cage furniture, including an exercise wheel, a hidey house, tunnel or tube to play in, wood blocks to chew on, a food dish and water bottle.
Male and female hamsters should not be housed together, because they can reproduce extremely quickly. When you select hamsters, make sure you ask what sex they are to prevent unwanted babies. Also, some hamsters are social and others are solitary. Be sure to ask questions when selecting multiple hamsters.
A bedding of compressed high-fiber wheat straw is best, because it absorbs as much as 300% of its weight in moisture. Choose a 100% biodegradable, dust-free bedding that will not stick to fur. You also can use straw or hay, shredded paper, certain hardwood shavings or composite newspaper pellets. Hamsters love to chew on hay, move it around their cages, and hide and play in it. Avoid shredded paper made from shiny newspaper ads that contain toxic substances. Also avoid cedar and pine shavings—they contain resins that can irritate your pet’s skin, eyes and mucous membranes.
In addition, provide nesting material. Hay, newspaper, paper towels, facial tissue, old mittens or old socks are excellent nesting material for hamsters.
Hamsters are very industrious and love to play. An exercise wheel allows your pet to run at full speed as much as she likes. Avoid wire exercise wheels that could cause hamsters to slip and fall or cause injuries by getting a head or foot stuck in one of the spaces. Tubes provide an ideal way for hamsters to explore and play. They enjoy wooden tubes that mimic burrows in the wild. Make sure any toys or cage furniture you put in the hamster’s house is bite proof or safe for the animal to chew on.
Clear plastic hamster balls allow hamsters to explore safely out of the cage. Be sure to provide supervision, so the ball doesn’t get stuck or roll down stairs. Leave hamsters in exercise balls only for short intervals of 10 to 15 minutes. Hamsters also can be taken out of the cage and played with gently. If the hamster escapes your control, don’t panic. Simply look calmly for him and scoop him up again, or leave the cage door open on the floor and he is likely to return on his own.
Hamsters are herbivores, which means they eat only plant material. It’s important to feed your pet correctly to keep him or her from getting fat and unhealthy.
Water: First and foremost, all animals need lots of fresh clean water. A water bottle with a sipper tube works better for your hamster than a water bowl, because the bowl can be tipped over or contaminated with waste and bedding. However, your hamster will chew the sipper tube if too much of it is accessible. Hang the bottle on the outside of the cage, so just the tip of the spout is inside. Change water daily and clean the sipper tube weekly.
Complete, fortified kibble: Hamsters require a simple diet of a fortified kibble or lab block. Look for a complete hamster food with optimally-balanced nutrients to help maintain proper nutrition, weight, digestive function, dental health and longevity. The optimum diet for hamsters contains vitamin E, quality protein, complex carbohydrates and high fiber, as well as being low in sugar and starch. It’s important to choose a food with a high level of acid detergent fiber (ADF) for intestinal mobility. Avoid seeds, high-sugar fruits or artificial preservatives, colors and flavors.
Traditionally, most hamster foods have been mixes composed of a variety of high fat, low fiber, and high-in-sugar seeds and fruits. However, feeding mixes allows your pet to selectively eat only what it wants to, often eating the pieces that are not good for it first and leaving the healthy pieces. Feeding mixes can result in potentially life threatening or life shortening conditions, such as wet tail, dehydration, fatty liver, diabetes, obesity or high cholesterol. Kibble or block food does not allow your pet to pick out its favorite pieces and leave the healthy pieces behind. The best kibble contains all-natural grass and whole grain ingredients, with a shape that is ideal for nibbling to promote healthy teeth. Properly-shaped kibble also will not get lodged in a hamster’s cheek pouches, as seed, nuts and dried fruits can.
Treats: Just as with humans, there is more to your pet’s meals than the basics. Eating should be fun! Treats also help you bond with your pet. However, it’s tempting to feed too many treats, because pets like them so much. Avoid feeding so many treats that your pet refuses basic foods. Treats should make up no more than 5% of the total diet. Offer pre-packaged treats that are all-natural and low in sugar, with no artificial additives. Treats such as yogurt drops, carrots, dried fruit and seed sticks are high in calories that promote obesity. You can offer small quantities of vegetables and fruits as treats. Pay attention to the size of the treat—large pieces are much harder to pouch and un-pouch. As with any new food, be sure to introduce new treats slowly to avoid upsetting your pet’s stomach and causing diarrhea.
Wettail, Dehydration: Hamsters need to produce both good and bad bacteria in their bodies to properly convert fiber into useable energy. It’s important to give your pet food that is high in fiber, specifically insoluble fiber (ADF) that maintains a proper balance between good and bad bacteria. If the balance is not maintained, your pet can suffer from wettail, a devastating disease that manifests as severe diarrhea. Other possible causes of wettail are stress, transportation, overcrowding, poor sanitation and weaning. Some cases of wettail can be contagious. Hamsters that develop wettail most often die of dehydration rather than the disease itself. Provide plenty of water to combat dehydration. If your hamster develops wettail, call the veterinarian for advice.
Biting: Many breeds of hamster are nocturnal, which means they sleep during the day and are awake at night. When you reach in to pick up a sleeping hamster, make sure you scoop him up and allow him to wake up slowly. Poking or petting a sleeping hamster is an invitation for the hamster to bite! Using a cup to pick up a hamster is an option, and is a good way for small children to handle the pet. A small coffee cup or teacup works best.
Stashing food: You might notice that your hamster’s food dish is empty within minutes of filling it. Hamsters are notorious for hoarding food. They like to create stashes around their cage and eat the stockpile later. Do not give into the urge to keep adding more food, unless you have checked the cage for stashes. Clean cages often to avoid mold and rot in stashes.
General health: Regular visits to the vet are vital to keeping your hamster healthy. If you see any signs of digestive upset, diarrhea, slobbers, dental problems or other abnormal behaviors, call the vet for advice.
What you Probably Didn’t Know About Hamsters:
Hamsters eat their own poop—both solid fecals and soft, moist cecals, which they consume directly from their bottoms. Although it seems strange to us, this is natural behavior, and it’s good for your pet because the poo is packed with necessary vitamins and amino acids!
Hamsters have cheek pouches where they stuff food, bedding, treats, and anything else they find. Hamsters also have a propensity to chew. Provide hay or a wood block to prevent them from chewing on their cages.