Apart from providing your hamster with dry hamster food which can be purchased in pet shops, they should be given a small amount of fresh food daily, e.g. cabbage, broccoli, carrot, apple, French beans, corn on the cob, etc. Do not give lettuce as this can be too wet for them. Remove uneaten food daily so that it doesn’t go mouldy.
NEVER give your hamster chocolate – this is highly toxic for them. Avoid giving ‘pet’ chocolate as well as this can clog up their face pouches if they do not empty them immediately.
If you have Campbells that are diabetic, ensure they receive essential fatty acids in their diet – sunflower seeds, linseed, sesame seeds and pumpkin seeds. Give a small amount of these daily. Do not give them sugary treats, or treats that have honey in them as these will make their condition worse.
Do not give salty peanuts. Syrians enjoy monkey nuts as they spend time opening the shells and stripping the skin off the nut before storing. I’ve not yet found a Campbell or other dwarf hamster who understands what to do with a monkey nut!
Feeding new mothers/babies: ensure the mother has plenty of food when she is feeding her young. Supplement her food with a milky meal – Complan, rusks or baby food. Her babies will also enjoy this when they start leaving the nest. Use a jam jar lid as a dish as this is shallow enough for the babies to reach. It will get messy pretty quickly with sawdust being flicked into it so you should remove any uneaten food before it gets completely buried. Small pieces of food should also be dropped into the nest, e.g. raw porridge oats, bread or pieces of vegetable, to ensure the mother has plenty to eat. The babies will also start eating this food. Don’t overfeed a pregnant hamster as her babies might grow too big and she may have difficult during the birthing process.
Always make sure your hamster has clean water. Water is a great indicator of ill health. If the consumption increases dramatically it is likely to be a sign of a medical condition, e.g. kidney problems, diabetes. I have always found that just before a tumour appears on one of my hamsters their water intake increases dramatically. Consult your vet in these instances as some conditions can be treated if diagnosed in the early stages.
Always ensure there is hard food so your hamster can wear its teeth down as they continually grow. If your hamster has dental problems, e.g. missing teeth, or uneven growth, you may need to modify their diet and include some baby food or pureed vegetables. Discuss this with your vet beforehand as once you start giving this type of food you may have to continue for the life of your hamster. Your hamster might just need to have its teeth clipped regularly to enable it to eat normal hamster food.
Treats: hamsters like scrambled egg, cheese on occasions. Some like small pieces of fish or white meat. In the wild hamsters eat seeds and some small insects – you can buy meal worms from some pet shops. If you decide to give them these and you don’t want to handle the worm you can hold it with tweezers until your hamster takes it. Cooked or raw peas are also a favourite.
Many books state that hamsters are generally robust little animals with few health problems. You might be lucky (especially if you’ve got a Robo or Chinese hamster) but sadly, Syrians in particular, can be affected by a number of illnesses. See Hamsters in Sickness and in Health.
Some conditions can be deadly for the hamster if not treated immediately, or can be passed onto other animals or humans. Therefore, if your hamster appears unwell it is worth getting them to a vet quickly.
The main ways to prevent illness are to ensure your hamster is cleaned out regularly, has clean water and is given a well balanced diet and any mouldy food is removed from its cage daily.
Sadly a lot of hamsters (when they are around 2 years of age) get tumours. Often you don’t know they have them until the tumour is quite developed. The first tell-tale sign is that the hamster starts to drink a lot of water. Their body shape starts to change into a ‘pear shape’ and they can waddle or struggle to walk. Sometimes their body is so out of proportion they will fall over. If left, the hamster will start to remain in its nest, soil itself and stop eating. They might have blood/pus coming from their rear. Tumours like these cannot be treated and if there is any sign that the hamster is suffering then they should be taken to a vet and put to sleep. Hamsters have a very high pain threshold generally and a strong will to live and therefore if they look dull, hunched, not wanting to come out of their nest you know that they are in a lot of pain and the kindest thing is to put an end to it. Your vet will be able to advise you on this and your options.
Not many people talk about euthanasia, but this is the one thing we can do out of love to help our pets who are suffering. If you need to have your hamster put to sleep you should discuss the process with your vet as this will put your mind at rest and you will know that your pet won’t suffer at all. My preferred process is for the vet to give the hamster a quick sniff of gas which will make them sleep. Then whilst they are sleeping they inject them with an overdose of anaesthetic. This way they don’t know anything about it and pass away without any stress. Some vets don’t automatically administer gas first, therefore it is worth checking with them to see if they will do this for your pet.
Hamsters have scent glands that are symmetrical and situated in their hips. On some hamsters these are prominent and appear as small dark brown spots, sometimes the fur is a bit thin around them, and some hamsters like to wash them a lot meaning that they often have damp patches on their sides. This is perfectly normal.
Tumors of the rear end (testicles) – When a male hamster reaches puberty (2-4 months) their testicles start to grow and in some hamsters they can become very prominent (especially in Chinese hamsters). They can appear odd shaped, or even change shape – this is all perfectly normal. Hamsters can get testicular cancer but it is very unusual around this young age.
Also, their cage/tank should not be in direct sunlight as they can suffer from heat stroke. The temperature should remain constant around their home – if it is too cold they could go into hibernation. They should not be exposed to fumes, e.g. in garages, air fresheners, etc. Nor should their cages be put in a stressful place – by stereo speakers or near other animals that might torment them.
Campbells are prone to diabetes. Apart from being told that diabetes is in the family, the first sign of it is likely to be them consuming vast quantities of water. In this case you can test their urine with a Diastix (you can get this from your vet). Due to their small size not much can be done for them in this case, except to ensure there is always enough water. You may need to put a second water bottle into their cage as their water consumption can be incredible. They will need cleaning out daily as their bedding will become wet very quickly. Also, include essential fatty acids in their Diet.
Dwarf hamsters can be scooped up in a plastic cup. If there is a dominant female in a cage of Campbells you may need to isolate her to be able to pick up any of the others. Never put your hand in a cage of Campbells and expect them to come and walk on it (unless you know them very well) as that is a sure way of getting bitten. Instead, put your hand lightly over a Campbell, their face towards your little finger and their rear towards your thumb. Gently close your hand around them.
Some Syrian hamsters are tame when you first get them, others are not. The best way to tame a Syrian hamster is as follows:
Always talk to it when it is out and about in its cage. It will very quickly get to recognise your voice.
If you have a wire cage, feed the hamster treats (such as nuts, dried fruit etc) but be careful as their eyesight is so poor that they don’t nip your finger. NEVER give chocolate as this is toxic. The hamster ‘chocolate or yoghurt’ drops are mostly fat and if the hamster pouches these they can melt and cause a blockage in their cheek pouch – therefore they are best avoided.
NEVER put your hand into the nest as the hamster can be aggressive. In the wild hamsters are attacked from above, therefore a hand suddenly appearing in their nest will be viewed as an aggressor.
If your hamster is sleeping and you want them to rally, gently tap the cage and call their name. You may have to do this several times to get them to stir as some sleep very deeply.
Open up the cage – removing the top from the bottom. Rub some of their wood chippings onto your hands – this will put your hamster’s scent on you. Place a hand each side of your hamster and quickly ‘scoop’ them up. Immediately transfer them onto your clothing. Some hamsters don’t like walking on skin but are much happier walking on clothing.
It is best to sit down and allow the hamster to explore you. Let them walk over your clothing, but if they start to wander off gently slide a hand under them and bring them back. Don’t put your hand all the way round them or squeeze them. Keep talking to them.
After a few minutes, return the hamster to its cage. Chances are it will want to come out again immediately. Hamsters are very nosy creatures and it will have realised that there is a big world out there just waiting to be explored. If it wants to come out again, let it and go through the process again. It doesn’t take long before the hamster will get used to the idea of standing and waiting by the door to its cage when it hears you around. If you do this daily and increase the handling time each day the hamster should become tame quite quickly and be happy for you to handle them.
Remember that some hamsters take longer to tame than others so don’t give up if they don’t respond in the first few days. It is important to persevere as your relationship will be so much better with them if they feel confident with you.
Housing / Bedding
The main rule is that any cage or tank you have for your hamster must be large enough and suitable.
Syrian hamsters MUST LIVE ALONE. If they are kept together beyond the age of 5-6 weeks they will fight and they can cause horrendous injuries. They may look cute living together in the pet shop, but these are only babies, and their personality will change as they approach 6 weeks and therefore you should never risk keeping them in pairs or groups.
Syrian hamsters love to climb and therefore the wire cages are the best option for them and ideally needs to have a side opening door (top opening doors make it difficult getting a hamster out). The cage must be big enough to allow for some toys (climbing ladders, tubes, coconut shells etc) and also fit a large wheel. The wheel that is supplied as standard in a lot of hamster cages are far too small for an adult Syrian. Some of the three tier cages don’t allow enough space for a large wheel to be fitted. If the wheel is too small the hamster will not use it properly as they would need to really arch their back. They tend to walk on the outside of the wheel in these cases. The type of wheel is also important – the wheels with spokes are quite old fashioned but they are still sold. These can cause injuries to the hamster if they get their feet caught and therefore should be avoided. There are lots of different types of wheels, some completely solid, others with a drainage slit. These are all fine for Syrian hamsters. If you are raising a litter and the wheel has a drainage slit, this should be removed as the babies all have a habit of cramming into the wheel for a run when they are about 3 weeks old and this type of wheel can cause leg injuries. Therefore, if necessary remove this type of wheel and replace it with a completely solid one until the babies are fully grown.
Whilst the tubular cages look fun, there are some things that need to be considered. Firstly, the amount of time needed to clean the tubes and dry them off. Secondly, the amount of ventilation in the cage. Tanks and tubular cages minimise ventilation and this can cause problems especially in the hotter weather. Some hamsters don’t like walking through tubes; others tend to sleep in them or store food. The problem with storing food and sleeping in a tube is that condensation can build up and this can create serious respiratory problems for your hamster. Therefore if your hamster is in a tubular cage ensure that the tubes are dry and if your hamster is storing fresh food in them remove this daily. It is worth removing any uneaten fresh food daily from the cage in any case so that you minimise the chance of it going mouldy and attracting fungal spores.
The third thing to consider with tubular cages are whether or not your hamster will be able to climb through the tubes as they get older. It is important that a good food supply and clean water are available to your hamster at all times. As they get older they will find moving around more difficult and may not be able to climb or have the energy to go through the tubes, therefore it is worth bearing this in mind when putting food out for them.
Never house a pregnant hamster/hamster and litter in a tubular cage. This is because the mum could easily become separated from her babies. The best type of cage for a litter is a single level cage (as large as possible so that you can fit several wheels).
It is inadvisable for your hamster to sleep inside a small plastic house/toy. This is because of the issue with condensation. There are plenty of natural toys and houses available that offer a safer environment for a hamster.
Dwarf hamsters can live in pairs or colonies providing they don’t fight. If they fight then they will need separating into their own cage/tank. Once separated, they cannot be reintroduced to each other or they will fight again.
Dwarf hamsters get on better in tanks. They like to have a lot of floor space with tubes and other toys so that they can run around and set up their own assault course. Some can’t climb very well, therefore you need to create ramps up to platforms. If there are wire ladders and platforms and the bars are widely spaced you might need to insert a piece of cardboard between them so that the hamster can walk along them otherwise they may have difficulty. They only have tiny legs!!! Therefore solid ladders/platforms are preferable.
Wood chippings are good for hamsters but they must be safe. Avoid pine, cypress or cedar mulch as they contain a volatile oil called thujone which can cause skin irritation and respiratory problems. Also avoid any beddings that have been treated with anti-fungals, preservatives or had perfumes/scents added. On this subject no air fresheners or other aerosols should be sprayed near a hamster cage or the hamster can become extremely sick.
There are several types of bedding available – the paper based type is the safest (shredded paper type, or the tiny pieces of paper). Whilst the ‘fluffy’ bedding looks cosy and is available in natural materials there have been reports of some hamsters getting their legs caught up in it and this has resulted in leg amputation. If the bedding gets caught around their leg they need to be able to chew the bedding to free themselves, which they can do if it is paper. Some hamsters find it difficult to chew the fluffy bedding and instead it tightens, shuts of circulation to the limb and it has been known for a hamster to gnaw their own leg off in order to set themselves free.
Cages should be cleaned out weekly. If your hamster gets a bit stressed with the cage cleaning process, then if their bedding is clean you might want to return some of this to them. Also, if they have stored a lot of food and it is in good condition it is a good idea to let them have some of this back too.
Only use disinfectants that are designed specifically for small pets and it is important to ensure that the cage is fully dried before putting the wood chippings/bedding in.
Hamster toilets: it is possible to train a hamster to use a ‘toilet’. These are plastic containers that sit in the corner of the cage. A special hamster litter is available from pet shops. The best way to train a hamster to use one of these is to find the corner that they use for a toilet area. Take some of the soiled wood chippings. Clean out the cage thoroughly, then place the ‘hamster toilet’ in the corner that they use as their toilet area. Put the soiled pieces of wood chippings in this. As this is the only area that will smell like them when they are returned to their cage, this should encourage them to use it. If you are successful with getting your hamster to use a toilet then it should be cleaned out daily/alternate days in order to remove any smells. If you can’t get hamster litter wood chippings can be used.
Hamsters love playing. The dwarf varieties enjoy running in wheels, and forming an assault course over and through tubes placed in their tank. You can now buy hamster balls for dwarf varieties and many enjoy a run in these. Due to their lack of body weight they often get stuck on uneven floor or under furniture when running in their ball, so they need constant supervision.
Syrians love running in wheels and may enjoy going in a hamster ball. Remember though that their exercise/play time should be for their enjoyment and if they just sit in a hamster ball, too afraid to move, then they’re not enjoying themselves and shouldn’t be put in the ball again. Be careful if your hamster goes in a ball – they are great at escaping, so tape the door closed to prevent them letting themselves out. Also make sure there are no other animals around, e.g. a dog or cat might find it great fun to play with the ball not knowing there’s a terrified hamster inside. Also don’t let them go in a ball near stairs as they can get quite carried away with running around in it.
In the wild Syrians can travel up to 5 miles a night in search of food, so it is important they are given some way to exercise and burn off these calories.
Making a play area for your hamster is an alternative idea. If you have an old hamster cage/tank or sturdy box you can fill it will different toys for your hamster and let them play (supervised) in this to give them some variety.
Remember their sight is very poor, so don’t put them near the edge of any furniture as more than likely they’ll walk over the edge and hurt themselves.
Dwarf hamsters love dust baths – pour some ‘Chinchilla’ dust into a small bowl and watch them rolling around in it!
This section isn’t included to encourage people to breed hamsters, but more to give advice if your hamster produces an unexpected litter. The fact is, there are many unwanted hamsters all desperately needing homes, therefore breeding them is often best left to the experts. If you do decide you want to mate your hamsters, please think carefully beforehand. There are dangers to the hamsters either during mating (especially for Syrians – the female will attack the male if you try to mate her on the ‘wrong’ day), during pregnancy and the birthing process. If your Syrian has 12 babies will you be able to re-home them all? They will need separating into single sexed cages at 4 weeks, and into single cages between 6-8 weeks. Pet shops often don’t want them, even if they sold you the pregnant hamster in the first place. Also, if you have a colony of dwarfs or Robos the male and dominant female will mate again the very day the female gives birth, so you could find yourself with a lot of unexpected litters.
Information regarding mating hamsters can be found in books, see Hamsters in Sickness and in Health,
or on many websites. Alternatively, contact one of the hamster organisations who can advise you. If you just like the idea of raising a litter, contact a local rescue centre – sometimes they are happy to foster out a mum and her new borns for a few weeks, under their guidance, then you can return them for rehoming after that.
But what happens if your ‘male’ hamster suddenly produces a bundle of little pink ‘jelly beans’?
There are certain do’s and don’ts that might help you:
Never touch the new born babies. If you do, especially if you don’t know the mother, she either may attack you or, if your scent has gone onto one of her babies, attack the babies. She will sit in the nest feeding them, covering them with bedding if she leaves the nest for any reason.
Make sure the ‘mum’ has plenty to eat and is within easy reach. Some people offer her milky food at this time while she is feeding her young, in addition to her usual food. Use a jam jar lid to put small amounts of food on it for her. If you accidentally touch any of the babies, it is important to gently put your hand over the nest and also touch the rest of the sawdust and bedding. This will ensure that your scent is everywhere and you haven’t just singled out one baby that could be picked on.
If the mum doesn’t appear to be feeding her babies or abandons them, you should get advice either from your vet or local rescue centre. See Neo’s story, who was abandoned when his mum escaped from her cage when he was only a baby. Due to the incredible dedication of .the rescue centre, Neo and one brother survived, having been fed hourly.
In Half Pint’s case, his mother Bonny abandoned the litter as it was too hot for her to feed them, but was coaxed back, only Half Pint got left behind in the sawdust and nearly died. Fortunately, Bonny took him back.
After a week – ten days the babies will have a layer of ‘fluff’ which will give you an idea of their colours. You will also be able to tell their eye colours, even though their eyes will still be closed. If you can see them through the skin, they are black, if you can’t, they are red.
Start dropping small pieces of food into the nest – bread, raw porridge oats, seeds etc. At two weeks they will start leaving the nest to use the ‘loo’. You can start putting baby food on jam jar lids, night and morning for them to eat. You should also start handling them at this time, making sure that each one gets the same amount of handling. Be careful as they will be ‘pingy’ and can ‘ping’ out of your hands, so ideally you should handle them over their nest or over another soft surface in case you drop any.
If mum is overprotective, try and coax her out for some exercise. If she liked going in a ball for a run before giving birth she’d probably enjoy that now too. This also gives you a chance to handle her babies without her getting anxious. Don’t leave her away from them for too long though. The babies will also enjoy a run in a wheel. Depending on the size of the cage and number of babies, put small wheels into their cages – ideally not the ‘all terrain’ wheels, which are great for adult hamsters, but with babies all fighting to have a run, as they have a drainage slit in the centre, the babies can get trapped and hurt themselves.
At 4 weeks old you will need to sex and separate out the boys. The best way to do this is to examine the mum and compare the babies with her. Some of the litter will be easy to differentiate. Once you have one that is very obviously male or female, check the others against this one. If you turn the hamster over – it is unlikely that you will be able to see the row of nipples on the females, therefore you are looking for the anogenital distance. On a male this distance is greater than on a female.
The girls and mum can stay in one cage and the boys in another providing they don’t fight. There will be some play fighting but there is a real difference when this turns into more serious fighting. A sign that there is a problem is when one of the litter starts sleeping on its own and usually shortly after noticing this the serious fighting begins. By 6 weeks they will all need a cage of their own but you may need to separate them a few days before this if fighting occurs.
Dwarf hamsters can live together in single sex cages but they can sometimes turn on each other so you should be prepared to have extra cages if necessary. If one is picking on the others, try to identify it and remove the trouble maker. If one is being picked on by all the others, then take out the victim. Once separated these hamsters cannot be put back together.
It is very hard, if not impossible to introduce adult dwarf hamsters to each other unless they are opposite sexes (for breeding purposes) and even then you have no guarantee they won’t fight and therefore you may end up with several cages with single hamsters.
Key points to remember:
Never overfeed a pregnant hamster – just give her the usual amount of food. When the litter is born you should increase her food – you can also give her human baby food – powdered creamy porridge oats is a favourite. If you mix a little with water she will enjoy this. When the babies are about 2 weeks old and leaving the nest they will eat this too.
If you are mating hamsters, some important points to note are:
Never mate one species of hamster with another – such as Winter White with a Campbell as there can be complications.
Don’t mate brother and sister. Mother and son, or father and daughter are OK, but brother and sister can cause some abnormalities.
Some hamsters will produce eyeless offspring. Refer to http://www.hamsoc.org.uk/varieties.php?id=white for more details.