Hamsters are one of the world’s most famous house pets. Often confused with their chubbier, more science-oriented cousins, the guinea pigs, hamsters have served as beloved companions to both children and quirky adults for time immemorial.
Taking care of your hamster shouldn’t be a difficult task. Make sure to provide a clean, ventilated cage, appropriate bedding and nesting, chewing material, and the classic wheel. A water fountain or bottle alongside a food dispenser, adding the occasional fruit or veggie to keep them healthy.
Hamsters are technically mice. Because of their cousin status to common mice and the ever-feared rats, some people don’t trust hamsters inside their homes, assuming they’re both dangerous and disease-spreading as their more vulgar relatives. Although not totally unfounded, these concerns can be alleviated by following the right care routine for your new companion.
The animal behind the legend
A German word, “hamster,” means “to hoard,”; deriving from the much older middle high german word “hamastra,” believed to be derived from the Persian word “hamaestar,” meaning oppressor.
Like mice, rats, and even squirrels and marmots, hamsters are rodents. They are small, vertebrate mammals (meaning they feed off their mother’s milk at birth until weaned), warm-blooded (just like us humans), belonging to one of the 2050 species of this order. They’re small, with short legs yet uncommonly wide feet, pointy nose, small round furry ears, short tail, and extremely pointy teeth.
It’s A Rodent World
Rodents constitute almost half of all known mammal species currently walking the earth, being the Delany’s swamp mouse the smallest one (weighing a mere 5-7 grams); and the capybara the largest (standing at around 77-146 pounds, depending on the specimen). Hamsters span a wide range in size and weight while remaining on the smaller side of the spectrum compared to other species, as they’re seven whole genera and eighteen to twenty-four species within the Rodentia order (as rodents are scientifically called).
Like the rest of their kind, they’re primarily nocturnal/crepuscular and solitary. This means they’ll frequently sleep through the day and do quite well on their own (although some species can coexist with other specimens, the most common ones should be kept alone, or they’ll bite others found near). They’re also primarily nearsighted and completely color blind; while being very sensitive to movement and having a very versatile smell. Their front teeth (incisors) are incredibly sharp and continually growing throughout their lives, non-stop.
Yet hamsters are unique among rodents, as instead of climbers, they’re diggers. They don’t hibernate in winter while kept in captivity, but even in the wild, their hibernation periods tend to be relatively short compared to other species. Like their other famous cousins, the squirrels, they have quite large cheek pouches that allow them to store and carry food to bring to their burrows.
They’re extremely quick and large breeders, having a gestation period as short as thirteen days long and as long as thirty, depending on the species, managing to deliver up to twenty-four new offspring at a time (yet a litter that big, although possible, is quite uncommon). The baby hamsters are born blind and remain this way until around two weeks old and are weaned from their mother’s milk at around three to four weeks of age. A female hamster can become pregnant between two to five times a year, being the most common between two or three times.
Types Of Hamsters
There are quite a few rodents that are considered “hamsters.” Yet, not all are pet material. But among them, it’s the Mesocricetus Auratu, from the family of the Genus Mesocricetus, or Golden hamster (also called Syrian or “teddy bear” hamster), the most commonly used as a pet. Of thick, silky, mid-length fur, regardless of their yellowy name, these hamsters are usually found with their fur color back, grey, brown, white, red, honey, or a mix of all of these, besides the classic yellow its name would imply.
Other species less frequently found as house pets are:
- the Cricetulus Griseus (or Chinese hamster),
- the Phodopus Sungorus (or Djngarian or Russian dwarf hamster),
- the Phodopus Roborovskii (or Roborovski hamster), and the Phodopus Campbell (or Campbell’s dwarf hamster).
As a fun fact, most hamster tails are hard to notice as they tend to be short, except for the Chinese hamsters, having a tail roughly of the same length as their main body. This makes them quite easy to spot and tell apart from other species currently available as pets.
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What Do Hamsters Need To Thrive
While essentially omnivores, in the wild, hamsters have a diet as varied as roots, pieces of plants, seeds, small invertebrates, insects, and even frogs or small lizards. On the other hand, domestic hamsters thrive on seeds and grains, nuts, some fruits and vegetables, and even exclusively commercial food mixes usually sold for hamsters and gerbils.
They also need the freedom to be active at night, as that’s when they’ll be more energetic. If expected to be awake and play-ready during the daytime, they may resort to attacking and biting their humans as they dislike being awakened.
And speaking of playtime, due to their delicate nature and small size, hamsters are not ideal for children under the age of 8, as their fine motor skills and control of their strength are not developed enough for them to treat them as gently as their build requires. Additionally, and given their natural preference for the night, hamster’s happy hours are usually after curfew, so you may reconsider if you were thinking of getting them as companions for children.
Is It Easy To Take Care Of A Hamster?
If comfortable and generously provided for, hamsters are pretty low-maintenance pets. Consider these easy-to-follow steps to ensure your new pet is happy and well kept.
Basic Hamster Care
Most, yet not all, hamsters are loners. So it is mandatory to provide a place for them to call their own. They need to be fed like any other living creature would be allowed to sleep and rest and given exercise and entertainment to avoid becoming bored or unhealthy.
- Living quarters (usually glass or plastic with top ventilation, such as aquariums or wire cages).
- Bedding (term used to describe the materials used to cover the bottom of the living space, also used for hoarding and nesting).
- Exercise wheel
- Food and water dispensers
- Chew toys or chow
- Nesting material
Tips From The Pros
- Living Situation
A well-kept hamster can live for up to 3 years, so getting one could be considered a mid-term commitment. This is important for you to consider as all cleaning and grooming habits will have to be consistent throughout this time to guarantee your hamster’s health and proper development and minimize odors.
Your hamster’s cage should be thoroughly cleaned at least once a week. If odors occur, cleaning habits should be revised and ideally optimized. A well-kept cage should remain relatively smell and funk-free for around that time.
Also, make sure to find out exactly which species you’re acquiring (or adopting) to ensure proper care and isolation within their living quarters if necessary.
And don’t forget to install the wheel! Proper exercise and activity will make your hamster happier. Just be prepared to hear the squeaking during the night, as it’s when your pet will most likely be active.
According to the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies, hamsters in captivity should have a diet consisting of around 16% protein and 5% fat. Although they can survive on commercial food mixes, they’ll hardly thrive on them. Therefore their diet should at least contain some organic fresh fruits and vegetables, such as green leafy veggies and non-citrus fruits.
Hamsters need to be provided with something to chew constantly. As mentioned before, their sharp incisors, which are sharp enough to gnaw through wood and twigs and eat other small animals, are also perpetually growing. Unless chewing material is provided, these teeth would grow unstoppably and end up badly hurting your little friend. Some pretty great and low-cost chew toy alternatives besides wood are dog biscuits (which also serve to provide extra calcium for your hamster’s diet) and even paper towel roll tubes.
Finally, do not panic if you catch your little furry buddy nibbling on its waste. Coprophagy (the action of eating one’s feces) is quite common among hamsters as it helps them obtain extra nutrients that were not absorbed in the first digestion process of their food.
When in captivity, aggression after mating sessions is common, especially among Chinese and Syrian species.If you’re breeding at home, make sure to separate females from males to prevent females from hurting or even killing the male post-mating.
Like most mammals, a calm, peaceful environment needs to be guaranteed during birth. Females, if disturbed, can go as far as eating their own offspring if they feel threatened or in danger. Also, make sure to separate the litter from the mother as soon after weaning as possible. Mothers will likely turn on their young and cannibalize them as they’re already considered mature after around three weeks and would start to be considered invasors on the adult’s space, a common reaction due to their solitary nature.
Hamsters are a little Pandora’s box. Not only for their size but because of how complex their care and interactions are, notwithstanding their simple appearance. Often misunderstood, hamsters, like any other living creature, should not be considered a toy but a companion and should receive the best possible care to ensure they live a full, happy and healthy life.
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Shawn Manaher is a serial entrepreneur but when he isn’t working, he loves dogs. He’s owned different pets over the years, and always gives a part of his heart to each pet.