How to take care of your pet hamster
These creatures are so named from the German word hamstern, meaning to hoard (Syrians can hoard half their body weigh in food!!). They are nocturnal, with their vision working best at dusk into the early evening. The most common kind are
- Syrian – These are the largest, come in a variety of colours and are solitary-they will fight if kept with others. They will hibernate if temperature drops below 5 degrees (lasting for 2-3 days, alternating with short periods of alertness), during which they are still responsive to touch. They don’t generally bite and as the easiest to handle are the most suitable for children.
- Roborovski – The smallest breed, 4-5cm in length. These are the most likely species to be awake during the day, are less likely to bite but are very quick and difficult to handle. They can be kept on their own or in groups/ with a mate.
- Chinese – Shy, very entertaining to watch as they climb the most and tunnel a lot. They can be kept on their own or in pairs if introduced at a very young age. They reach about 10-12 cm in length, and sleep a lot when days are short.
- Russian dwarf Campbell – Most common dwarf species, can be 10-12 cm in length and have fur along their feet. They do not hibernate and may bite, in general these are faster and more difficult to handle. They are quite sociable and are best kept with others of their kind.
- Russian dwarf Winter White – They are 8-10cm in length, also have fur on their feet and do not hibernate. They are easier to handle than the Campbells but may bite. They can be kept in groups/ singly or with a mate. Their coat turns white in the winter with shortening day length.
Sound is one of their most important senses, they use echolocation when exploring their environment and navigating. They will only make a noise if they are hurt, fighting or frightened. Smell is also very important, they have several scent glands to mark territory, on their flanks, ears, ventrally under belly-this can get quite dark and prominent in males, you may see them rubbing these against walls and entrances to resting areas. Their whiskers are incredibly important sensory devices that allow for communication and exploring territory. They tolerate cold well but not heat—at 34 degrees they become very stressed and as high as 36 they can die. They are incredibly active little creatures and must have plenty of environmental stimulation to occupy them – caged exercise balls, exercise wheels, flying saucer wheels are all available in local pet shops for this purpose.
Life expectancy 2 years (Russian – 9-15 months, Roborovski – 3-3.5 years)
Weight Syrian 100-200g, Chinese 20-40g
Puberty Chinese 90 days, Syrian 34 days
Gestation Syrian 15-18 days, Chinese+Roborovski 20-21 days
Litter size 3-5 on average, except Syrians – anywhere from 4-16!
Weaning Syrian 20-25 days, Chinese 21 days
Food: They are omnivores, which means they eat both meat and vegetables. Most petshops have a commercial rodent mix available. These are a complete diet if your hamster chooses to eat each different part of the mix—which inevitably they will not! They tend to pick and choose the sugary bits and leave the other parts, therefore a diet that prevents selective feeding is best ie Supreme science Selective. Protein content of food should be no more than 14% for a mature hamster. Fruit veg and nuts can also be given ie apple, carrot, broccoli, pear, parsley, cabbage, walnuts, raisins etc. they eat from the cage floor, NOT the food bowl. They hoard food in the nest box, this must be cleaned out once weekly. Syrians eat roughly 5-7 g per day. Small amounts of hay can be left in with them also, for bedding and for fibre intake. Avoid sugary treats as these species are prone to diabetes, unfortunately a lot of these are available commercially. They gnaw a lot, so always leave hamster wooden chews, branches from untreated fruit trees, even dog biscuits for them to chew on. They also prefer eating from the cage floor as opposed to from a bowl!
Water: They consume on average 10ml per 100g bodyweight, in a water bottle or open space in the cage.
Clear plastic or glass tank with a system of tunnels and living ‘nesting’ rooms is better than the wire cages, as in these they tend to climb, fall and injure themselves (leg bones can be broken, just as in humans. Also dwarf species can get through the tiniest of spaces and escape!). They are meticulous about their toilet habits, always using the same place as their latrine – a small jar turned on it’s side containing soiled bedding encourages toilet training and helps in cage cleaning. They need a lot of exercise (in the wild they can travel up to 5 miles a night!), exercise balls and wheels are ideal for this. They need very deep shavings to allowing for burrowing. Paper towels or hay is ideal for nesting, do not use cotton or synthetic fibres as they can impact in the cheek pouches, or wrap around their limbs causing constriction of blood flow. Once weekly cleaning of all tunnels (plastic ones can get dirty and as no ventilation, ammonia can build up in them) and bedding material is sufficient. It is useful to keep some of the old bedding as they do not take change well and total ‘upheaval’ of their home can be very stressful!
Remember! If your hamster becomes pregnant she may not be able to fit in the tunnels anymore! Alternative housing may be needed on a temporary basis.
The most common kind are demodex mites that cause alopecia (fur loss), possibly not cause any scratching at all, just very dry scaly skin. There is an ear mite that can cause scabby lesions on the face/neck/feet/bum. They can pick up ringworm and fleas from your cat so remember to watch out for him if you notice these on your cat! Skin infections are common and may be associated with mites so it is always worth bringing them in for an exam if you are suspicious of this. If you want to be sure your pet never gets these diseases, preventative treatment using a spot-on product applied to the back of the neck on a monthly basis is recommended.