Hamsters are small, stocky rodents that can make excellent pets if given appropriate care and veterinary treatment. The average hamster lifespan is relatively short, around 1-2 years, but they can live up to 5 years. Hamsters are typically nocturnal animals that like to burrow and hoard food.
The most common hamster species is the Syrian, also known as the golden hamster. Syrian hamsters can have short or long hair (known as the teddy bear variety). The Dwarf hamster is also a common pet variety.
Hamster housing should provide at least a 15-20 gallon cage, with at least 150 square inches of solid (not wire) floor space, but bigger is always better. Wire cages, aquariums, and plastic habitats can be used as long as they provide a safe, escape-proof home for your hamster—hamsters are escape artists!
Housing must be well-ventilated to allow fresh air; this prevents buildup of odor from urine, feces, and spoiled food. Hamsters, with few exceptions, should always be housed alone, as they can be fiercely territorial and cause a great deal of damage to each other through fighting.
Do not use cedar or pine shavings, as they contain aromatic oils that are very irritating to hamster skin and mucous membranes. Commercial nesting materials (commonly called “fluff”) are not recommended because they may lead to intestinal blockages, pouch impactions, or strangulated limbs.
Bedding should be changed 1-2 times a week with enough depth to allow the hamster to burrow and dig, especially under hides. Hamsters seek secluded, quiet areas for sleep, so hideaways are especially important within the habitat.
Hamsters love toys and utilize them to meet a variety of needs, from chewing, climbing, exploring, burrowing, and hiding. Many hamster owners use paper bags, cardboard boxes with holes cut out, hideaways, and paper towel rolls to provide enrichment for their hamsters. Solid connector tunnels also provide for environmental enrichment but should be cleaned weekly.
Hamsters usually enjoy running in exercise wheels. Make sure to only provide wheels with a solid running surface to prevent injury.
Most veterinarians recommend blocks or chew sticks specifically designed for rodents for enrichment, as well as to help keep the teeth healthy. Regular rotation of toys can keep hamsters engaged and not bored.
Preferred cage temperatures are 65-80 degrees Fahrenheit, with relative humidity around 40-70%. In temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, hamsters can go into a state of torpor, which is similar to hibernation.
Hamsters do very well on commercial diets, pellets, or blocks, containing around 16% protein. Oxbow and Kaytee are preferred pellet or block brands that hamsters thrive on. Work with your veterinarian to determine your hamster’s caloric needs based on their size and health, but most hamsters require ⅛-⅓ cup of pellets per day.
Seed-based diets are “formulated” and sold for hamsters, but these should be used sparingly and as a supplement only to pellets. Seed-based diets do not provide necessary nutrients and commonly lead to obesity and vitamin E deficiency.
Hamsters can be supplemented with additional fruits and vegetables, but these foods should not be the mainstay of their diet. Hamsters enjoy:
Sudden dietary changes may result in intestinal upsets and diarrhea, which can be severe and even result in death of the hamster. Therefore, make sure to slowly introduce one new item at a time.
Hamster Medical Needs
Annual veterinary visits are essential to maintaining your hamster’s health. Your vet will perform a thorough exam, record your hamster’s weight, check for dental disease, and review diet and husbandry. They can also assist in trimming nails and catching medical problems early.
Hamsters have an anatomical difference from other rodent species that can confuse their owners. Hamsters have raised, pigmented glands on their hips that may look like hair loss or tumors. These are scent glands and not a lesion or dermatitis. It is always a good idea to have these glands checked by a veterinarian if they are not symmetrical or have other concerns.
Like many prey species, hamsters may hide illness until it is fairly progressed. Healthy hamsters are alert, with bright eyes. They will explore their surroundings and have a clean, shiny coat. A healthy hamster will not have nasal or ocular discharge, and normal nail and tooth length. Always call your vet at the first sign of lethargy, difficulty breathing, nasal discharge, sneezing, decreased appetite, behavior changes, or any other concerns.
Common illnesses of hamsters include:
Cheek pouch impaction and abscess
Diarrhea, transient from diet
"Wet tail,” or severe, usually fatal diarrhea
Some diseases of hamsters are zoonotic, meaning they can spread to humans. Always check with your veterinarian and human health provider if there is concern about a zoonotic disease, including but not limited to:
Lymphocytic choriomenigitis virus
Dermatophytosis (ringworm) Salmonellosis
Hamsters can acquire diseases from humans, most notably the influenza virus and COVID-19, so it is important to discuss these issues with your veterinarian. If you are sick, avoid close contact with your hamster.
Hamster Cleaning Needs
Both the food bowl and water sipper should be cleaned and provided fresh daily. Most hamsters will drink from a water bottle secured to the side of the cage with a lick spout. Cages should be cleaned weekly or as needed. Constant exposure to unsanitary conditions is unpleasant for hamsters and can result in infections of the skin, eyes, and respiratory tract. Make sure to keep 1-2 corners of the cage available for urination/defecation, far away from sleeping and eating quarters.
Diluted bleach (1 part bleach to 10 parts water) is effective for sanitizing a cage but the cage must be rinsed thoroughly after cleaning and dried before reintroducing a hamster to prevent respiratory and skin irritation.
Hamster coats should be brushed regularly, especially long-haired breeds. Hamsters also require periodic nail trims. Contact your vet if your hamster’s nails overgrow or look abnormal. Owners should monitor hamsters for any growths, check their teeth for dental disease, and check their rear ends for fecal buildup or urine staining.
Hamsters typically keep themselves clean and do not require additional bathing with soap and water, unless instructed to do so by your vet. However, some hamsters, especially Dwarf breeds, do enjoy regular sand baths, using chinchilla sand products. It is important to remove sand from the cage when hamsters are finished bathing to not be a constant respiratory irritant.
Hamsters are nocturnal and easily scared if awakened suddenly. They do not have good eyesight, so it is encouraged to speak to them before picking them up. Hamsters will nip when frightened or poorly socialized. As a result, they are generally poorly suited as pets for small children.
Hamsters may also bite if roughly handled, startled, or are feeling ill. To hold, owners can use a two-handed technique, involving cupping the hamster gently. Because of cheek pouches, hamsters have a lot of extra skin around the neck. A gentle but firm grasp of the scruff of the hamster’s neck can help restrain them; however, this should only last for a few moments.
To begin handling a new or young hamster, start by offering small, high-value treats. Daily handling is important. First, handling helps to socialize hamsters, tame them, and make them more friendly. Some will even become affectionate and enjoy this time with their owners. Daily handling also provides environmental enrichment. This, along with frequent rotation of toys, helps fight boredom. This daily interaction should start in quick, frequent episodes and gradually work to longer stretches of time, if a hamster is agreeable. Working with babies in this way frequently leads to a docile, tame, and rarely nippy hamsters.
Featured Image: iStock.com/Darya Komarova