By Geoff Williams
Hamsters are adorable, and if you had one as a kid, you probably remember them being easy pets to care for. That is, of course, because your parents likely took care of your hamster. As you can imagine, it isn't as easy to care for a hamster as it looked as a kid, but once you get into a groove, you may find that it isn't all that hard either. Consider the following your handy hamster care handbook.
How to Take Care of a Hamster: The Basics
If you are thinking about getting a hamster for your child, it would be best if your child is in elementary school or older.
“Unfortunately, this isn't the perfect small pet for young children. Hamsters require a lot of care, can get nippy [and] are not always great in tiny hands,” said Laurie Hess, author, exotic animal veterinarian and owner of the Veterinary Center for Birds & Exotics in Bedford Hills, New York.
If your child is old enough to handle a hamster carefully and help clean the cage, however, then Hess says a hamster can be a good, fun, educational pet for families. When heading out to the pet store, you’ll want to pick up the following:
- Your hamster: whether you buy one or two depends on your preference and, more importantly, the type of hamster you’d like. Syrian hamsters should never be put in pairs, as they will violently fight over territory once they reach maturity, said Cindy Cribbs of Haven for Hamsters Rescue & Sanctuary. Dwarf hamsters, Russian or Chinese, are also popular hamsters, and while they can be territorial, they do well in pairs only if they are littermates or a mother and child, Cribbs said.
- A cage: purchase a cage at least 15 inches long by 12 inches high, but opt for something larger if you can to give your hamster more room to exercise and explore. Make sure the cage is also escape-proof.
- Bedding: as a general rule, the best and healthiest type of bedding is one that isn't made of wood shavings. Try to find bedding made from cellulose or plant-based paper fibers and avoid cat litter, corn cobs, newspaper and any scented bedding (which contains chemicals that can cause respiratory trouble).
- Toys: an exercise wheel is a must to prevent boredom, and you can also purchase a ball for your hamster to run around a room in under your supervision.
- Food: you can buy bags of hamster mix, which will generally have a blend of fruits, vegetables and seeds and grains, but you'd do well to also give your hamster small pieces of fresh vegetables and fruit, Hess said. You’ll also want to give your hamster access to fresh water at all times.
Not all greens are good for hamsters, neither are all fruits and vegetables. Stick to broccoli, parsley, apple, pear, carrot and turnips while avoiding onions, garlic, chives, leeks, lettuce, raw potatoes and oranges. As hamsters can be prone to diabetes, you’ll want to give them fruit (which is laden with sugar) sparingly.
How to Clean a Hamster’s Cage
Hamsters need clean cages to keep them from getting sick with a number of conditions, including diseases that are transmittable to humans, Hess said. Follow these steps for cleaning your hamster’s cage:
- Move your hamster to a safe area: as long as you can keep your hamster from rolling off somewhere while you aren't looking, an exercise ball would be an ideal spot to keep your hamster while cleaning it’s cage. A second cage or deep container that your hamster can’t get out of will also work.
- Get rid of bedding: don’t worry about cleaning your hamster’s bedding, just throw it away and start fresh. Hamsters can sometimes hoard their food, Cribbs said, so tossing the bedding every time you clean will help prevent it from bolding.
- Wash the cage: use regular soap and warm water to thoroughly rinse and clean your hamster’s cage or container. If you use vinegar, bleach or any other type of cleaning product on the container, make sure everything is thoroughly cleaned off and dried before adding new bedding and returning your hamster back to its cage.
How to Care for Baby Hamsters
If your hamsters breed or you take home a pregnant hamster, you’ll need to know how to care for the babies, which will be generally easy to do in the beginning. "No matter how hard it is you must leave them alone for at least a week," Cribbs said. "Just feed and water them and that’s all."
Cribbs offers these additional tips for caring for baby hamsters:
- Get a sheet: cover the cage with a sheet to give the mother an opportunity to used to her new family also keep odd smells off the babies, which will lower the risk of the mother harming them.
- Take a break from cleaning: give your hamsters their own space for the first week, and then begin cleaning the cage again.
- Add protein: to the mother’s diet while she nurses. This can include small pieces of boiled egg and chicken.
- Separate the hamsters: eventually, the hamsters will need to be separated, which can be done in the form of purchasing new cages for them to live in or rehoming the babies to new pet parents. Dwarf hamsters should be sexed and separated at about four to five weeks old; Syrians at about six weeks. Not separating your hamsters can encourage fighting amongst them, spread diseases and encourage even more pregnancies.
Setting Up Your Hamster’s Home
Start by purchasing everything you need for your hamster, like its cage, food, water, bedding and exercise wheel, then bring your hamster home. You’ll want to make the transition as easy as possible as it can be stressful for a hamster to go from a pet store or a shelter or a rescue to your home. While a pet store, shelter or a rescue has loud people and unusual smells, your home has its own unusual noises and smells that your hamster will not be adjusted to.
Hamsters are prone to a bacterial disease called wet tail, which can be caused by changes like coming to a new home or suddenly living in an overcrowded cage, and it can be fatal if not treated within 48 hours. Signs of wet tail include lethargy, loss of appetite, failure to groom and diarrhea. If you see any of the above signs, call your veterinarian immediately to have your pet examined and bring a stool sample to the visit for parasite testing.
Do things right, however, and you and your family will probably love having a hamster.
"They're very smart, and they can be trained," Hess said. “They can be skittish a lot of times, but if you hold one and give it a treat, they begin to anticipate you holding them. If they're getting food as a treat, they smell your hands and see your fingers and think, 'OK, pet me. This feels nice.'"
Hess says that you can even train them to do tricks, like retrieving small items, using food to reward their behavior.