hamsters as pets:
Hamsters make lovely pets, however, contrary to popular belief they are expensive and high maintenance and are not generally recommended for small children. It is important to remember that these small rodents are nocturnal and usually will not be available for interaction during the day. Additionally, hamsters require a very specific set-up with adequate enrichment.
Keep in mind that hamsters are considered exotics and will require an exotic veterinarian should they become ill or sustain any injuries.
keeping more than one hamster:
Hamsters are solitary animals and should never be housed together under any circumstances. When owning more than one hamster it is important to provide each hamster with it's own habitat and avoid interaction between them.
When dealing with litters, babies will need to be separated into two groups of males and females at the age of four weeks as this is when they reach sexual maturity; at the age of eight weeks they will each need to be housed separately.
The natural environment of hamsters is vast and expands for many kilometers, within this area they create burrows and tunnels that can reach up to six meters in depth. It is a necessity for hamsters to be able to run and burrow as they would in nature, of course, we can not create an environment as large as what they would have in nature but in order for them to be happy and healthy there are minimum requirements in place: The plastic and wire cages sold in pet shops are not suitable for any hamster species to live in permanently, these are only to be utilized as travel/carry cages.
The recommend minimum habitat size for hamsters is 5000-7500cm2 (Length x Width (cm) = cm2), NOTE: This has to be the unbroken floor space and height (e.g. shelves) and/or placing two habitats on top of each other does not count.
Some great DIY options if you can't buy a suitably sized habitat are bin cages, fish tanks and reptile enclosures. Your habitat will need to be well ventilated as hamsters do have sensitive respiratory systems.
substrates and enrichment:
Exercise wheel: As we mentioned earlier, hamsters run for kilometers at night while foraging and require large amounts of exercise to maintain a healthy lifestyle, so a suitable wheel is compulsory. Minimum wheel sizes: Dwarf hamsters –18-25cm; Syrian hamsters – 27cm-30cm. A wheel that is not appropriately sized will cause the hamsters spine to arch in an unnatural way resulting in pain and major health problems.
Qualities of a good wheel: Solid surface, no rungs, no mesh (unless adequately lined), no cross-bars - Wheels that possess these qualities can (and majority of the time will) cause injuries such as: Broken legs/feet/toes, bumblefoot, and death due to being caught in the cross-bars. Another important thing to remember is that often times when hamsters get their legs/feet stuck and can't break free, will chew through their own leg to do so.
Sand baths: Sand baths are a necessary part of a hamster's grooming routine, they will require at least one sand bath within their habitat. Rolling in the sand helps to get rid of excess oil build-up and dirt from their skin and fur. They also love to dig in their sand baths which helps to maintain their nails. An additional sand box may be offered for the hamster to use as a sandbox, hamsters are generally very clean animals and will prefer a designated spot to go potty.
You can use most containers to hold the sand in as long as they are large enough for the hamster to move, roll and dig in, NOTE: hamsters prefer to have a hide in their sand bath.
Safe sand and litter : Not just any sand is suitable! You must never use powdery/dusty or scented bath sands, or sand that has silica/calcium added.
The sand that pet shops sell are not safe. Luckily, the safe options are actually quite inexpensive, the best option is washed kiddies play sand or reptile sand (ensure there is no added silica or calcium!)
Once you have got your sand, it will need to be sterilized before introducing it into the habitat, you can do this by placing the sand on a baking tray and putting it in the oven for 30 minutes. (If the sand is wet, bake until dry.)
Bedding: Hamsters have very sensitive respiratory systems and so they require specific bedding, scented bedding is never safe to use, along with pine shaving (kiln-dried included) and most other wood shavings. Shavings are toxic to hamsters
and they will develop allergic reactions, respiratory infections, eye, skin, and
lung infections due to certain oils, phenols and dust in these shavings; shavings are also quite abrasive. Straw/hay bedding does not allow for the hamster to burrow and nest in, it is also too stalky and can cause serious injury to the hamster. Pellet style bedding again does not allow for the hamster to burrow and nest in, it is also quite hard and abrasive. Fabric (all kinds) should never be used in the enclosure as it can cause major damage to the hamster's pouches as well as cause a blockage if ingested.
Safe bedding options: The best option is paper based bedding, some of the most common brands are: Kaytee Clean & Cozy and Carefresh. Unsure that the bedding is unscented! You can also use shredded 1ply toilet paper and shredded kitchen towel, this works very well as a nesting substrate as well. NOTE: Cotton and any other fluffy nesting material should never be used as this causes problems with pouches and entangles their limbs/nails and teeth which can result in broken bones and/or chewing through their own leg to escape along with other injuries!
How much bedding?: As we mentioned before, hamsters create burrows and therefor will need a minimum of 15 centimeters depth in some portions of their enclosure.
There is no maximum and the more you can provide the better.
Nest: A hamster will require a place that they can nest, it is best to provide multiple hides for them as they like to move from time to time, but a multi chamber-box with at least 3 rooms should also be provided as this mimics their burrows in nature. It doesn't need to be fancy, you could make your own one out of cardboard and a box! It is ideal for them to have 3 compartments minimum, a removable lid and to be bottomless. (If you are placing it above a large portion of bedding ensure that you put stilts on the box to keep it from falling down when the hamster burrows.)
Enrichment: Hamsters love tunnels so it will be necessary to add some to their enclosure, you can use toilet rolls or any other cardboard rolls. (Ensure there is no foil or plastic attached.) Some hamsters may even chew them up which is great for maintaining their teeth. Hamster's teeth grow continuously throughout their life and it is important that they wear down by gnawing and chewing. (NOTE: Not to be confused with chewing the bars of wire cages which is a stress reaction.)
There are a variety of chews and gnaws available from pet shops, however, majority of these are not safe and should not be used. Mineral/salt blocks and coloured/flavoured chews are not safe. Some safe options are: Whimzees, seed or gnaw sticks, cardboard, hard home baked style biscuits such as Oliver's Burrow Biscuits. There are also many DIY options!
You can add extra enrichment such as: Stones/rocks (Ensure they are not small enough for the hamster to put in their pouches.), driftwood, pine cones, coco-peat, kenaf, bridges and even foraging herbs.
food and water:
A constant supply of fresh and clean water is compulsory, a hamster will require either a water dish or a water bottle. If using a bottle, ensure that it is working properly and doesn't get jammed, it's important to check frequently and change the water at least every 2 days. Hamsters are omnivores and require a diet with sufficient variety and animal proteins, this includes a dry mix that you may offer everyday to every three days depending on how quickly they empty their bowl, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables daily. You may need to combine more than one good quality dry mix in order to create a sufficient diet.
You will need to keep your hamster's habitat in a peaceful area in your home, since they are nocturnal they need to get their sleep during the day and waking them can be extremely stressful. They should be in a well ventilated room but not in direct sunlight or in a draught. The temperature will need to be kept above 15 degrees celcius otherwise they may go into a state of torpor which can be life threatening (Hamsters do not naturally hibernate.), if the temperature drops you may need to provide extra bedding and a heating pad under or on the side of the habitat near their nest. (The hamster should have no access to the heating pad.) Be certain that the habitat is kept away from other pets such as cats and dogs, and that the lid is secure on the habitat.
Hamsters are very sensitive animals and can be startled very easily, it's important to approach them slowly and handle them gently as shock can be detrimental, loud sounds, sudden movements and using a flash when taking pictures or videos can be very traumatic to them and this should always be avoided! Since they are very high stress animals, you want limit any stressful situations as much as possible, when moving them to a new habitat or home it is best to leave them and not interact with them at all for the first 2-3 days so that they may settle in and get used to the new environment. When doing a deep clean of their habitat this can also be extremely stressful and they may need a day or two to settle in again, always keep some of their old bedding and nesting to put back into the enclosure so that the scent is still familiar.
When interacting and playing with hamsters, it is best to keep them low to the ground or surface (such as a bed) as they may jump and fall out of your hands, hamsters have very poor eyesight and can't perceive depth and distance very well.
Always wash your hands before and after interacting with your hamster(s), this will also prevent them from nipping at your hands and fingers if you were handling food prior, but is also important so as to not introduce any bad bacteria that may make the hamster sick.