Hamster Husbandry

Hamsters make good pets because of their small size, easy maintenance and ability to be handled. Most pet hamsters are friendly and have a curious personality. The Golden or Syrian hamster is the most common pet. Other species found in pet stores include the Siberian or Dwarf hamster and the Chinese hamster. Hamsters are nocturnal, meaning they are most active at night and in the evening hours.

Dwarf hamsters

Male hamsters make better pets because they are less aggressive. The larger hamster species tend to be less aggressive and easier in general to handle. Hamsters should be kept alone in a cage and should not be housed together due to issues with fighting and aggression. Hamsters weigh around 80-150 grams depending on the species. Hamsters live on average 1-3 years.

Getting to Know Your New Hamster

When you first get a new hamster as a pet, gentle handling is necessary and you need to move at a pace that your hamster finds comfortable. Too much handling too soon (before your hamster gets to know you) can cause stress. Handling in the evening hours is best because that is when your hamster will be most active. Hamsters can be nippy when first awakened or with sudden movements, so make sure to go slow.

The best way to pick up your hamster is to gently scoop them up in your hands, or pick them up gently with your hand placed over their back. Because they are small and quick, handling by smaller children can be dangerous for the hamster and is not recommended. Treats can be used as positive reinforcement for getting your hamster used to being handled.

Housing

A safe, well ventilated cage is necessary for your hamster’s health. Cages should be a minimum of 12” high and there should be about 25 square inches of floor space per hamster in an enclosure, but the general rule is the larger the better! Cages with multiple levels allow hamsters to explore and exercise. Plastic, stainless steel or glass cages are more common. Aquarium-style cages can be used, but should not be a first choice because there is a risk of having poor ventilation and respiratory problems if not kept immaculately clean. Flooring should be solid to avoid trapped toes and foot-pad injuries.

If the cage sides are wire mesh, it is important to make sure the mesh is small enough that toes and legs cannot get stuck in the mesh squares. Hamsters are notorious for escaping from cages, and this can cause harm if they are loose in the house with dogs or cats, or get access to electrical wires. Hamsters should have multiple places to hide and explore in the cage; hide boxes, climbing tunnels, PVC piping, and offering other commercial toys are all great options. Hamsters also enjoy a running wheel. Just make sure the wheel has a solid running surface, not open squares, because toes can get caught in the squares and cause injuries. Hamster balls can be used to exercise your hamster outside of the cage, but be careful to closely monitor your hamster during this exercise time. Exercise balls can roll down stairs, be chewed on by other pets, and can get overheated in direct sunlight.

Substrate

We only recommend using recycled newspaper or paper products, such as Carefresh bedding, in your hamster’s cage. Natural beddings (cedar, pine, aspen, and wood chips or shavings) have a tendency to grow microorganisms like bacteria and fungi, even when cleaned appropriately and often. They also can create dust that can cause allergies in both the hamsters and their people. Respiratory diseases are common in hamsters, and those that are housed on natural beddings are at an increased risk for problems.

Nutrition

Hamsters should be fed a commercially available pelleted diet or rodent block. Ideal brands of food include Oxbow or Kaytee pellets. Avoid purchasing bags that offer a seed and pellet mixture – the hamsters will simply eat all the seeds and leave the healthier food behind! The pellets can be offered free choice (usually a ceramic dish is preferred because it is heavier and won’t spill over as easily, or a feeding hopper is also a great choice).

Treats should be limited and can include some fresh vegetables, occasional seeds and nuts, or dried fruits like raisins. Hamsters have cheek pouches where they can store food, so it is not uncommon for you to see your hamster stuff his face with food and go off into his hideaway to finish dinner! Water should always be available to your hamsters and should be offered from a cage sipper bottle. Fresh water should be given each day. Make sure to thoroughly clean the water bottle and food dishes regularly to avoid bacterial buildup. Hot water and dish soap can be used to clean the dishes; just make sure and rinse them thoroughly.

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Medical Care

New pet hamsters should be examined within the first week to look for any signs of illness and intestinal parasites. Bring your hamster in a carrier or travel cage for safety. Exams should then be performed twice a year to make sure your hamster is healthy. Preventative spaying and neutering is helpful to not only prevent certain diseases but also increase lifespan. Knowing the common diseases in hamsters and what signs to look for will help you know if you need to bring your hamster in for an exam.

Exotic pets tend to hide signs of illness until they can no longer possibly maintain the appearance of being normal. This is because they are prey animals, and their instincts tell them that to survive they must look happy and healthy or they will be targeted by predators. Unfortunately for us, this means that usually when we first notice our pet hamsters are sick, they have actually been sick for days if not weeks. You usually don’t have the luxury of a “wait and see” approach to see if your hamster is going to get better without treatment. Early medical care is vital to helping your hamster! Luckily, hamsters are pretty hardy and are resistant to a lot of diseases, but they can still get sick.

Here are some common diseases in hamsters and what signs to watch for in your pets:

Enteritis/proliferative ileitis (also called “wet tail”)

Diarrhea in the hamster needs to be addressed as quickly as possible because they can lose fluids and weight rapidly. Signs include loose stool no longer in pelleted form, decreased appetite, and lethargy. Appropriate antimicrobials are needed to treat diarrhea. It is usually infectious or parasitic in nature.

Respiratory disease/pneumonia

Hamsters can be prone to respiratory diseases and infections, especially those that are stressed (overcrowding, fighting in the cage, other illnesses, etc), and those that are housed on natural beddings as substrates. Signs to watch for include sneezing, fast breathing, clicking noises when breathing, lethargy, and appetite loss. Antibiotics are necessary to clear any infection.

Impacted cheek pouches

Sometimes a hamster’s eyes are too big for his belly…or his cheek pouches. If you notice a foul odor or discharge coming from the mouth, and a swelling on one or both sides of the face, this could indicate an impacted cheek pouch that needs treatment.

Heart disease As hamsters age, they are prone to developing heart disease. Signs include fast breathing, weakness, decreased appetite, clicking sounds when breathing, and collapse. Treatment can be given for heart disease and for congestive heart failure, but heart disease is not curable.

Hair loss

The most common causes of hair loss in young hamsters include non-infectious mange (Demodex mange), ringworm, stress and superficial bacterial infections. In older hamsters, endocrine diseases associated with the adrenal glands and hair loss caused by over grooming secondary to cancers in the abdomen are more common.

Vitamin E Deficiency Hamsters fed predominantly seed-based diets can become deficient in Vitamin E, which can cause weakness, appetite loss and hind limb paralysis.

Overgrown incisors

The incisor teeth are continually growing and have the chance to become overgrown or grow in a bad position. Corrective trimming by a veterinarian when these teeth overgrow needs to be done at this point and treatment typically has to continue for life.

A minimum of a 30 day quarantine period is recommended for any new pet being brought into a home with existing exotic pets. This is to protect the owner’s previous pets from any new diseases or parasites a new pet could be carrying. Most infectious diseases will have symptoms show up within that 30 day period. Quarantined pets should be kept in a separate room if possible, and have separate food and water bowls throughout the quarantine period. Handle your previous pets first, then handle your new pet last. After the quarantine period is over, and your new pet has shown no signs of illness and has seen a veterinarian, your previous pets should be safe from most communicable diseases.