There are several different breeds and varieties of hamster, varying in size and temperament. Typically, hamsters live for up to 2 years, although some may live for longer.
Hamsters are often a child’s first pet. However, their needs are actually very complex and they can be easily injured by incautious handling.
Understanding hamsters needs
There is no one 'perfect' way to care for all hamsters because every hamster and every situation is different. It is up to you how you look after your hamster but you must take reasonable steps to ensure that you meet all their needs.
A suitable environment for hamsters
Ensure your hamster has a suitable place to live
- A comfortable, dry, draught-free, clean place to live, in a quiet place where they can rest undisturbed. Make sure they are not exposed to draughty or damp conditions. In the wild hamsters live in warm, arid climates.
- To be housed in a room where the lights go off at more-or-less the same time each night. Try to avoid erratic hours of lighting. Hamsters are also sensitive to bright sunlight.
- To be housed away from items in the home which can generate ultrasound, e.g. television sets, computer screens, vacuum cleaners or sources of running water. Hamsters are very sensitive to high frequency sounds which we cannot hear, and can find this stressful.
- Appropriate bedding and nesting material. Don't give hamsters nesting materials that separate into thin strands, e.g. cotton wool or similar 'fluffy' bedding products. They pose a serious risk to their health and welfare, due to the possibility of entanglement or ingestion.
- A suitable home cage. Wild hamsters live in deep burrows. They quickly dig burrows, and can escape easily from poorly constructed cages. Pet hamsters prefer to occupy a cage with a solid floor covered by a suitable litter material. Hamsters naturally build nests.
- Suitable places to hide.
- Their cage to be clean and they need dry bedding and nesting material.
A healthy diet for hamsters
Make sure your hamster has a healthy diet
- Fresh, clean drinking water continuously. Check the water bottle daily for leaks and/or blockages. Change their water regularly and clean the bottle and nozzle properly to avoid contamination.
- Water preferably from a bottle with a valveless sipper tube. - Hamsters aren’t able to apply strong suction so may have difficulty overcoming the resistance from the water flow in traditional ‘ball-valve’ sipper tubes. - Provided the sipper is of a relatively small diameter/manufactured with a pinch in the segment, it will be easier to drink from than one with a mechanical obstruction in it. - This may be particularly important for young/old/sick hamsters.
- A good quality, balanced diet containing all essential nutrients and minerals - a compound pelleted ration or mixture of different seeds. Commercial rations are formulated to meet their biological needs. Hamsters naturally eat a mixture of seeds/cereals/insect larvae/larger insects e.g. crickets.
- Food placed in flat dishes or directly on the cage floor. If in a dish, expect them to turn it over to transfer the contents to their larder. They carry food in their cheek pouches and can be seen retreating from their food with bulging cheeks. They like to sit up and hold pieces of food to gnaw.
- Variety. Small quantities of greens/cleaned root vegetables/pieces of fruit e.g. apples can supplement the ration. Don’t give grapes or rhubarb as these can be poisonous to rodents.
- Wet/powdered food only on the advice of a vet e.g. because of dental problems. - Wet food can be difficult to clean from the cage and is susceptible to mould/bacteria growth which can be harmful to hamsters. - If a hamster is sick and requires wet food, it’s important all traces are removed at least twice daily to ensure the food doesn’t start to degrade.
- To avoid sudden dietary changes, or food that becomes stale, as this can upset their stomach.
- The amount they eat and drink monitoring. If food consumption falls, the faeces become moist or their hind-quarters become soiled, talk to your vet immediately.
Ensure your hamster is able to behave normally
- Plenty of space to play during the night. Wild hamsters are usually active only at dusk and night time - they can run up to 5 miles a day.
- To sleep undisturbed. Hamsters rest and sleep during the day.
- Lighting times that are fairly predictable in the room where they live e.g. keep them in a room where the lights are not left on till late at night, or where regular hours are kept.
- A deep layer of litter, if possible, in which they can dig and construct a burrow.
- Space to exercise and appropriate enrichment. A running wheel can help, but additional opportunities are also necessary and the wheel shouldn’t be the only enrichment provided.
- A good quality wheel with a large diameter e.g. one intended for rats. It must be a solid structure and axel-free for the safety of your pet; ideally with a non-slip running surface. If your hamster develops sore feet, remove the wheel temporarily and seek veterinary advice.
- To be left alone if they go into hibernation during the winter unless you believe they’re unwell. Hamsters can wake up during hibernation to feed so make sure that they have plenty of fresh water, fresh food and nesting material, and check them regularly. If you are at all unsure contact your vet for advice. Wild hamsters hibernate during the winter but wake up periodically to feed. In a warm house artificial light and temperatures usually suppresses hibernation.
- Supervising if you let them out of their cage (when they have become tame) to see they don’t stray or get up to mischief. If you have another pet e.g. a dog or cat, ensure your hamster is safe. Never leave a hamster out of their cage unattended or overnight.
- Their whiskers – they’re very important for exploring objects, because their sight is very poor. Never trim your hamster(s)’ whiskers.
Appropriate company for hamsters
Ensure your hamsters have appropriate company
- Careful consideration. - Not all species of hamster can be housed in groups. Syrian and Chinese hamsters in particular are not naturally sociable and are better kept on their own. Under appropriate conditions and if care is taken, Dwarf hamsters can be group housed. - If you are housing hamsters in groups, take great care to make sure the groups are compatible. Hamsters are generally solitary animals, and can be aggressive towards other hamsters. When aggression occurs between hamsters it can be very dramatic and lead to serious injury or even death.
- Familiarity. Do not house unfamiliar hamsters, and different cages of hamsters, next to one another as they can find this stressful. Hamsters use odours including pheromones to communicate. - Females in oestrus produce potent pheromones and should not be housed near males. - Males secrete pheromones to mark territory and this can be stressful for other males nearby.
- The stress associated with handling reduced by ensuring you have positive interactions with them and gently habituate them to you. Hamsters are timid animals, and although they can become accustomed to careful handlers, they become frightened and aggressive if they feel threatened. Hamsters enjoy interacting with people who handle them carefully, and are sympathetic to their needs.
- Other animals in the home to be prevented from accessing them or their cage. Hamsters can find the presence and scent of other animals in the home stressful.
- Constant supervision when they’re with another animal that may deliberately or accidentally harm/frighten them even if you think they are good friends.
Hamster health and welfare
Ensure your hamster is protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease
- Observing closely - helps you notice if they’re behaving differently and can indicate something’s wrong. Consult the vet immediately if they show signs of illnessThey can be affected by many diseases; tumours aren’t uncommon, especially along the underside of the abdomen. They can become infected by contaminated food/water/litter material
- Keeping away from poisonous materials (e.g. poisonous food/plants/chemicals). Contact your vet immediately if you’re concerned.
- Treating with only the medicines recommended for them by a vet. Human/other animal medicines are dangerous to hamsters. Some oral antibiotics can cause serious digestive disorders.
- Calmness! Never startle/frighten them; they’re naturally timid. Loud/threatening noises can frighten causing distress.
- Handling carefully/considerately in a confident but gentle manner . Handling can be stressful, but it’s important to regularly check them for health/welfare . Hamsters have high metabolic rates and can lose condition quickly if unwell. Hamsters don’t show outward signs of pain, so may suffer before you realise. Stressed hamsters are likely to become ill.
- Watching for developing stereotypical behaviour - seek veterinary advice if they show any repetitive behaviours, which can be caused by barren environments/stress/frustration and/or lack of mental stimulation.
- Suitable gnawing material to maintain sharp teeth; preventing them growing continuously, causing health problems/pain.
- Their front teeth checking regularly; ask your vet to check to ensure they’re growing properly. If the teeth become overgrown, take them to a vet. Hamsters’ teeth grow continually, they gnaw objects to keep them sharp/regularly worn down. Dental problems aren’t uncommon. If one incisor becomes damaged, the other can keep growing - eventually may stop them eating.
- Regular grooming especially if they’re long-haired. For grooming advice speak to a pet care specialist.
- Caring for by a responsible person when you’re away to meet their welfare needs. Keep them in their familiar cage/leave their usual food.
- Constant supervision when with another animal/person who may deliberately/accidentally harm/frighten them.
- Transporting carefully, reducing stress wherever possible. Don’t transport them unless absolutely necessary.