First discovered in Syria, hamsters are native to many parts of the world. The term "hamster" is derived from the German word “hamstern,” which means "to hoard.” The term fits hamsters perfectly, because they hoard food. Hamsters are popular pets, but do have some special requirements to keep them happy and healthy.
The most common type of hamster kept as a pet is the six-inch Syrian hamster, which is also known as the Teddy Bear Hamster or the Golden Hamster. Dwarf hamsters such as the Siberian, Roborozsky’s Djungarian, and Chinese hamster are smaller than the Syrian hamsters, measuring just 2-3 inches in length. Lifespan for a hamster is typically 2-3 years.
Hamsters are nocturnal by nature and sleep during the day. Hamsters have unfortunately gained a reputation for biting, but this mostly happens when they are awakened during the day. It’s a natural defense to being startled awake. Due to their nocturnal nature and tendency to nip, they are not suitable pets for young children, and all children should be supervised by an adult when handling. As hamsters are “night owls,” be prepared for nightly routines of digging, scratching, and wheel-running.
Common signs that something may be wrong with your hamster include dull-looking eyes, matted fur, weight loss, shaking, diarrhea or runny nose. Hamsters also seem susceptible to respiratory problems, and can even catch a cold or pneumonia from humans. Avoid handling your hamster when you’re sick. If you notice any symptoms of illness, contact your veterinarian promptly.
Most hamsters do well on a combination of rodent chow (rat blocks) and hamster pellet/seed mix. Look for a seed mix made up of pellets, grains, seeds, and dried vegetables.
A small, bite size amount of fresh vegetables and fruit is recommended 2-3 times a week. Appropriate vegetables and fruits include carrots, spinach, lettuce, and apples. Introduce new foods gradually and remember to clean up any uneaten food before it spoils. Do not give your hamster onions, uncooked beans, chocolate, candy or junk food.
Clean, fresh water should be available at all times. Use an inverted bottle with a drinking tube that can be attached to the cage. Change the water daily.
Hamsters will stuff their face (literally) with food and then empty out whatever is in the pouch for some late-night snacking. When cleaning the cage, it’s not uncommon to find hidden stashes of food in the corners.
Syrian hamsters are solitary animals and should live alone. If you choose to have more than one Syrian hamster, they must each have their own cage. No exceptions. Dwarf hamsters, however, are social animals that like to live in pairs. Make sure not to house male and female hamsters together, since rodents breed quickly and produce large litters.
Hamsters should be kept indoors in a solid bottom wire cage or a 10 gallon aquarium that has a wire mesh cover for ventilation.
Provide different levels for your hamster to climb on and investigate. If you are using an aquarium, a simple homemade wooden platform with a ramp will do.
Make sure the enclosure has a secure mesh top from which the hamster cannot escape but also provides adequate ventilation. Keep the cage away from direct sunlight, drafts, and other pets such as dogs and cats.
The inside of the enclosure should be lined with absorbent bedding. Bedding such as Carefresh (made from soft white cellulose fiber) or aspen shavings are appropriate choices. Avoid pine or cedar shavings – the fumes and oils from these woods are harmful to hamsters. Timothy hay can also be used. Remove soiled bedding, droppings, and stale food daily. Thoroughly clean the cage with warm, soapy water once a week.
Hamsters love exercise! Exercise wheels are a must, and cardboard tubes, PVC pipes, and plastic igloos provide them with opportunities to run, climb, hide, and tunnel. Hamsters need to chew to keep their teeth from overgrowing. An untreated, unpainted piece of hardwood, twig or even a hard plain dog biscuit is an appropriate chew toy. Avoid anything made of soft plastic. Your local pet supply store will also have chew toys made just for hamsters.
Hamsters like small enclosed spaces to sleep and hide such as a small box, igloo or flower pot.
To get your hamster used to being handled, start by hand feeding your hamster small treats. When they seem comfortable with taking treats, pick them up by scooping them into your hand. Once the hamster is successfully hand-tamed, you can start allowing them supervised romps outside of their cage for short periods of time. Make sure the exercise area has been checked for dangers and can be secured so they can’t escape. A hamster’s eyesight is not very good. Take extra care to make sure they don’t fall or hurt themselves when exercising outside of the cage.