Hamster behaviour explained
Did you know that hamsters use all sorts of ways to communicate how they’re feeling – from body language and scent messages to various sounds – some of which are too high pitched for humans to hear. Understanding if your hamster is feeling happy, scared, curious or cross can help you provide them with all the things they need so that they can live their very best hamster lives.
As a hamster parent, it’s important to understand your pet’s behaviours and be able to identify when something might be wrong. While a generally timid species – as a prey animal, their instinct is that everything’s out to get them – each hamster is an individual with their own unique personality and it can be great fun to learn all about them and, especially, what makes them happy. This is particularly important when it comes to taming your hamster – you can read our taming tips below...
HOW MANY HAMSTERS SHOULD YOU HAVE?
Contrary to popular belief, it’s only the larger Syrian hamster who prefers a solitary life –dwarf hamsters like company and prefer to be kept in same sex pairs or groups. There are 24 different species of hamster and those most commonly kept as pets are the Syrian, the Dwarf Campbell Russian, the Roborovski, the Chinese Dwarf and the Dwarf Winter White Russian – each with a distinctive look and personality to match.
Normal hamster behaviours
The following hamster behaviours are completely normal so, if you see your pet doing any of these things, everything’s good in the hamster house.
- Being active at night
If your hamster is awake and running around their habitat at night, have no fear – this is a sign of a happy hamster. “Hamsters are nocturnal animals,” says Dr Shermaine Wilson Cox , a small animal veterinarian based outside of Atlanta, Georgia, USA. “This means they are less active during the day and more active at night. They are really energetic and will exercise for three to four hours each night.”
- Chewing stuff
Chewing behaviour in hamsters is a way for these small animals to grind down their teeth. “Hamster teeth are constantly growing,” says Dr Sara Ochoa, a small animal veterinarian based in Texas. “Give them approved things to chew on. Things like wooden blocks or crunchy food are good for them to chew on.”
- Stuffing their cheeks
Hamsters use their cheek pouches to carry and store food, says Dr Wilson Cox, who adds that hamsters can carry up to 50% of their body weight in their cheeks. “The cheek pouches are used to transport food, bedding material, and occasionally their young,” she says. “After stuffing their cheek pouches with food, they will take it back to their burrow or special hiding place and empty the pouches into their food store.”
- Burrowing and hiding
Hamsters instinctively burrow or hide as a means of protection and staying safe. “This is their way of hiding from any danger,” says Dr Ochoa. “They will usually hide when they want to rest. This is how the stay safe while they sleep.”
HOW CAN I TELL IF MY HAMSTER IS HAPPY?
Watch your hamster closely and check out their body language. A yawning hamster is pleasantly sleepy and comfortable. Relaxed grooming, stretching, burrowing in the bedding, collecting food, and lively acrobatics in the cage are all signs that life is good for your hamster pal. Leaping into the air signals high spirits and reveals he or she is in a very good mood indeed.
Hamster behaviours that are not normal
The following are signs that a hamster may be unwell. If you notice any of these symptoms, make an appointment to see your vet as soon as possible.
If there is a sudden drop in temperature in a hamster’s environment, a hamster may go into hibernation – something that’s normal for wild hamsters, but not for pets. Dr Wilson Cox explains that this often happens at a temperature of around 41oF (5oC). A hamster’s habitat should be kept at normal household temperatures to maintain a healthy pet (up to 80oF (26oC).
- Lacking in energy
Hamsters are active and energetic animals, so if your hamster is being sluggish, get them checked out by your vet promptly. “Any time a hamster is acting lethargic we start to worry,” says Dr Ochoa. “Hamsters do not show signs of sickness until they are very sick.”
- Not eating or drinking
A healthy hamster should have a healthy appetite, so if your hamster is not eating or is refusing food, there may be something wrong. “With them being so small, even just a few hours without eating or drinking, they can get dehydrated very easily,” advises Dr Ochoa.
- Not chewing
If you notice improperly aligned teeth or if your hamster’s teeth look overgrown and you don’t see them chewing regularly you should consult your vet immediately.
- Uncharacteristic hiding
Hamsters do burrow and hide, but it’s mostly when they’re settling down for a nap. If your hamster is hiding constantly during regular awake or play periods, it may be a sign of anxiety or stress. “If a pet is afraid, they will usually be hiding a lot,” says Dr Ochoa. “They may do this if a cat (or other animal) is constantly watching them.”
HAMSTER HEALTH CHECKS
As well as providing nutritious hamster food and creating a suitable hamster habitat for them to thrive in, there are some important health checks that you should carry our regularly to ensure your hamster stays in the pink >>.
Other behaviours to look out for
- Burrowing in bedding: This means your hamster is happily occupied and just digging around, quite possibly in search of a snack they buried earlier
- Watching you with ears erect: This shows your pet is calm but rather curious about what’s going on
- Ears laid back with narrowed eyes: This is a sign of suspicion – they think something is up that they may need to run and hide from
- Ears forward with cheek pouches puffed up and mouth open: Your hamster is showing that they’re scared about something – try to identify and remove what’s causing them stress – whether that’s loud noises or other pets getting too close to their enclosure
- Standing on their hind legs with their front paws raised: Your hamster is telling you they’re feeling threatened and might get aggressive if you don’t back off – this may be accompanied by teeth chattering
- Stretching their limbs: Your hamster is feeling pretty relaxed about life
HOW TO HAVE HAPPY HAMSTERS
Solitary Syrian hamsters form a close bond with their human and, while some dwarf hamsters enjoy interacting with people who handle them carefully, others prefer exploring their enclosures, making use of any toys or objects you give them. You can have hours of fun building them interesting new set-ups to explore and watching them in action. Never, ever mix different hamster species and only keep same-sex pairs or small groups to avoid scuffles and/or the patter of tiny hamster feet.
How to tame your hamster – step by step
Taming requires time and patience. Don’t rush through the steps and take time to get to know your hamster and respond to his or her cues. Be sure your hamster is not stressed by any of these steps before moving on to the next one. The key here is to earn your hamster’s trust, so they can be sure that they have no reason to be afraid of you. The RSPCA advises: “Hamsters enjoy interacting with people who handle them carefully and are sympathetic to their needs.”
- Step one: allow your hamster time to become comfortable in his or her new environment. Signs include your hamster eating, drinking, exploring, and playing when you are present
- Step two: spend more time around your hamster’s cage and quietly talk to him or her to get them used to your voice. Don’t know what to say? Try reading a book out loud or singing softly to your hamster!
- Step three: offer some favourite treats by hand. Start by offering them through the bars of the cage if you have a wire cage, otherwise just offer them right at the edge of the cage door. Once your hamster scurries over for treats, try putting your hand just inside the cage. Don’t try to touch your hamster — let it come over to explore your hand
- Step four: place the treat on your open hand inside the cage, so that your hamster has to reach onto your hand, and perhaps place a paw or two onto your hand to get the treat. Again, don’t force it — let your hamster come to you
- Step five: place the treat so that your hamster has to climb on your hand to get the treat. Once your hamster is bravely doing this try to gently scoop up your hamster and lift him or her up within the cage. The first few times your hamster will likely jump right off, but just be gentle and persistent, and eventually your hamster will realise your hands are safe
- Step six: Once your hamster is used to your hand being in the cage (and associates it with tasty treats!), try placing a treat on the palm of your hand again. If your hamster climbs completely into your hand, gently try to scoop them up. At first, your hamster may be startled by this and jump from you. If you keep repeating the process, you should find that your hamster begins to feel safe when being handled
Remember to take everything slowly and if you feel that your hamster is becoming stressed or that they’re uncomfortable, gently place them back in their cage and try again later. The amount of time this takes depends on the age of the hamster and its personality and previous experiences. Your hamster may quickly accept being picked up, or it may take a month or more.
Find out more about caring for your hamsters >>
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