HamstersHamsters are among the most popular small-animal pets in the world. They are inexpensive, undemanding, and easy to care for. In many ways, they are the perfect pet for both children and adults alike.
Species DescriptionHamsters are small, between 2 and 4 inches (5 to 10 cm) in length, with tiny tails that are barely visible (although some species have longer tails), and they come in several color combinations. They have fur-lined expandable cheek pouches that are used to store food and bedding. Hamsters also have strong jaws and teeth that allow them to chew through a variety of substances, including wood and plastic. They typically live between a year and a half and two years. Some hamsters are nocturnal, meaning they are most active at night, while others are crepuscular, meaning they are active in the early morning and early evening.
Natural HistoryHamsters weren’t originally domesticated as pets. They were first used by medical researchers in the 1920s. Of the known 24 species of hamster, only 5 are kept as pets. These animals are found in Europe, the Middle East, Russia, and China. Most species live in arid, desert-like habitats. In the wild, they live in long underground burrows that they dig with their sharp claws. They dig separate chambers for sleeping, storing food, and waste products. Their long whiskers help them navigate underground as well as aboveground.
Enclosures and SetupHamsters are best kept in glass aquariums, wire-frame cages, or combination cages made of wire and plastic. Because they are ground dwellers, they do better in cages with plenty of floor space rather than a tall cage with room to climb.
Your hamster’s home should have a layer of bedding made from pine, aspen, or recycled paper or wood pulp. Inexpensive softwood shavings (pine or cedar) have been implicated as both causing and aggravating respiratory problems in small animals and can affect liver function in hamsters.
You should also place an exercise wheel, a food dish, a nest box, and toys in your hamster’s cage, and attach a water bottle to the enclosure. All these will keep your pet active, healthy, and happy.
DietHamsters are omnivores, meaning they eat both plant and animal foods. In the wild, they will eat seeds, plants, flowers, root vegetables, and insects.
Offer your hamster a mix sold at pet stores for hamsters and gerbils. These mixes contain seeds, grains, beans, nuts, alfalfa, pellets, and dried fruits and vegetables. Don’t choose a food that mostly comprises sunflower seeds or other nuts—such a diet will cause your hamster to become malnourished and overweight.
Supplement the mix with hay and fresh fruits and vegetables—carrots, spinach, corn, watermelon, apples, and various berries are a few good choices. You can also offer moths or other live insects.
Your pet hamster must always have access to fresh water. Change his water every day, and clean his water bottle or bowl regularly.
GroomingIf you’re looking for a pet who requires little in the way of grooming, a hamster is a good choice. These little rodents are naturally clean and need very little, if any, assistance from their owners to stay that way. Hamsters spend 20 percent of their waking hours grooming themselves. They wash themselves daily and chew down their nails.
If you still find that you want to groom your hamster, use a toothbrush to brush him, the corner of a damp washcloth to clean him, and a paper towel or dry cloth to absorb the moisture. Always be as gentle as possible.
Health and IllnessWhen purchased from a good source and provided with proper, loving care, hamsters are hardy little animals who don’t get sick often. Your pet may live his entire life without having to visit the veterinarian.
Knowing a hamster’s normal behavior will help you recognize when your pet might be sick. Discharge from the eyes or nose is a cause for concern. Sudden changes in behavior such as lethargy, reduced appetite, and failure to groom can also indicate illness.
Like all living creatures, a wide range of health concerns affect hamsters. Your pet can develop abscesses, sustain broken bones or fight injuries, or be infected by various bacteria.
Most problems can be corrected before they occur with proper husbandry. Clean your hamster’s cage regularly and thoroughly, be gentle with your animal, make sure that he doesn’t find his way into trouble, and don’t overfeed.