What do your hamster chums need to be happy? Find out with our hamster top tips!
Hamsters are little rodents (gnawing mammals) with compact bodies, short legs, small ears and stubby tails. They make super pets, providing you understand what’s involved in caring for these curious, active animals.
Keep reading to find out:
- Health – how do you know if your hamster is in good health?
- Behaviour – what activities does your hamster need to have access to so they can exhibit their natural behaviours?
- Companionship – does your hamster need a friend?
- Diet – what should you feed your hamster?
- Environment – what housing does your hamster need?
- There are 24 species of hamster, and they belong to the family The Syrian, Russian Dwarf Campbell and Roborovski breeds are the most popular for pets.
- Hamsters enjoy exploring and use their whiskers to help them sense objects in their environment.
- A hamster’s teeth never stop growing and they have a ‘self-sharpening’ system where the incisors grind against each other while gnawing, which wears the teeth down.
- Hamsters are nocturnal, with large eyes and a retina dominated by rods – the part of the eye that can function in lower light.
- Not all hamsters are sociable – in the wild, Syrian hamster adults generally live on their own in their burrows (pet Syrians also enjoy solo living). Other species, such as the Russian Dwarf, naturally live in groups.
As with all pet animals, every hamster owner must provide for the following needs of the animals in their care:
- Health– Protection from pain, injury, suffering and disease and treated if they become ill or injured.
- Behaviour– the ability to behave naturally for their species, for example, to play, run, dig, jump etc.
- Companionship– to be housed with, or apart from, other animals as appropriate for the species. For example, company of their own kind for sociable species like rabbits or guinea pigs, or to be housed alone for solitary species like Syrian hamsters.
- Diet– a suitable diet. This can include feeding appropriately for the pet’s life stage and feeding a suitable amount to prevent obesity or malnourishment, as well as access to fresh clean water.
- Environment– a suitable environment. This should include the right type of home with a comfortable place to rest and hide as well as space to exercise and explore.
Veterinary charity PDSA advises: “The needs of each type of pet are very different and it is important owners know what these needs are, and how to meet them. Researching carefully before purchase can help owners understand what they will need to provide.”
1. Health – how do you know if your hamster is in good health?
“Visually check that they are well every day, see that they are behaving normally, moving, breathing well, sitting normally, that they have bright eyes and a shiny coat, and do not have wounds or lumps. Physically examine your hamster(s) when you handle them by running your fingers gently over their body to check for lumps and bumps and that they are not too skinny or fat. It is best to do this at the same time as cleaning, just before lights out to minimise disturbance. Always handle your hamster(s) in a safe, considerate and confident manner.”
A happy, healthy hamster will show you how they’re feeling by 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!
MORE TOP TIPS
- Make sure you handle your hamster from an early age, so they get used to socialising with you.
- If you check your hamster regularly, you’ll bond better with them and hopefully catch any problems early.
- Your hamster is normally asleep during the day, so it’s best to do your checks in the evening or first thing in the morning.
2. Behaviour – what activities does your hamster need to have access to so they can exhibit their natural behaviours?
Once these daytime snoozers wake up in the evening, they’re ready for a night of activity and need plenty of exercise, lots of different spaces to explore and interesting things to do.
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.
Hamsters like to run, so choose a solid, wide wheel with a non-slip running surface (don’t use one with spokes) fixed close to the cage wall, so that your hamster’s feet or legs cannot get trapped and injured. Make sure you select one that is the right size for your hamster – there’s quite a difference in size between dwarf hamsters and larger Syrians. They should be able to run with a straight back – if they have to bend backwards this can lead to back problems.
Hamsters also love to climb, so a selection of wooden ledges, climbing blocks, ladders and bridges will be appreciated.
Hamsters also enjoy rolling around in a sand bath a couple of times a week to keep their coat in good condition – set up a shallow tray filled with some chinchilla sand. Sand baths are also a fun and clean way for your pet to enjoy themselves as they would in the wild.
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 bars, pumice stone and seagrass toys.
MORE TOP TIPS
- Hamster behaviour depends on their breed. Syrians, for example, are inquisitive and gentle-natured. Dwarf hamsters are tiny and incredibly fast and often prefer to be observed rather than handled constantly – although with careful and patient handling, they can learn to accept being held. Both species of Dwarf Russian hamster are generally sensitive, so handle them with extreme care. Roborovski hamsters are usually very active and wriggly. Chinese hamsters are more docile and may sit quietly.
- Taming your hamster to feel relaxed about being handled takes time and patience. The key is to earn your hamster’s trust, so they can be sure that they have no reason to be afraid of you.
- The more you play with and handle your hamster, the better. Regular contact with you will boost their confidence and they’ll be happy to be handled.
- Don’t wake your pets up to handle them – you wouldn’t like it, and nor will they – and they may bite out of fear.
- Never pick hamsters up by the scruff of the neck – it puts pressure on the head and eyes and can cause injury.
3. Companionship – does your hamster need a friend?
Should you keep a lone hamster or aim for two or more? It depends on the species.
- Syrian hamsters are solitary animals and must be housed on their own. He or she will enjoy contact with you but won’t get on with other hamsters!
- Dwarf Chinese hamsters are highly territorial and can be unpredictable towards their own kind. It’s important to keep an eye out for bullying or aggression and separate them if required. They can be kept in single sex pairs or small groups, providing their accommodation has plenty of room with a variety of different platforms and hidey holes for individuals to enjoy their own space.
- Dwarf Russian Campbell 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. You’ll need to provide a cage with lots of space and give them plenty of things to play with such as wheels, toys, hay and paper bedding.
- Dwarf Winter White Russian hamsters can cohabit with same sex littermates in pairs or small groups. Squabbles can occur, but these can be minimised by providing spacious accommodation with lots of tunnels and nest boxes for individuals to take some time out when they need to.
- Roborovski Hamsters 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 comfortably.
MORE TOP TIPS
- Aim for a pair or small group of the same sex – otherwise there’ll be a mini population explosion!
- Never, ever mix different hamster species.
- While it’s lovely for children to enjoy the company of hamsters, these exotic pets have complex needs and require more looking after than a child can offer. An adult should always be responsible for ensuring hamsters are properly handled and cared for.
4. Diet – what should you feed your hamster?
The best hamster diet should replicate what they’d eat in their natural environment. Wild hamsters eat grasses, seeds and grain. And although they’re often thought of as herbivores, hamsters are actually omnivores, and need protein in their diet to keep them healthy.
The ideal healthy hamster food should consist of smooth, small nuggets, designed for little mouths. Added linseed can be beneficial to support a healthy skin and coat, along with a good source of natural protein, such as peas.
Supplement this with a little top-quality feeding hay to nibble on, which will keep their continually growing teeth in good shape, along with a tiny amount of fresh food a couple of times a week.
Veterinary charity PDSA advises that the following fruits, vegetables and herbs are suitable for hamsters:
- Veg: Carrot, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, chicory, spinach, sweet peppers, cucumber, cress and courgette.
- Fresh herbs: Basil, sage, parsley and coriander.
- Fruits: Apple, pear, peach and melon.
NEVER feed citrus fruits, rhubarb or grapes to your hamster. Make sure you give fruits and vegetables a good wash first and always ensure any uneaten fresh food is cleaned away before it spoils.
MORE TOP TIPS
- It’s best to avoid ‘muesli-style’ hamster food mix varieties as this could encourage selective feeding, where hamsters pick out the bits that are high in sugar and discard the more nutritious elements, leading to an imbalanced diet.
- It’s essential that you only feed your hamster the amount of food they need each day– around a tablespoon of specially formulated hamster nuggets, depending on the species of hamster you have and how active they are. To help you, there are on-pack feeding guidelines you can follow.
- Scattering some of their daily portion of hamster nuggets around their accommodation will encourage natural foraging behaviour.
- Hamsters like to hoard! They are extremely well equipped to carry their provisions from one place to another thanks to their ingenious cheek pouches. However, these pouches are very delicate, so don’t give them foods that contain whole oats as these can puncture them. Also avoid sticky foods, as these can cling to their pouches.
- Don’t forget fresh drinking water too – this should be provided in a specially designed bottle, placed with the spout at the appropriate height for the type of hamster you have.
5. Environment – what housing does your hamster need?
Your hamster’s home should provide them with an environment that enables them to exhibit all their natural hamster behaviours and be as spacious as possible so they have lots of different areas to explore.
Different breeds need different housing. A Syrian hamster should be kept in a large wire enclosure with a solid, plastic base. It should be at least 80cm wide x 30cm deep x 35cm tall to give them plenty of room to climb the sides – a favourite activity and great exercise.
Dwarf hamsters are smaller, so could squeeze through the wire and escape. A tank or aquarium with a secure, wire lid for proper ventilation is best to house a dwarf hamster in. Provide them with a cage that’s as big as possible, ideally with a deep plastic base (minimum 3-5cm) and wire top.
A multi-level cage with different platforms will make the most of the available space, giving your hamster more areas to explore. Your hamster will set up their own toilet area, nesting area, eating area and playing area, so their hamster housing will need to be big enough to accommodate all of this.
In the wild, hamsters are extremely good diggers and construct deep, dark, underground burrows. Your pet hamster will appreciate a thick layer of paper bedding in which they can dig and burrow to their heart’s content. There should be enough nesting material to make a proper, cup-shaped nest.
Your hamster needs a nesting box or shelter to retreat to, keep warm, feel safe and sleep in. A shelter should be big enough for your hamster to store food placed nearby, make a nest and comfortably move around. There are many options available, from wooden lodges to plastic huts. Or why not go all out and treat them their own mini log cabin which will provide hours of hamster-friendly fun and a safe, cosy space to enjoy the food they’ve stashed.
You can also use every day cardboard items, such as empty tissue boxes. Your hamster will enjoy using them and chewing them up!
MORE TOP TIPS
- Hamsters are very sensitive to high frequency sounds (known as ultrasound) which we cannot hear and can find this stressful. House your hamster away from anything that can generate ultrasound, such as television sets, computer screens, vacuum cleaners or sources of running water. Keep them in a room where the lights are not left on till late in the night as they’ll be waiting for darkness to venture out and play.
- Keep your hamster at a constant temperature. Avoid putting them in direct sunlight or near draughts and radiators. In very cold weather, give your hamster more bedding or move their housing somewhere warmer to keep them nice and cosy
- Don’t give your hamster any fluffy or fleece bedding. This could get caught in their legs or cause issues if they eat it.
- You can help your small furry friends get the best night’s (or day’s) sleep with Nap & Nest. This is a super absorbent, luxury paper bedding that’s made from unused offcuts from teabag production. Soft on little paws, it’s easy to spot clean, reducing waste and making each bag last longer. Add a 3-5cm layer to your small animals’ bedding and toilet areas. Remove and replace just the soiled areas of bedding daily.
Why do hamsters carry food in their pouches? 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 >>
CARE MORE Find lots of useful advice on caring for your hamsters from Burgess, the pet experts. Housing, health, feeding and more. It’s all here >>
If you found this interesting, you may also like:
WHAT FOOD CAN HAMSTERS EAT? When it comes to food, hamsters like to forage and hoard – and they are extremely well equipped to carry their provisions from one place to another thanks to their ingenious cheek pouches. What’s more, these small omnivores also have very specific nutritional requirements…
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. 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.
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 is in the pink.
AND SO, TO SLEEP… Are hamsters nocturnal? Do guinea pigs spend more time awake or asleep? Do chinchillas sleep upside down? Do rats only come out at night? Some of our small pets’ sleeping habits seem a little odd to us, but there are some very good reasons why their snoozing patterns are different to ours, which are really rather fascinating…
NOT ALL HAMSTERS ARE THE SAME From the solitary Syrian to the sociable Roborovski, the UK’s most popular hamster varieties each have their own unique care requirements and temperaments.
TRUE OR FALSE? HOW WELL WILL YOU SCORE IN OUR FUN HAMSTER QUIZ? Small and interesting, hamsters are one of the world’s most popular pets. But how much do you know about them and their fascinating hamster ways?
WILD AT HEART Many generations ago, the ancestors of our small pets lived in the wild. Understanding how their wild relations live can help us meet our small pets’ needs so they have the right environment, company and nutrition to thrive.
NEW PETS ON THE BLOCK? From dogs to degus, cats to chinchillas, ferrets to fancy rats – when did these awesome and amazing animals become our furry companions?
BONDING WITH YOUR SMALL PETS Handfeeding is a great way to build a closer bond with small animals. It takes time to build trust, but when your little friend finally feels confident enough to take a treat from your hand, it’s a special moment.
WHICH SMALL PET IS RIGHT FOR YOU? Small pets come in all different shapes, sizes and species, so it’s no surprise that choosing the right addition to your family is far from easy. We’ve lots of advice to help you make the best decision…
HOW TO TELL IF YOU HAVE A HAPPY PET Wheek-wheeking, bruxing, dooking, chirping, binkying, popcorning – there are all sorts of ways our pets tell us they’re feeling good, once you know what to look for…