So you are looking for a new pet and thinking about getting a pet hamster?
That’s cool. They make for great pets. Especially as first pets for children as they are cute and pleasing to hold.
This article will help you to decide which type of hamster you want, detail how to buy it, and give information on the best means of hamster care.
Table Of Contents
- Is a hamster right for you?
- Which breed is right for you?
- Rescue vs Buying
- Tips for choosing a hamster
- How much does a hamster cost?
- Hamster care – housing
- Hamster care – out of the cage
- Hamster care – diet
- Hamster care – health
Is a hamster right for you?
There are many positive reasons as to why a hamster might make a good pet, including:
- they don’t require constant attention
- they can exercise themselves – e.g. on their exercise wheels
- they are relatively inexpensive to buy and keep
- they are low maintenance and don’t require too much training
- they don’t take up a lot of space
- they are clean creatures that enjoy grooming themselves
Wow, it sounds like the perfect pet!
Are there any negatives or drawbacks to having a pet hamster?
Aside from some common health issues, which we will discuss later on in this article, we feel there are three obvious drawbacks of owning a pet hamster.
3 negatives to owning a hamster
- hamsters are nocturnal and can be noisy at night
- they are a small animal so need to be handled delicately and require adult supervision if being handled by young children.
- they have a short lifespan
Let’s have a look at these points in a little more depth.
Hamsters are nocturnal
This is not necessarily a negative for families with parents and older children who are at work and school all day as hamsters will sleep during the day and be awake and ready to play in the evening when the family is all together.
You will just need to make sure that your hamster is not housed in a bedroom or the human roommate may not get much sleep!!
However, hamsters are less suitable for families with young children as they will be coming out to play after the children have gone to bed.
Your new hamster is a small animal
Hamsters can be easily injured if they are not handled correctly. Therefore, it is important for adults to supervise children when they are handling their adorable hamster.
Being a small animal, your new pet hamster is likely to be an exceptional escape artist so it is of paramount importance that you keep a watchful eye while playing with it and also give your hamster the correct housing.
More on housing later.
Hamsters typically live for about 2 years.
A Syrian hamster is much bigger than a dwarf hamster and may live to 4 years.
One breed of dwarf hamster – Roborovski hamsters – may also live to 4 years.
The other 3 dwarf hamster pet breeds will live between 1 and 2 years.
With quite short lifespans, it can be heart breaking that just as you start to form a bond and relationship with your pet, they go away.
This can be a difficult experience for young children, especially.
Which breed is right for you?
As we have just mentioned, there are 5 hamster breeds that people keep as domestic pets. Lets quickly look at each of those to give you an idea of which one might be best suited to you.
A Syrian hamster is much bigger – about twice the size – than a dwarf hamster and will live longer in most cases.
Syrian hamsters are easy to handle, curious and enjoy exploring.
Often referred to as golden hamster, Syrian hamsters have a golden brown coat with a lighter colored belly
Because of their size, a Syrian hamster can be housed in a standard cage with bars that gives good ventilation.
Syrian hamsters are solitary creatures and must be kept alone. Do not try and integrate them with other hamsters.
They are more similar in appearance to mice than the other domestic hamster breeds with longer tails and long, slender bodies.
Chinese hamsters can be shy to begin with and take a little time to warm to humans.
They are intelligent and require a lot of stimulation and activities to keep them from getting bored.
The 3 breeds of domesticated dwarf hamster are:
- winter white dwarf hamster (aka Russian hamster)
- Campbell’s dwarf hamster
- Roborovski hamster
Dwarf hamsters are very small and quick, so not ideal first pets for young children.
However, they are social animals and prefer to be in same-sex groups so children could enjoy watching them play together in their tank.
We mention tank there rather than cage because dwarf hamsters should not be kept in a habitat with bars as they could easily escape due to their tiny size.
Campbell’s dwarf hamsters can be very timid and nervous so it would be nice if you could give your hamster places in their tank where they can hide and feel safe.
You can find more detailed information about hamster breeds here…
Rescue vs Buying
Ok, so you’ve decided on which breed of hamster you want to make your new pet. Now all you have to do is decide how you are going to get it.
You pretty much have 3 options:
- Find a rescue group that has homeless hamsters
- Go to a local breeder
- Pop down to your local pet store and select a hamster that you like
We’ve put pet store last because we believe you should only go for this option if the first two are absolutely unavailable to you and you know a small, local pet store that treats its hamsters well.
What are the pros and cons of each?
Each option has positives and negatives, so let’s take a look…
- You are saving more hamsters than just the one you buy as the money you spend on your hamster will be used to buy food and medicine for the other hamsters that are still waiting to be rescued
- Rescue centers save animals from dismal and often horrific situations.
- Rescue centers don’t buy from big chain pet stores or ‘producers’, so you are not directly supporting mass produced hamster mills.
- You can give an older hamster a second chance at having a happy life.
- Potential owners are vetted and considered before a hamster is given over to their care.
- The hamsters will have been treated for any medical conditions they may have
- It’s possible your hamster may be psychologically scarred.
- It’s possible your hamster may be in poor health.
- It’s likely your hamster will need a lot of care and patience from you.
- May not be suitable for families with young children or other pets.
- Reputable breeders are the best place to buy from as they focus on producing healthy animals with agreeable natures.
- Reputable breeders will be knowledgeable about the lines they breed – e.g. health background, lifespan, character.
- It’s likely you will be able to observe the parents to get a good idea of what your hamster’s personality will be like.
- Reputable breeders will know their animals well and can help to recommend ways to keep them happy and well looked after – e.g. what the hamsters like – food, toys, living conditions etc
- They can provide accurate sexing.
- Your hamster will be used to being handled from a young age.
- Not all breeders are reputable. Some may not follow standards and are only into breeding for the money rather than the love of the animals. Be sure to do your research.
- You might need to travel some distance to find a reputable breeder.
Pet shop pros
- Hamsters are available in most pet stores so finding one should not be a problem.
- A good pet store will ensure their hamsters are treated well with regular feedings, bedding changes, access to a water bottle, toys and plenty of space.
- It’s the simplest way of selecting a new hamster.
- Big shops will likely have a large selection of hamsters to choose from.
Pet shop cons
- Most pet stores get their hamsters from ‘producers’ or ‘mills’ who may not take as much care over their animals as they should due to the large numbers they produce. This could mean:
- A higher chance of your hamster having emotional and health problems due to poor breeding practices.
- Your hamster will not live as long as you hope
- Your hamster will not have had much human contact, if any, before you so could need a lot of training.
- If you buy a hamster from a pet store that treats them poorly you are making space for the shop to add another hamster and treat it poorly too.
- Your local pet stores might not have the breed you are looking for.
- They might not be able to tell you about the hamsters background.
- Anyone can buy a hamster from a pet store – there is no vetting.
- You could be supporting hamster mills that keep hamsters and other animals in poor conditions.
Tips for choosing a hamster
If you choose to rescue a hamster because you just want to give a homeless animal a good home then that’s great – no need to consider anything further than that.
But, if you decide to buy a hamster from a pet store or breeder then there are a few things for you to consider…
- Be patient and check out a number of stores or breeders
- Try to find a store or breeder that has a good selection of hamsters to choose from
- Think about what characteristics most appeal to you
- Maybe you are looking for a hamster with a lot of energy that will keep you entertained for hours.
- Maybe you are looking for a hamster that is laid back and relaxed, will sit calmly in your hand and not cause you too much trouble.
- Maybe you are looking for a shy and retiring hamster that you can nurture with love and care and help it to become more sociable and comfortable around humans.
- Maybe you want multiple dwarf hamsters that you can watch play and socialize together.
- Examine the hamster’s surroundings. If the hamster’s living conditions are good then there is less likelihood that the hamster will suffer from health conditions (e.g. stress and diseases). Look for:
- a clean habitat
- easy access to food and water
- plenty of space – i.e. not overcrowded with other hamsters
- not caged with another obviously sick hamster
- Look a the hamster’s body. A hamster’s coat should well groomed, they should not be too fat or too thin, their eyes, nose and ears should not show any discharge or crust.
- See how they move and react to being handled. Check for signs of lameness when walking, distress when handled and labored breathing.
- Find out the age and try to select one that is around 6 weeks old.
- Make sure you know the hamster’s sex – very important if selecting more than one with the view to housing them together.
- Finally, ask yourself again…
- Does it look healthy?
- Is it happy to be handled and is the breeder or store worker happy to handle it?
- Has it been kept in good conditions?
How much does a hamster cost?
Unless you have a friend who recently had a litter of hamsters then you are going to pay something for the initial purchase of the hamster itself.
The real costs come from hamster care!
Please see our article How Much Does A Hamster Cost for an in depth breakdown of how much it costs to keep a hamster.
Now lets explore hamster care…
Hamster care – housing
Before you buy your hamster you will need to have sourced a cage, bedding, water bottle/bowl, food and toys.
It may be the case that you have rescued/adopted your hamster and the center has included a cage, bedding and toys in the price, but in most situations the first thing you will need to do is find these things yourself.
Of course you want your hamster to be as comfortable as possible with lots of room to run around in, so the bigger the cage the better.
But, if you don’t have a lot of space in your house then a huge cage could be problematic.
What do we think?
We believe that the more floor space and height to the cage, the better!
Here is a brilliant article that will give you in depth information about cage sizes and ideal requirements for each breed of hamster.
As you will see, there is a lot of noise around at the moment from hamster forums wanting minimum cage sizes to be raised and we wholeheartedly support this.
Different types of cages
There are 3 types of cage:
- Wire or mesh cage
- Tank – plastic with wire mesh top
- Aquarium – glass with mesh or screen lid
For the hamster bedding (or litter) you want something that is absorbent and will provide comfort, warmth and the opportunity to burrow.
Wood shavings offer all of this and Aspen shavings are the most widely used and available.
Be sure to make the bedding deep enough so your hamster can burrow away to their heart’s content.
A minimum of 4-6 inches is required, but hopefully you have bought a nice big cage so you can go much deeper.
Research shows that hamsters in cages with lots of burrowing space have lower stress levels and are generally more healthy.
So just wood shavings?
Not necessarily. Paper bedding is also an effective litter option.
Please use either paper towels or plain paper (recycled for eco-friendly points) as inks can be toxic – so no newspaper.
A hideout is where your hamster will likely spend most of their time so a good one is necessary to protect them and help keep them feeling safe.
The best ones are made from wood because they are safe to chew and absorb moisture.
What nesting material is best?
High quality hay, torn paper or cardboard make good nesting material.
Do not use cotton wool or other fluffy materials as they can get tangled around your pet’s neck and legs.
For more information on hideouts please check out this article.
Water bottle or water bowl?
To be honest, there are more negatives than positives for each so it’s really up to you to decide which you think is best for your hamster.
Maybe try out both and see which is more favorable.
To help, let’s have a look at the pros and cons of each….
- The water won’t become contaminated with bedding, food, fur or feces
- Water won’t get knocked over in the enclosure
- It can hold more water than a bowl
- Better for a cage with multiple hamsters as no chance of contamination
- Hamsters will have to drink in an unnatural position with their head tilted
- Hamsters may chew the metal spout and damage their teeth
- It can hold more water than a bowl
- The spout may become blocked while you are away
- Hamsters can chew holes in plastic water bottles
- Water bottles may leak causing wetness around the area near it and leaving your hamster without water
- Bacteria can quickly build up in the spout
- More difficult to clean than a bowl
- Hamsters can drink freely and in a natural way
- No spout for hamsters to break their teeth on
- The bowl won’t become blocked like the spout on a bottle could
- Easily contaminated with bedding, food, fur and feces
- Need to clean the bowl everyday and add fresh water everyday
- More difficult to set up – needs to be shallow but not too shallow; heavy enough to avoid rocking; and placed on a raised platform away from bedding preferably with steps leading up to it.
- Water may spill out into the enclosure causing wetness around the area near it and leaving your hamster without water
- If the bowl is too deep a small hamster could drown
- Not effective for a cage with multiple hamsters due to increased chance of contamination
Chewing toys are both fun and useful for you pet hamster as they help keep your hamster’s teeth from getting too long.
Wooden chew blocks are the best for gnawing on.
Wooden ladders, climbing blocks and see-saws are also great fun. As are small balls for your pet to push around.
We recommend you don’t purchase anything made of plastic or if you do make sure to keep a close eye on your hamster when using those things – swallowing plastic can be dangerous.
How often should you clean the cage?
This will depend on a few things, such as:
- how many hamsters are living in the habitat?
- how big is the cage?
- the health of your hamsters
Clearly, the more hamsters there are in a cage the more often it will need to be cleaned.
And a large cage will need less frequent cleaning than a small one.
Is there a general rule?
General guidelines suggest that if you have one hamster you should clean the cage once a week.
But you want to try and avoid disturbing your hamster’s nesting area too often.
Especially if you have more than one hamster in the habitat as hamsters communicate using smells.
Steps to cleaning
- Keep a daily eye on your hamster’s habitat and take out any wet bedding every day.
- Clean food and water bowls 2-3 times a week.
- Each week, replace all bedding in the habitat with fresh bedding.
- Each month, deep clean the entire habitat by washing and scrubbing it thoroughly with pet friendly cleaning products.
Hamster care – out of the cage
Hamsters need to be given time outside of their cage. This is good for both them and you.
They get exercise and a chance to explore different surroundings, and you get to handle them which is both enjoyable and important for helping your hamster to become used to you.
Hamsters need to exercise every day. And they will exercise every day if provided with the opportunity.
How much exercise is needed may be different for each individual hamster, but in general they should be given as much as possible and at least an hour a day.
Most owners will choose to put an exercise wheel in the hamster’s cage and this is ideal because then your hamster will use the wheel do it’s own exercise to its heart’s content.
If you feel that you have a lazy hamster and it isn’t exercising itself enough on the wheel then you can buy a hamster ball and watch your beloved pet scamper around your house or garden.
But we are not particularly fond of hamster balls, and do not encourage their use.
Hamsters love climbing and burrowing so be sure to kit out their enclosure with things that allow then to do this – e.g. deep bedding and ladders, blocks or climbing frames.
Allowing your hamster ample time out of the enclosure is really important and a great way for you to enjoy handling your pet.
As well as running around in a ball, your hamster will also enjoy being in the open air.
Try to set up and enclosed area where it can safely run around without escaping or being attacked by another animal.
To ensure proper hamster care, pick your small animal up using two hands and cradle it softly in your palms. Stroke it gently and talk to it in a soothing voice.
Once it gets used to your touch and voice you will be able to form a wonderful bond with him or her.
Hamster care – diet
So what’s on the menu for your hamster?
As with caring for any pet, food and diet are very important things to consider. You want to get them right.
Good quality commercial pelleted food should be the basis of your hamster’s diet as it is designed to mimic the seeds and grains your pet would eat in the wild.
What percentage of the diet? About 90%
And the other 10%?
Make sure that your hamster finishes its treats bowl before giving more to ensure it is not just selecting its favorite bits. This will ensure a more balanced diet.
That can be made up of treats. And by treats we don’t mean chocolate and candy. Feeding hamsters sugar is not good!
When it comes to fruits and vegetables, a small amount two or three times a week is sufficient.
Here are some good treats to give your hamster:
|Grains||Can come from prepared loose seed mixes specifically for hamsters. Offer no more than a tablespoon daily|
|Vegetables||carrots, broccoli, cucumber, cauliflower, romaine lettuce, spinach, dandelion greens, and some other dark green vegetables.|
|Fruits||Give in moderation – strawberries, grapes, bananas, apples, pears. Avoid – apple seeds, citrus fruits, watermelon, rhubarb|
|Hay||Timothy hay is the best choice|
What should I never feed my pet hamsters?
- Sugar – so no muesli or other human cereals high in sugar content.
- Raw beans and potatoes
- The fruit we already mentioned
Hamster care – health
You can also consult with your vet about the best kind of diet for your particular pet.
For example, as a dwarf hamster can be prone to diabetes it may be best not to feed them fruit.
Keeping an eye on the weight of your pet is also important.
Hamsters are superb self groomers so you won’t have to worry about cleaning your pet unless they get really dirty somehow.
Being a nocturnal animal, one of the biggest signs that your pet is not feeling well is if he/she is not active at night.
Other signs of ill health include:
- lack of appetitite
- huddling in a corner
- hair loss
- difficulty breathing
- discharge from eyes/nose/mouth
- bumps and swelling
If you see any of these things then you really need to contact your veterinarian. The vet should be able to inform you as to the best course of action to take.
While vet registration is vital, it is important to understand that veterinarian services and medications can be quite high – especially once your hamster starts to get older.
For more information about this please check out this article.