Why choose hamsters as pets?
Hamsters are small pets that can be very rewarding when cared for properly. They originated from the desert and they are nocturnal, meaning that they sleep during the day and are most active during the night - this means that they may not fit in with everyone’s daily routine. They are rodents which means that they also love to gnaw! They typically live for up to 2 years of age. Although they are great pets, they’re not necessarily suitable for small children due to: being fragile to handle, biting if handled roughly and their unsociable waking hours.
It’s important for us to consider how we can provide the five welfare needs for all animals that we consider keeping as pets - they need:
There are a few different breeds of hamsters to choose from as pets:
Diet - what do they eat?
Hamsters are omnivores - in the wild their diet would consist of a mixture of grasses, seeds, grains, and insects. They would typically spend a short period of time outside their burrow collecting foods which they then transport in their large cheek pouches to safety to eat at a later time.
There are some very good quality complete foods now; these are specially formulated to provide all the essential nutrients that your hamster requires. We don’t advise feeding traditional ‘muesli’ type foods as they encourage selective feeding. Often the hamster picks out the tasty bits, leaves the healthier bits behind meaning they don’t, in fact, eat a balanced diet! Hamsters prefer eating/drinking from ceramic bowls rather than metal (as they make a noise when they eat/drink from them).
Always ensure access to fresh water - this can be from a small bottle or a shallow heavy-based dish and must be changed daily.
Housing and behavioural enrichment
Hamsters are prey animals and nocturnal (most active at night), this must be taken into account when choosing their housing type and location. Housing should be secure and away from potential predators or noisy areas in the house. Inside the housing there must be safe areas to hide and rest during the daytime. Hamsters have sensitive hearing so don’t place them near TVs or radios.
Suitable housing must be secure and safe - with no gaps your hamster could escape from or get stuck in. Multi-level cages with a mixture of tubing and wire are generally good as they provide exercise and more floor space. Wooden housing is not suitable for hamsters due to their love of gnawing (and they’re also very good at it!). Remember to check all housing regularly for damage.
Space is important, an enclosure can never be too large - the more area the better! Once your hamster is happy being handled you can also offer them some time out of the cage (never leave them out of direct supervision).
Hamsters need to be kept busy and entertained in their cage. Lots of hamster safe toys are now available which encourage safe climbing, gnawing and benefit their mental health. Running wheels or discs provide good exercise - try to get a large one so that the hamster can fit comfortably without having to arch their back as they run.
Cardboard boxes or tubes are popular as are gnawing sticks of apple/willow wood (make sure they haven’t been sprayed with any harmful chemicals). Hamsters’ teeth grow throughout their lifetime and it is essential that they have items to safely gnaw to wear them down. It is a good idea to have a store of toys and regularly change what’s in the cage to keep things interesting and offer new challenges. It can be a fun family challenge to think up new ways of enriching their homes.
Bedding material such as dust-free wood shavings are suitable throughout the housing and you should also provide some nesting material for the bedroom area of your hamster’s cage. The bedroom area should be quiet and dark and filled with nesting material such as shredded paper or cardboard, wood wool or good quality bedding hay.
Keep the cage and bedding clean and dry - hamsters communicate using scent so try not to disturb this too often especially in groups housed together. Full weekly cleaning out is recommended.
If handled gently and regularly hamsters can interact well with people - try not to disturb their sleep to pick them up as this is when they may bite (imagine if someone interrupted your sleep!). Pick them up in cupped hands and always hold them over a surface so that they can’t fall/jump onto the floor and injure themselves. Never allow young children to handle hamsters (or any animal) unsupervised.
It depends on the breed as to whether the hamsters can be housed in pairs/trios or must be kept on their own. Be aware that mixed-sex groups will breed, even if they are littermates (brother and sister).
Common health conditions:
Signs of ill-health
Hamsters are so small that they can deteriorate quickly if they become ill. If they show any of the following signs or you have any other concerns then you must contact your vet immediately:
Are hamsters the right pet for you?
If handled correctly and gently hamsters can become rewarding pets. However, it is important to ensure that you have space and time to care for them correctly. Don’t forget that they have different daily schedules to you (preferring to sleep during the day and be awake at night). We encourage you to contact your local rescue centre for hamsters to adopt.