Hamsters can make great family pets—as long as you keep a few things in mind. They’re easy to care for, and with frequent handling, they can be very docile and affectionate. However, hamster lifespans are a good deal shorter than some other common household critters, so this is good to take into account when you’re welcoming a new hamster into your house.
Hamster Life Cycle
Because they aren’t long-lived, hamsters move through their life stages rather quickly. At birth, they are blind and deaf with no fur. Newborn hamsters, called “pups,” are extremely vulnerable. At five days, they start to grow fur. At two weeks, they open their eyes. Generally, hamsters stay with their mothers until they are 21 to 28 days old.
Hamsters reach sexual maturity at approximately 4-6 weeks of age. Ideally, they should not be bred until they are at least 8-12 weeks of age or weigh between 90-100 grams. Gestation periods are quite short, at 20-22 days. By about 14 months of age, hamsters are no longer able to breed.
On average, hamsters live about 18-36 months, with the Syrian hamster breed more likely to live longer than dwarf varieties. Any hamster that is a year and a half old is considered elderly.
What Makes Some Hamsters Live Longer Than Others?
Like many other animals, domesticated hamsters live longer than their wild cousins. In the wild, hamsters are targeted by predators including owls and foxes. Their lifespans are also affected by environmental conditions and fighting with other hamsters. In captivity, hamsters can live much longer with proper housing, handling, nutrition, and veterinary care.
As fragile and sensitive pets, domesticated hamsters are prone to illnesses and other health conditions, which can significantly impact their lifespans. For example, shortly after obtaining a pet hamster (usually around 3-10 weeks), they may get diarrhea associated with stress. However, diarrhea can occur at any age.
Hamsters may also experience fur loss from nutritional deficiencies. Other common ailments that affect hamsters include:
Cheek pouch disorders
Amyloidosis (protein deposits in the organs)
Certain breeds are more prone to specific ailments than others. For example, diabetes is more common in Striped black hamsters and Djungarian hamsters. Djungarian hamsters are also more prone to glaucoma. Syrian hamsters commonly suffer from heart disease, amyloidosis, and pneumonia.
With proper diet and care, these diseases can be mitigated.
How to Improve Your Hamster's Lifespan
A hamster’s diet should consist mainly of a commercially produced pelleted rodent diet intended for mice and rats. Diets made of primarily seeds may cause nutritional deficiencies in vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. They also contain a lot of sugar and fat, leading to diabetes and obesity.
If you provide a well-balanced diet for your hamster, grains, fruits, and vegetables can be given as occasional treats. To aid in hamster longevity, avoid diets with high levels of refined sugar and low fiber.
Hamsters also need plenty of space to move around. Several types of cages are excellent habitats for your furry friend. Commercial cages made of rigid plastic material (e.g., polycarbonate, polysulfone, and polypropylene) or stainless steel are great options. Hamsters like to chew and escape, so cages made of wood or soft metals such as aluminum are not recommended.
Cage size for one hamster should be large enough to provide a nest box, exercise wheel, and other enrichment. Sizes can range from 24”x12”x16” to 48”x12”x16” or larger. The bigger the better! The more space your hamster has to move around, the more they will exercise and play, which is good for longevity. Cages should also have a secure, tight, close-fitting door and lid to prevent escape.
Hamsters do well with a solid-bottomed cage with bedding. Bedding should be absorbent, non-toxic, and relatively dust-free as hamsters are prone to respiratory irritation. Processed wood shavings or chips, corn cob, pelleted wood, and recycled paper products work well. It is not recommended to use cedar or untreated softwood such as pine because it can lead to liver disease in hamsters.
Hamsters tend to urinate and defecate in one corner of the cage, so any soiled bedding material should be removed and replaced with a clean cloth daily. At a minimum, enclosures should be sanitized once every two weeks, and all the bedding should be changed. Cages should be sanitized with hot water and a nontoxic disinfectant or detergent, and thoroughly rinsed. Water bottles and food dishes should be cleaned and disinfected daily.
It is also good to provide enrichment and stimulation for your hamster by adding tubes, exercise wheels, pipes, shelters, and caves to their cage. Providing tissue paper, cotton, or paper towels allows your hamster to make a lovely fluffy nest.
Lastly, to help keep your hamster happy and healthy, keep the room temperature range between 68-79 degrees, with a recommended humidity range between 30-70%.
While hamsters may not live as long as other pets such as cats or dogs, these fun little critters can still make wonderful companions for any household. Establishing healthy practices in daily hamster care can help improve your hamster’s lifespan, in addition to regular wellness check-ups with your veterinarian.
Brown, Susan. Veterinary Partner. Hamsters as Pets. 2000.
Mayer, J. and Donnelly, T. Elsevier Health Sciences. Clinical Veterinary Advisor: Birds and Exotic Pets. 2013.
Mitchell, Sandra. Veterinary Partner. Husbandry and Medical Care of Hamsters. 2020.
Mitchell, Sandra. Veterinary Partner. Parents’ Guide to Selecting a Small Pet for Children. 2020.
Pollock, Christal. LafeberVet. Basic Information Sheet: Hamster. 2010.
Pollock, Christal. LafeberVet. Differential Diagnosis in Hamsters. 2010.
Quesenberry, K., Orcutt, C., Mans, C. and Carpenter, J. Elsevier. Ferrets, Rabbits, and Rodents: Clinical Medicine and Surgery. 4th ed. 2020.
Suckow, M., Stevens, K. and Wilson, R. Elsevier Academic Press. The Laboratory Rabbit, Guinea Pig, Hamster, and Other Rodents. 2012.
Featured Image: iStock.com/Nynke van Holten