hamsters: misunderstood pets

Hamsters: Misunderstood Pets

Are you thinking about getting a hamster or do you already have one? Here is some information on proper hamster care and some common misconceptions.

Many people view hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, etc., as small, disposable, beginner pets for kids. However, this is not true. Unfortunately, a lot of the information spread about small animals is false and in some cases, harmful. 

For example, the tiny brightly colored wired cages with tubes (found at the pet store) are actually bad for hamsters. Since they are newly domesticated animals, unlike cats and dogs, they still have their natural instincts. Hamsters are very territorial and will show stress behaviors if kept in a small enclosure, even if it is already bigger than your usual colorful plastic cage. 

Stress Behaviors include:

  • Bar climbing
  • Bar biting
  • Jumping
  • Pacing along the walls
  • Chasing your hand when it’s inside the cage (cage aggression). 

Often these behaviors are considered normal when they are not. 

Enclosure Size

Hamsters are ground dwellers, not made to climb. If your hamster displays bar climbing behavior, no matter the size of the current cage, it’s time for a cage upgrade. The hamster community recommends bin cages measuring at the very least 450 square inches at the base (storage bins with the lid’s center cut out and replaced with hardware cloth), DIY cages made with hamster-safe materials, fish tanks with a minimum of 40 gallons, or modified IKEA furniture (like the DETOLF, PAX, BILLY, or LINNMON). These options are often cheaper than those sold at pet stores and are bigger and better for the hamster. Instructions for making these enclosures can be found online. 

Bedding

In the wild, Hamsters make complex systems of underground tunnels in which they sleep and do most of their activities. Care guides usually recommend one or two inches of bedding but this is not enough for hamsters to burrow and satisfy their instincts. Instead, these creatures should be provided with at least 6 inches of safe and suitable bedding, preferably more (12”+). Choices include aspen shavings, unscented paper-based beddings, and hemp bedding. Make sure to avoid extremely dusty bedding, scented bedding, and softwood bedding, like pine or cedar, as these have chemicals that can cause respiratory illness. Soft hays like orchard grass can also be added for burrow stability 

In care guides, it is often stated that a hamster’s bedding should be changed every week. However, this can cause a hamster to feel stressed. Hamsters rely heavily on their sense of smell to get to know their surroundings. With proper sized cages and adequate bedding depth, it is only necessary to spot clean (scoop out dirty/soiled sections) every week, as using this cleaning cycle helps the cage stay clean and retain the “hamster smell” at the same time. Never remove all of the bedding, unless the hamster has passed. 

Bathing

Hamsters’ fur is coated in oils that help keep it clean and shiny. Instead of giving a water bath, which causes extreme stress, a sand bath is necessary to keep a hamster’s coat well-maintained. Use a dish that is big enough to allow your hamster to roll around in. Do not use dust or chinchilla baths, as these are usually dustier and can lead to respiratory infections. A good choice is a dye-free, calcium-free, and chemical-free quartz reptile sand. This sand bath should be sifted weekly and replaced monthly. Many hamsters also prefer using sand as a toilet area, which will require scooping out soiled sections daily. 

There are five distinct species of domesticated hamsters

  • The Campbell’s Russian dwarf 
  • The Winter White dwarf
  • The Roborovski dwarf
  • The Chinese dwarf
  • The Syrian

Wheels

The Roborovski, at a minimum, should run on a 6.5-inch wheel. Winter Whites and Campbell’s Russian dwarf hamsters should have 7 to 9-inch wheels. Chinese hamsters need 9 to 11-inch wheels, and Syrian hamsters need 10 to 12-inch wheels. The dwarf species have no problem running on a larger wheel as long as they can push it, so buy as big of a wheel as you can. Some stores sell runged and mesh wheels, which can hurt hamsters’ feet and can cause bumblefoot (foot infection). Recommended wheels include the Exotic Nutrition Silent Runner, the Wodent Wheel, Niteangel wheels, and other solid-track wheels. Nail trim tracks are dangerous and can cut the tender pads on tiny paws. Over time, running on a wheel that is too small can cause back damage. 

Hamster Balls

Hamster balls, an item often associated with the hamster, can be dangerous. They are poorly ventilated with tiny slits, which can easily trap hamsters fingers and toes. The ball makes it so that every step the hamster takes causes them to roll, so they have no choice but to run around. The poor ventilation causes high humidity inside the ball, making the hamster feel stressed and trapped. Hamsters and other rodents mainly rely on their whiskers to get around as they have poor vision, and the balls prohibit this. It is recommended to avoid these, except to carry the hamster around in with the lid off.

Food

Contrary to popular belief, a seed mix diet will not cause picky eating. Hamsters are foragers in the wild, eating a wide variety of foods. Your hamster will eat their favorite pieces first, so to ensure a balanced diet, do not refill the food until the bowl is empty. More in-depth information on food options can be found on www.hamsterhideout.com. It is beneficial to supplement the main diet with safe fresh fruits and vegetables occasionally. 

Enrichment

An important aspect of hamster care is enrichment. This includes foraging, digging, and burrowing. For digging, a deep dish of coconut fiber (like ZooMed Eco Earth) is recommended but not necessary. For foraging, options include millet, flax, oat, and other types of sprays, herb mixes, and scatter feeding. Sprays can be placed inside the enclosure and offer a natural way for hamsters to find food. Herb mixes can be purchased online and should be scattered around the enclosure. Scatter feeding means that instead of offering a bowl, you scatter the mix around the cage for the hamster to find. It is better to do this after you have figured out the amount your hamster eats, as otherwise you may underfeed or overfeed. Burrowing behavior can be encouraged through the addition of multi-chamber hideouts, which are hides with many “rooms” for hamsters to create their own burrow systems. They should have no base so the hamster can burrow down from their sleeping space. More items that can be added for extra enrichment are grapevine branches, cork logs, birch logs, and safe reptile mosses. 

Veterinary Care

Hamsters and other small animals are often not provided with the veterinary care they need, leading to an early death. Hamsters generally make good family pets but should never be left unsupervised with small children and should not be bought with the belief that they are cheap or easy to care for. Hamsters are nocturnal (and waking them from sleep is bad for them) meaning children may not get to hold and play with their hamsters as much as they might want. This is a conversation you should have with your children before purchasing a hamster. Your pet hamster should be examined within 48 hours of purchase by a veterinarian familiar with hamsters and should receive, at minimum, an annual examination. 

Aggression

Hamsters should never be kept together regardless of if they are the same species or not. Syrians, Roborovski’s dwarfs, and Chinese dwarfs are strictly solitary, and if they meet another hamster, they will fight to the death. While the Winter White and Campbell’s Russian Dwarfs do sometimes share burrows with others of their own species in the wild, it is risky to keep two hamsters together as they may suddenly turn aggressive and kill each other. For this reason, even these two species should be housed alone unless you are very experienced with pairs of hamsters and have another cage with supplies ready in case they need to be separated.

Conclusion

Of course, this is not all the information about hamsters, but some that is important to share. Please remember that regardless of their size or price, all animals deserve proper care and enriching habitats. For more information, please look at YouTube channels Victoria Raechel, Munchie’s Place, and ErinsAnimals, the Hamster Hideout forum, and www.hamstercareguide.com.

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