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Hamster Q&A
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Hamster Q&A

Are hamsters good pets? Why do hamsters carry food in their pouches? Should hamsters be kept as only pets? What do hamsters need to be healthy and happy? What’s involved in looking after a hamster? What do hamsters eat? Are hamsters friendly? Will my hamster bite me? We answer some popular hamster queries...

They may be small, but they’re very interesting. Here’s what’s covered in our handy hamster Q&A:

  • Is it true that hamsters prefer to live on their own?
  • How intelligent are hamsters?
  • Why do hamsters sleep during the day?
  • Are hamsters vegetarian?
  • Why do hamsters carry hamster food in their pouches?
  • Do a hamsters’ teeth really never stop growing?
  • Will my hamster nip me?
  • When were hamsters first kept as pets?
  • Are hamsters good pets for children?
  • What treats are safe for my hamster?
  • How can I get my hamster to take treats from me?
  • What toys will my hamster like to play with?
  • How can I tell if my hamster is happy?
  • How long do hamsters live?

Is it true that hamsters prefer to live on their own?

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. In the wild, Syrian hamster adults generally inhabit lone burrows. Other species naturally live together in 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.

Syrian Also known as teddy bear or golden hamsters, Syrian hamsters must live on their own as they are territorial and will start to fight with each other once they’ve reached maturity, which is between eight and 12 weeks. Syrian hamsters form close bonds with their human and, if raised and handled correctly, will be your small furry friend for life – as demonstrated by Syrian hamster Treacle, who was recently given a Blue Peter award. Billy-Jo Howe, from Weston-super-Mare in North Somerset, wrote to the show to say how much of a difference her hamster, Treacle, has brought to her life during the most recent lockdown. The 20-year-old, who lives with autism, told the BBC: “Since having Treacle a lot of my carers and other people have noticed how much happiness and joy she has brought to me and she keeps me calm. She never fails to put a smile on my face. She is so friendly, she understands my autism, she is placid, she is a perfect hamster."

Dwarf Campbell Russian Although nocturnal, Dwarf Campbell Russians are often awake for short periods during the day, unlike other hamster species. When it comes to handling them, time and patience is required to let them build up their trust and confidence as they may be inclined to nip if they feel nervous or threatened. These hamsters are social and can be kept in same sex pairs or small groups as long as they are from the same litter or are introduced at a young age.

Roborovski The smallest of the hamster species, Robos measure just two inches when fully grown, although they have longer legs than most dwarf hamster species. They have sweet little faces with endearing white patches where their eyebrows are. These hamsters are teeny, tiny bundles of energy and are generally best kept as a pet to watch, rather than to handle. Robos are highly active, social creatures, and should be kept in same sex pairs or small groups. Their housing needs to be big enough for them to race around with each other and create burrows.

Chinese Dwarf With their large dark eyes and short prehensile tail, Chinese Dwarf hamsters have the charming ability to grip, using their feet, body and tail to wrap themselves around their handler’s fingers, rather like a harvest mouse. Although more timid than other hamster species, outside their cage they can display sudden, short bursts of activity. If startled by a strange noise, they will dart with lightning speed into the nearest hiding place, so a watchful eye is needed. They can be kept in single sex pairs.

Dwarf Winter White Russian Sporting beautiful sapphire, pearl and sapphire-pearl coats, these hamsters are very small and compact, reaching just 3-4 inches when fully grown. Sweet and friendly, Winter Whites have less inclination to bite when nervous than the Dwarf Campbell Russians. However, their small size and quicksilver ways means they can be a challenge for young children to handle safely. In the wild, Winter Whites live in family groups. As pets, they can share their home with same sex littermates in pairs or small groups.

Happy hamster tips

  • Some dwarf hamsters enjoy interacting with people who handle them carefully, although 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.
  • Never, ever mix different hamster species and only keep same-sex pairs or small groups to avoid fights and/or the patter of tiny hamster feet.

How intelligent are hamsters?

Hamsters are endlessly curious and intelligent. With a little time and patience, they can be taught their name, pick up routines easily, litter train themselves and can be trained to come when food is presented or to perform simple tricks.

These small, nocturnal rodents have poor vision, so your hamster will not get to know you by sight, but by scent. Animals.mom.com advises: “The process of socialisation is meant to introduce your scent and voice to the animal. During the first two days, you will simply hold your hand in the hamster's cage. On the first day he may not even come near you. Eventually, once he senses there isn't a threat, he'll come to investigate and sniff your hand. Don't make any sudden movements. Continue this until the hamster crawls into your hand. Do this until he seems comfortable, then slowly move your hand to pet him gently. After a few more days, your hamster will be comfortable with you handling him and will come to know you and your scent.”


Why do hamsters sleep during the day?

Hamsters, both wild and domesticated, are nocturnal. In the wild, they come out mainly at night or during twilight to avoid predators. Although pet store hamsters don’t have predators to worry about, they follow the same chronobiological patterns, meaning they’ll be asleep a lot during the day.


Are hamsters vegetarian?

In their natural habitat, wild hamsters eat grasses, seeds and grain. And, although they are often thought of as herbivores, they are actually omnivores and need protein in their diet to keep them healthy. The best feeding time for a hamster is in the evening when they start to wake up. As a nocturnal animal, this is breakfast time.

Nutrition-packed nuggets specially designed for hamsters are the best choice – steer away from ‘muesli-type’ mixtures as hamsters may pick out the bits that are high in sugar, which can cause painful problems with their teeth, and discard other parts leading to an imbalanced diet.

Burgess Excel Hamster, Gerbil and Mouse contains only the best quality ingredients to provide your pets with a balanced food that replicates their natural diet to help them stay happy and healthy and prevent selective feeding. At Burgess, our hamster food is created with the highest quality of ingredients, to ensure the dietary safety of your pets, and outstanding texture and taste. Our nuggets incorporate wholegrain cereals, vitamins and minerals for slow release energy and help support overall health, while our Timothy hay has a high fibre content to aid digestive health and stimulate chewing – for dental health.

Feeding tips

  • Rather than just putting food in a gnaw-proof ceramic bowl, scattering it around is a great idea as it encourages natural foraging behaviours and your hamster will love rummaging around to find tasty titbits.
  • Add extra fun by hiding hay, hamster pellets or fresh greens inside paper bags or cardboard tubes. Not only is searching out food an enjoyable task, but your hamster will also love shredding the packaging you hide it in, which all serves to enrich their life.

Find out more about hamsters and food >>


Why do hamsters carry food in their pouches?

Native to the arid landscapes of Syria and Turkey, hamsters evolved their cheek pouches so they could take full advantage of food wherever it happens to turn up. When you’re a very small animal it’s not always practical to eat what you’ve found right there and then – particularly if you’re at risk of becoming a hot lunch yourself. So, it makes perfect sense to stuff what you’ve foraged into your cheeks to take back to your burrow to eat it in safety. This is a natural behaviour that our pet hamsters continue to do with the food we supply them with. And, as hamster cheek pouches don't contain saliva glands, everything is kept fresh and dry during transit.


Do hamsters’ teeth really never stop growing?

Like all rodents, hamsters’ teeth grow continuously. Because of this, hamsters need to munch on things to keep their teeth healthy and stop them getting overgrown, including:

  • Tasty, high-quality Excel Timothy hay
  • Untreated softwood such as hawthorn, hazelnut, pear, poplar or apple wood – give these a good clean and bake them on a low heat for an hour before you offer them to your hamster
  • Wholesome Excel Gnaw Sticks, which are made from willow, apple and hazel wood
  • Chewing, gnawing and shredding stuff is a natural hamster behaviour, so provide a variety of things for them to get their teeth into such as cardboard, coconut shells, hay cubes, pumice stone and seagrass

Will my hamster nip me?

Because wild hamsters live mostly underground, only venturing out at night, they don’t need great eyesight. At birth, hamsters are completely blind and, in adulthood, can only see a few inches past their nose. This means that they’re easily startled by sudden movements and, If they are disturbed from sleep, may nip.

Check out these top handling tips from Petopedia:

  • A hamster will never bite unless there is a reason Many people are nervous when handling hamsters due to the fear of being bitten. Yes, being nibbled can hurt, but with gentle handling to begin with and time hamsters can become fabulous little furries who will sit in your hand, enjoy a stroke and thrive in your company.
  • Wash your hands Syrian hamsters have very poor eyesight and rely mostly on the sense of smell and touch. If your hands smell like food… you can bet he or she is going to want to have a little nibble and taste what smells so yummy!
  • Let them wake up first Being most active usually during the night, these little ones will likely not be up and awake when you want to handle (after school/work/during the day). As such it’s very important to wake them up by gently talking to them and perhaps shuffling some of the substrates before you try to pick them up. If they aren’t given a couple of minutes to wake up first, you might have a very grumpy hamster and that’s not the best start to a handling session with them.
  • Be gentle Hamsters are sensitive to touch and grabbing or poking can startle them and make them nervous to handle. Always scoop them with both hands gently when picking them up and stroke them very gently (avoiding the nose and whiskers). If your hamster is a little too jumpy to pick up safely, we recommend using a plastic cup to get you started. By scooping them into a cup you can move them safely from A to B without worrying about them jumping out of your hands until both you and your hamster are more confident with handling.
  • Little and often Aim to handle your hamster for only 10 to 15 minutes at a time to begin with. Short and gentle sessions will teach your hamster that handing is nor a long or scary process and he will be back in the safety of this enclosure in no time. This can go a long way to building his confidence.
  • No fingers in faces As hamsters don’t have the best eyesight to differentiate things up close, when you approach them with a hand or a finger toward their nose it can be very scary. This can make them nervous, cause them to nip or run away.

When were hamsters first kept as pets?

In 1930, zoologist Israel Aharoni led an expedition to look for Syrian hamsters in Aleppo – returning with a family of them. The offspring were then sent to different universities and institutions, including London Zoo, and from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s started to become popular pets in the UK.


Are hamsters good pets for children?

Even though hamsters are often a child’s first pet, their needs are quite complex, and they can easily be injured as a result of careless handling. Looking after a hamster is too much responsibility for a child and an adult should always be responsible for ensuring hamsters are properly handled and cared for. Their nocturnal habits can be disappointing for children as they’re ready to explore and play when it’s bedtime.


What treats are safe for my hamster?

As a treat, you can provide a tiny portion of hamster-safe, fresh veg a couple of times a week. Animal charity PDSA advises that the following fruits, vegetables and herbs are suitable for hamsters. Make sure you give them a good wash first and be aware that too much green food can cause diarrhoea.

  • Veg: Carrot, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, chicory, spinach, sweet peppers, cucumber, cress, courgette
  • Fresh herbs: Basil, sage, parsley, coriander
  • Fruits: Apple, pear, peach, melon. NEVER feed citrus fruits, rhubarb or grapes to your hamster

How can I get my hamster to take treats from me?

Hamsters are prey animals, which means loud noises, sharp movements and touch can make them a little jumpy to start with. Unsurprisingly, it will take a little time before they are happy to be handled or feel confident enough to accept treats from you. Here’s how to help them along:

Am I in danger? As prey animals, hamsters think anything approaching is a potential predator – even you. Don’t loom over them (as a predator in the wild might), but crouch down to meet them at their level.

What’s happening? Keep your approach slow and steady – small pets can be easily startled and will simply run for cover. Speak to them in a soft, happy voice as you gradually get closer.

That looks like it could be tasty! Offer some food, so they learn to associate your approach with something good happening. If your hamster won’t come close enough to take food from your hand, lightly toss the food to them whenever they come in your direction. Wait until they come a little closer each time before offering food again, while continuing to talk to them in a soothing voice.

I think I’ll risk it... If your pet does take the food, sit beside them and continue chatting to them. Then, offer them another treat. If your pet looks comfortable and doesn’t back off, you could try giving them a gentle stroke. Do this every day and your pet will begin to approach you, creating some magical animal moments.

On my own terms Timid hamsters may take a while to gain confidence, but every pet is an individual and it’s essential that they choose to interact with you on their own terms – and it’s that which makes it so rewarding. When your small pet decides that he or she trusts you enough to want to engage in some hand-feeding time with you it’s a great result!


What toys will my hamster like to play with?

When they’re awake, hamsters like to keep busy and enjoy exploring, foraging, running and climbing. A solid, wide wheel (don’t use one with spokes) will help with their natural instinct to run (a useful ability in the wild so they can make a swift escape from predators) but they’ll also want plenty of spaces and sensations to explore.

For happy hamsters provide them with cardboard tubes to run through and chew and, as they love to climb, a selection of wooden ledges. Hamsters also enjoy a roll around in a sand bath as part of their grooming routine, so set up a shallow tray filled with some chinchilla dust.

When it comes to toys and accessories and fun things to gnaw on, make sure your hamster has plenty, such as a Gnawing Tunnel or two – perfect as a hide-away, something to scramble through and over, to snooze in or just chew to pieces.

Add a Hanging Log made from a sturdy piece of hazel to scamper across, and a Bolted Balance Bridge to navigate. Some Mini Stars scattered around will provide some chewing fun, which are great for their teeth as well as adding enrichment. Or how about a super stylish Hamster House, with two storeys, ladder and climbing wall? The perfect abode to nibble away on some tasty nuggets that have been carefully stashed away.


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.


How long do hamsters live?

Typically, hamsters live for up to two years, although some may live for longer.

As with any pets, there are a lot of things you can do to maximise their lifespan and ensure they live a healthy, happy life. Keeping them in clean and safe conditions, providing high quality food and fresh water, things to gnaw on and making sure they are not put in stressful situations will all help your hamster feel safe and secure. However, if you notice a hamster is acting out of sorts, it’s always worth getting them checked out by your vet.


Is your hamster a Burgess hamster? Join the Burgess Pet Club for exclusive offers and rewards.


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Sources: rspca.org.uk petopedia.petscorner.co.uk animals.mom.com pdsa.org.uk nationalgeographic.com

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