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How to Care for Your Hamster: The Basics

Have you got your eye on a hamster as your next pet? In today’s post, our Charlotte vets offer some basic care tips on how to care for your new hamster buddy. 

Hamsters Have Unique Personalities

While hamsters may be small, cute creatures, they also each have personalities and preferences all their own. While some prefer to live with other hamsters, many are content to live a more solitary existence.

You may see some with flat fur and others with fluffier floof. Whichever breed of hamster you choose to bring home, each make great exotic pets for people who live in small spaces (apartment living, anyone?).

Types of Hamsters

Here are some common hamster breeds you may find at your local pet store, and the aspects that distinguish each species:

How to Care for Your Hamster, Charlotte Vets

Chinese Hamsters (Lifespan about 2.5 to 3 years)

This breed typically has a slightly longer tail than other hamsters, and can easily be identified by the dark stripe marking their back. Personality-wise they tend to be somewhat anxious and will need to be handled gently and often, otherwise they may become nervous and prone to biting. They also prefer to live alone.

Syrian Hamsters or Golden hamster (Lifespan about 2 to 4 years)

This is the most common breed of hamster kept as pets in North America. They are also the largest and like the Chinese hamster, typically prefer to live alone. While they are generally easy to handle, fun to watch and laidback with people, they will often battle if forced to live in close proximity with other hamsters.

Dwarf Hamster (Lifespan (about 1.5 to 2 years)

These lovely little rodents are usually easy to handle and curious little creatures who can learn to recognize proud pet parents. Unlike the two breeds above, they are happiest when they have a friend to share their cage with. If you choose a dwarf hamster, you may consider buying two of the same sex.

Handling Your Pet Hamster

Your hamster will need some time to get used to being handled. Hold your new little friend often to build a bond with him or her and get them used to you. Make sure you are gentle - no bouncing them around, holding them too tightly or picking them up while they are sleeping, as doing so could make them nervous and lead to being nipped or bitten.

Hamster Behavior

Keep in mind that hamsters are nocturnal animals, which means just as you are kicking off your evening routine and winding down the day, they are ready for some breakfast. It also means that they’ll be hopping up on their wheel and exploring their cage as you are sleeping.

Once your hamster has taken some time to adapt to their environment, you’ll need to let them out of their cage once a day for supervised exercise. It’s a good idea to get into the routine of giving them some exercise time before you head to bed in the evening.

We like to advise new hamster parents to keep their pets in one room, with the door closed, or in a screened-off area that’s secured. It’s important to note that hamsters’ eyesight isn’t great, so be sure to keep stairs off limits and do not put them on above-ground surfaces such as tabletops to run - a fall could lead to injury.

Choosing & Placing a Hamster Cage

An online search for hamster cages or a survey of pet stores may reveal hundreds of styles of hamster cages from basic to luxury highrise models with multiple levels (think hamster condos!). The best dimensions for your new pet are at least 16” x 10.5” x 10.5”. That said, larger is better when it comes to choosing a hamster-appropriate yet affordable home for your new furry friend. Of course, you’ll also want to consider the size of space you have to work with.

Larger Syrian hamsters will need more space, though all hamsters need enough space for their nightly exercising, exploring and scurrying.

Most hamster cages have plastic on the bottom and wired material on top, with a latching wire lid or door. You may also use a glass-sided aquarium with a well-fitting wire top, if it’s the right size.

As for placement, put the cage in a safe spot away from cold drafts, direct sunlight or electrical cords. Importantly, be sure the cage will be out of reach of any other pets in your home.

Other Things Your Hamster Will Need

One of the first things your hamster will need is a water bottle to drink from and a food bowl you can easily clean. Clean food and water each day are essential.

Because hamsters like to hide when they are sleeping, you may want to find them a cute hiding place they can make their own - your local pet supply store likely sells mini houses, dens and flower pots where they can build a cozy nest they can feel safe and secure in.

Since hamsters are active creatures who enjoy staying busy, you may also want to provide an exercise wheel, toilet paper tubes and rodent safe toys to keep their body and mind active.

Like many other teeth, hamsters need to keep their teeth healthy, since they are continually growing. To keep them in shape and just the right length, they need chew toys such as dog biscuits, untreated wood and twigs.

Hamster Bedding

Your hamster’s bedding should absorb moisture and odors well while providing comfort, warmth and safety. Here are some ideas for great bedding and which materials to avoid.

Recommended Bedding Materials
  • Processed corn cobs
  • Pelleted bedding
  • Timothy hay
  • Dye-free paper bedding (commercially bought)
  • Aspen shavings
  • Paper towels, toilet paper and rolls
  • Clean bank shredded paper
Bedding Materials to Avoid
  • Coconut fibers
  • Pinewood shavings
  • Cedarwood shavings
  • Cotton batting
  • Polyester stuffing
  • Cotton balls
  • Felt stripes
  • Cotton balls

At least 2 inches of bedding material should be used to line your hamster’s cage to provide a soft, absorbent home for your hamster that will also minimize mess. Each day, take time to scoop out any wet or soiled bedding. Clean the cage thoroughly once a week.

While you clean the cage, place your pet in a safe, supervised location before getting rid of all the used bedding. Scrub the cage with warm, soapy water, rinse and dry before adding fresh bedding. Also wash and rinse your pet’s bowl, water bottle, bed and toys.

Cleaning your hamster’s cage should be done in a bathtub, laundry sink, or outside - not in your kitchen where you regularly prepare food.

Hamster Food

Just like other pets, hamsters need clean, fresh water and nutritious food accessible at all times. A good quality rodent diet includes dried veggies, grains, seeds and pellets. Your local pet supply store is a good source for rodent food.

Every 2 to 3 days, supplement your hamster’s normal food with fresh fruits and veggies such as apples, spinach, carrots or lettuce. Nice treats might include the occasional sugar-free cereal or whole wheat bread (not on a regular basis). Never give your pet junk food, uncooked beans, onions, candy or chocolate.

Symptoms of Injury or Illness

Like many other pets, hamsters can sometimes fall ill or get injured. Signs of illness include weight loss, runny nose, diarrhea, overgrown teeth, matted fur, shaking, and dull-looking eyes. Cold-like symptoms or respiratory illnesses are common, including bacterial pneumonia, which they can contract from people or other pets in your household.

If you suspect your hamster may be sick, seek your vet’s help immediately.

What to Do if Your Hamster Has Babies

Though it is best to separate males and females to avoid unwanted babies, sometimes new pet parents bring a pregnant mother home by mistake.

If your hamster gives birth to a litter of babies (pups), care for them by:

  • Removing other adult hamsters from the cage.
  • Avoiding handling babies for at least 7 days to avoid leaving your scent on the pups.
  • Providing lots of soft, clean bedding. Use toilet paper of facial tissue to help her ensure her young stay warm and comfy.
  • Supplementing your pet’s diet and feed her plenty of high-quality food such as cheese and hard-boiled eggs.
  • Once mom has weaned her babies (weaning period should last about 3 weeks), divide them into separate cages for males and females.

Finding a Hamster Vet Near You

Like any other pet, hamsters may become sick or need veterinary care occasionally and not all vets care for rodents. This is why it’s important to know where your closest hamster vet is, in case you need them on short notice.

Find a vet near you that is trained to treat exotic companion animals, and get in touch with the animal hospital before you need them to confirm they are able to treat your hamster in case of injury or illness.

At Providence Animal Hospital in Charlotte, our team is dedicated to providing exotic pets with proper care so they can have long and healthy lives. We are also here for you whenever your pets are not feeling well.

Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.

Is your pet hamster showing signs of illness? Our Charlotte vets at Providence Animal Hospital are experienced in treating exotic pets with many illnesses and conditions. Book an appointment today. 

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