Hamsters are the most common pet rodent for several reasons. These attractive, clean little companions are captivating to observe in their daily routine. Hardy and easy to care for, hamsters can make a good “first pet” for children. But keeping this small pet is still a big responsibility. The more you learn about hamsters, the more you will appreciate them and the healthier your pet hamster will be.
- There are several species of hamster available in the pet trade
- Syrian hamster (Mesocricetus auratus): 5-7 in (12.5-17.5 cm), 4-7 oz (113.5-198.5 gm)
- Dwarf hamsters (of the genus Phodopus): 2.5-4 in (6.3–10.1 cm), 1-3 oz (28.3-85 gm)
- Chinese hamster (Cricetulus griceus): 3–3.5 in (7.5–9 cm), 1.8-2.6 oz (50 - 75 gm)
- The Syrian Hamster - also known as the Golden Hamster - is the species of hamster most commonly found in pet stores. “Teddy bear”, ”panda bear” , “black bear“, etc. are descriptive nicknames for particular Syrian hamster varieties, and do not represent additional species .
- Have scent glands used for marking territory and in mating. In Syrian hamsters these glands are near the hips; in Dwarf and Chinese hamsters these are on the belly. Do not mistake normal scent glands for skin lesions.
- Have expandable cheek pouches used to transport food and nesting material to their burrows. If threatened, a mother may even gather her newborn babies into her cheek pouches for safety.
- Possess four front teeth that grow throughout life and require constant wear from gnawing. The back teeth do not grow or require wear.
- Life span: 1.5-3 years on average
- Sexual maturity: 5-7 weeks
- Litter size: 4-8 pups (20 or more is possible)
- Gestation: 16-21 days
- Usually solitary and territorial. Hamsters are best housed individually, except during breeding. Placing two hamsters together can result in injury or death.
- Hamsters hoard food. The name “hamster” comes from the German word for “hoarder”.
- Crepuscular; active at dawn and dusk in the wild. Nocturnal in captivity
- Docile and inquisitive, but bites occasionally occur if afraid. Daily handling will keep your hamster accustomed to people.
- Never try to pick up a sleeping hamster. It may nip if suddenly awakened.
- The best way to prevent a bite is to avoid grabbing a hamster. Rather, you should coax the hamster onto the palm of your hand; or, let it walk into a cup, then “pour” it into your hand.
- Require exercise: large running wheel, clear plastic “hamster ball”, and supervised time out of the cage in a safe area.
- Separate male and female after breeding. Mother may abandon or cannibalized pups if she feels threatened
- Wild hamsters eat a seed-based diet supplemented with berries, fruits, wild grasses, vegetables, and insects
- Pet hamsters are usually fed a high quality, prepared hamster mix of seeds, grains, and alfalfa pellets.
- Hamsters are sometimes fed a pelleted “rodent chow” that is nutritionally complete and requires gnawing (good for the teeth)
- Dog biscuits and monkey biscuits can be provided to encourage tooth wear
- Diet is supplemented with small amounts of hay, grains, vegetables, and fruits. Avoid sugary treats.
- Provide fresh water at all times, change it daily, and check that the water bottle is functioning properly
- Habitat should be as large as possible
- Cage must be escape proof. There is potential for injury or death as well as destruction of property if the hamster is allowed free run of the house
- Cage must be well ventilated and kept clean.
- Hamsters usually eliminate in one corner of the cage, and therefore they can be “litter trained”. This makes it easier to keep the cage clean.
- A large diameter running wheel is preferred
- Wild hamsters live in underground burrows. Provide your hamster with 2 in (5 cm) or more of bedding to permit burrowing
- Use recycled paper bedding or aspen bedding. Don’t use pine or cedar bedding, as these contain strong smelling oils that can be irritating or harmful
- Toilet tissue as nesting material
- Chinchilla bathing sand for bathing
- Rodent chew toys to encourage tooth wear
- Temperature should be kept between 65-80°F (18.3-26.7°C).
- Avoid direct sunlight, drafts, and rapid temperature changes. Hamsters will go into hibernation if chilled
- Chinese hamsters may require special permits to own or breed in some states (e.g. CA and NJ)
- Physical examination every 6-12 months
- Consult a veterinarian with experience treating exotic companion mammals if you have any questions or concerns about your hamster’s health.
- Examination by a veterinarian within 48 hours of purchase
- Fecal examination for parasites annually
- Examine teeth regularly
Common Medical Disorders
- Heart disease (dilated cardiomyopathy)
- Overgrown teeth
- Hair loss, itching, mites