Hamsters are often overlooked because of their size or they are considered pets for young kids to look after. The truth is, hamsters make great pets if given a chance to show it. They look particularly endearing when their cheek pouches are full of food. However, they do require a lot of care. Many inexperienced hamster owners may think of their hamster being a cage animal and that all their needs can be met inside a cage. This is not the case, hamsters are extremely active and to truly appreciate these pets, you will need to understand their needs. In this article, I will talk about things that need to be considered before owning a hamster.
Hamsters are nocturnal
This means hamsters are active during the hours of darkness and that they sleep the day away. Due to their timetable being the opposite of yours means that you will probably only have time to interact with your pet from sun down onwards. You might be lucky and catch them up during the early hours of the morning. It is possible for a hamster to slightly alter their sleeping patterns to suit their owners. When your hamster is sleeping, it is not suggested to wake them as you may frighten them and also because they may bite when frightened. If you cannot handle having a pet where you have to work around their waking and sleeping hours, then do not choose to have a hamster.
Hamsters require big cages
I remember my big sister owning a hamster when I was little. That must have been well over a decade ago. Back then, rodents were all placed in cages that had floor space only a bit bigger than an A4 paper. Hamsters were relatively new pets and their needs were still not fully understood by the general public back then. Syrian hamsters were only discovered in the wild about 200 years ago and at one point, they were even thought to be extinct! The Syrian hamsters you see today were bred from a small litter in the 1930s at the University of Jerusalem. In the 70s, other smaller hamsters such as the Russian hamsters were sold as pets. Due to them being relatively new, they were sold in small cages. Today, you just have to google hamster cage to see that cages are much larger than they were ten/twenty years ago. Cages are now multi-storeyed, full of tunnels to reflect a wild hamster’s environment. Cages are not cheap but if chosen right, should last for the duration of your hamster’s life.
Hamsters have short live spans
Compared to many other pets, hamsters do not live relatively long. Depending on the breed, most hamsters live up to 2 years (if you are lucky, 2.5-3 years) so you will have to prepare yourself for eventual heartbreak. I do not wish to put you off but this is an important factor. Due to this short lifespan, hamsters are hard to re-home so before buying a hamster, you have to consider whether you can offer a hamster a few years of good quality life style. If you feel that you might fall short of the mark then please do not choose a hamster. It is all too easy to leave them in a cage in the corner of the room and forget about them.
When a hamster grows old, they will gradually lose their fur, their needs will change as they will become less active and be less agile. They may have trouble reaching their water bottle or climbing up ledges. If you want a pet hamster, you will have to prepare to help them through old age. A few months ago, my hamster Coco crossed the rainbow bridge (or hamster heaven, whatever you believe in) and the few weeks leading up to his passing away were difficult. He was old (2 years and 6 months), but his age only started to show about two/three months before his death. I gradually noticed that he had started losing his hair and he could no longer get to some places. He would sleep more and he had trouble reaching his drinking bottle so I gave him a small water bowl. However, every night when I went to sleep, he would run on his wheel despite being extremely old. The only day he did not use his wheel was the day he died.
However, despite the short life span, I have millions of happy memories with my hamster.
Hamsters need plenty of exercise
They may be small but wild hamsters roam large distances during night time to find food. It’s the same for pet hamsters. Hamsters can go for many kilometres each night and whilst one doesn’t expect you to walk your hamster for a few km, it is generally expected that you provide them with some form of adequate exercise. This can be in the form of an exercise wheel (I recommend that every hamster has access to one of these), an exercise ball, hamster proof environment to roam in etc. They will need time out of the cage to satisfy their roaming needs and to prevent boredom. Daily exercise is recommended. A hamster that is just confined in a cage all day is a very unhappy hamster. This brings me onto the next point.
If you are buying for a kid
Hamsters may seem like ideal pets for young children. However, a child who is not enthusiastic enough may quickly become bored, particularly since they may see little of their pet due to hamsters being nocturnal. Even if you are buying for a child, you will still have to be the one responsible for the hamster as young children cannot be relied upon to look after an animal. You will have to be prepared to do all the cleaning (cages need cleaning every 1-2 weeks), feeding, supervision during exercise and administrating any necessary meds. Having said that, hamsters are good pets for teaching children responsibility. They are very friendly if handled from a young age and are easier to keep than dogs or rabbits. You can easily split tasks between you and your child, provided you supervise your child when he or she handles the hamster. For very young children, I would not suggest keeping a hamster as they are small animals and have fragile bodies. If a child is not able to fully understand a small animals fragility, then giving them a hamster is not a good choice. The breed of the hamster is also a factor to consider when choosing a hamster. Syrian hamsters are larger and easier for small hands to handle. They generally have friendlier temperaments, are less likely to nip and are slower than their Dwarf counterparts.
Dwarf or Giant?
Ok, so there really isn’t such thing as a giant hamster but there are definitely two different sized hamsters available. Dwarf hamsters and golden hamsters need to be looked after in slightly different ways. Earlier I mentioned that golden hamsters or Syrian hamsters are better for young children as they are easier to handle and have better temperaments. They also tend to be more responsive to people. The other breeds (Russian Campbell, Roborovski, Chinese and Winter White being the main ones you can buy) are all much smaller. Depending on what you want from your hamster, you will have to consider which breed you prefer. Look to the article about different hamster breeds to get a general idea.
One or two?
Wild Syrian hamsters are very solitary animals. They are fiercely territorial and will not hesitate to pick a fight with another hamster. Due to this behaviour, it is extremely unwise to house two Syrian hamsters together so if you wish to have more than one hamster, you will need to look at dwarf varieties. Even then, not all dwarf varieties thrived when placed in groups. General rule here is: if you are buying a Syrian hamster, you can only have one per cage. If you are buying a dwarf hamster, it depends on the breed but you may have 2 or groups. If they fight, you will have to separate them as they can seriously injure each other.
If after reading the information above, you are still passionate about getting a hamster, the next thing you need to think about is what breed of hamster you would like. When you’ve decided that you do want a hamster, please feel free to use this checklist when you are at a pet store (or better yet, adopt!):
- Make sure the living quarters and the pet shop are clean
- Check droppings for sign of wet tail
- Hamster is alert and active with no problems with movement
- Able to handle hamster and hamster not responding aggressively
- Eyes, ears, mouth, nose and teeth all healthy
- Fur and feet is in good condition
- No soft faeces stuck to fur
- No signs of injuries or signs of having fought with litter mates
- Always ask if you have any questions