How to care for a Hamster

Enter an enchanting universe, filled with creatures who will capture your heart and reward you with their playful antics. Keeping a pet hamster is a great experience for adults and kids alike, therefore it’s important to give some thought on how to care for a hamster. Sure, there’s the cage to think about, but what type and how big? What hamster wheels are best? What do they eat? Although small pets, hamster care involves several key elements so they get the best chance for a happy life.

A definitive hamster care guide – All you need to know

To get started, check out the following information on how to care for a hamster.

Introduction

Whatever the hamster type, they need the same basic equipment to ensure their comfort and safety.

  • A cage – suitable for your hamster’s size and breed.
  • Quality bedding for comfort as well as for burrowing/hiding.
  • A hamster hiding place – it could be a hamster house/similar structure.
  • Water bottle – it should withstand nibbling little teeth.
  • An exercise wheel suitable for your hamster’s size.
  • Quality hamster food mix.
  • Selection of chew resistant toys.
  • Tunnels for exploring and hiding.
  • Food dish.
  • A hamster ball – optional.

Hamster breeds

Now that you have an idea of the equipment, it’s important to factor in the type of hamster you intend to keep for optimum hamster care. Here’s a brief run-down of some popular breeds and their characteristics.

Larger hamsters

One of the most common pet hamster breeds is the Syrian hamster, which averages just under 18 cm in size. Therefore, they are easier to handle, are relatively robust and require good sized cages and exercise wheels.

Dwarf varieties

These include Roborovskis, Campbell Russian, Chinese and Winter White Russian dwarf hamsters. As their name suggests, they’re very small critters, so are more difficult to handle due to their speed and relative fragility. Choice of cages and wheels should take into account these factors.

Cages/Enclosures

These are made from various materials – images often feature a hamster in a wire cage, but there are other options you can consider.

Wire Cages

A popular choice, these are suitable for hamsters but with several caveats. If you’re keeping one of the dwarf breeds and you don’t want to promote their escapology ability, wire cages might not be ideal. Small, flexible bodies might wriggle through the wire or get stuck. However, they’re fine for the bigger breeds like Syrian hamsters. Buy a cage with a solid bottom as wire bases could damage delicate feet.

Hamster tanks

Also used as terrariums/aquariums, they’re ideal for hamsters no matter the breed size. Easy to clean and maintain, there’s more visibility to view your hamster in one of these and they are escape-proof. However, being glass, they are heavier and if you’re getting one online, think about shipping costs.

Solid Sides

Like the tanks, they’re more secure than wire cages if you’re keeping a dwarf hamster and you can apply add-ons like tunnels and other accessories if you want. Relatively easy to keep clean, these are fine for both the smaller and larger breeds.

Cage dimensions

The golden rule for hamster cages is to start with the minimum recommendations and then add more. All hamsters need ample space to burrow, dig and hide. In particular, don’t stint on size for dwarf hamsters as they are high energy little bundles.

  • Syrian hamster and similar – 76 cm x 31 cm plus 31 cm cage height.
  • Dwarf varieties – 61 cm x 31 cm plus 31cm cage height.

Home Comforts

Bedding

You have the right cage for your new buddy, so now it’s time to make a house a real home. Start with bedding [aka substrate] to make your hamster feel secure and cosy. The other purpose of the bedding is its ability to absorb hamster pee. Be mindful that some materials are harmful to hamsters – pine and cedar shavings, for example, can cause breathing problems. It’s wise to stay clear of any scented bedding. Hamster-friendly wood shavings and shredded loo paper is a decent base combo and there are lots of commercial options. Opt for quality products that are low in chemical additives and control ammonia odors.

Houses

Otherwise known as nest boxes, they provide your hamster with a place of retreat, somewhere to snuggle down or hide, just as their wild cousins would behave. Breeds vary in temperament, and some of the dwarf varieties can be very nervous – a hamster house is important to their general well-being. You’ll find no shortage of commercial options but DIY is fine if you want to get creative.

Accessories/toys

Hamsters are hyperactive so will need plenty of mental and physical stimulation to maintain good health. Accessorise in line with natural hamster behaviours – they love digging and burrowing so providing tunnels are a good solution. Tunnels come in all shapes, angles and sizes and these can be added onto standalone cages. Think about structures that are good for hiding and anything that encourages your hamster to burrow. There are many options for toys on the market. Hamster teeth grow continuously, so be cautious with the materials you choose – avoid items that release dyes, for example. Wood is perfect because it’s durable and chewable at the same time!

Exercise

If you see a picture of a hamster, chances are it’s happily exercising on a wheel. Wild hamsters can cover relatively large distances so captive critters need lots of space to expend energy. Wheels are an excellent method for your pet to exercise and enjoy mental stimuli. As with cages, wheel size should take into account the breed you have.

  • Dwarf varieties – 16.51 cm
  • Syrian hamster – 20.32 m

The wheel shouldn’t be too small – otherwise, the hamster will arch its back while on the wheel and this can lead to musculoskeletal issues. Make sure the wheel width is a little wider than the hamster’s body, to avoid habitual falling off. Observe your pet on the wheel – this is as good as anything to assess suitability.

Nutrition

There are plenty of commercial hamster mixes available – opt for quality products to avoid additives like colorants. It’s a good idea to do some diet research for your hamster’s breed. Some dwarf varieties, for example, can be prone to diabetes so foodstuffs with high sugar content should be offered sparingly. Similarly, food with high water content can cause digestive upsets, while obesity can also be an issue. Hamsters adore fresh fruit and vegetables, and it’s a good idea to offer small treats hidden in the enclosure so they can forage. Feed your hamster a tablespoon of mix once a day, and remove any uneaten food daily. Avoid overfeeding, so do bear in mind they will store food in their cheek pouches. Provide a chew resistant feeding bowl and fresh water daily. Lots of foods are great for hamsters but some can be harmful. Check out the lists below – while not exhaustive, they will give you a good starting point.

Ideal foods

  • Kale and spinach
  • Turnip and parsnip
  • Alfalfa sprouts
  • Chicory and clover
  • Green beans
  • Flaxseed and pumpkin seed
  • Dandelions – flowers/leaves
  • Oatmeal

Toxic/Avoid

  • Avocado, tomatoes, aubergine
  • Fruit seeds/pips/pits
  • Onion/garlic
  • Citrus fruits
  • Candy/chocolate
  • Salted nuts

Taming and handling

One of the pleasures of hamster care is to have it walk onto your hands and explore. Some hamsters are easier to tame than others but, with patience, most of these little critters can be handled. Due to their size, the dwarf varieties are fragile and extremely agile. If these are children’s pets, always supervise playtime. To ensure they don’t fall from your hand and injure themselves, make sure you have a container underneath with a soft base. Larger hamsters are easier to handle, but it’s a good idea to place them in your palms across your lap for their safety. Here are some tips to apply – remember there may be nips and bites sometimes!

  • Give your hamster time to settle in before handling.
  • Let the hamster get used to your scent and presence near the cage.
  • Offer treats through or above the cage.
  • Begin by placing your fingers in the cage so the hamster can explore – add a treat.
  • Allow the hamster to crawl onto your palm – this may take several attempts.
  • Never force the hamster onto your palm.
  • Once on your palm, carefully lift it out of the cage and onto your palms.
  • Don’t overdo handling – little and often is ideal.
  • Supervise children – hamsters are very fragile.

Environment

This depends on your hamster’s breed and temperament. Some dwarf varieties are shy and nervous, so place cages in quiet areas and away from too much noise and attention. Ensure room temperatures aren’t too hot or cold and, as many hamsters are active on wheels during the night, think about this in terms of location. The environment should be safe and secure for the hamster at all times.

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