Although discovered in the early 1800’s, today’s Syrian hamster was brought into captivity in 1930 when a litter was discovered in the Syrian desert. All of today’s Syrian hamsters are descendents of the surviving two females and one male siblings of that litter.
Today, while there are several types of domesticated hamsters, the Syrian Golden is the most common. Two dwarf varieties are gaining in popularity — the Chinese Dwarf, and the Dwarf Russian (either Winter White or Campbell’s Russian), but the overall favorite remains the Syrian.
This article is to acquaint the owner, or prospective owner, with the hamster as a pet. Our piece is centered around the Syrian with the assumption that the hamster will be a pet, and not a part of a breeding program, or for the “show ring.”
Hamster’s are great pets. Properly trained they can be handled outside their cages, and they will provide hours of enjoyment as they perform their daily routines and follow their natural inquisitiveness. They are good companions for the young, and can help teach the need to be responsible. But, they are alive beings. And, as such, deserve the respect and care to which all living things are entitled. Their entire welfare is totally in the hands of its owner.
The Syrian hamster is a small rodent weighing between 3 to 5 ounces; growing to 6 or 7 inches in length. Because of its high metabolic rate its life span is usually no longer that 2 1/2 to 4 years. It reaches maturity in 4 to 6 weeks.
Its fur is dense and sleek with bands of different colored fur. Eyes are bold and bright, ears large and alert, and a short stump of a tail. A hamster’s front feet are more like hands (and they use them as such), while rear legs and feet help to propel it, support it when it sits up, and give it the ability to move backwards (very handy when scooting back down into a burrow).
A hamster has no odor. It is a very clean animal, easily tamed, and naturally inquisitive. It may hibernate if exposed to cold conditions below 50°, or “semi-hibernate” at temperatures between 70-80° (usually for periods of less than a few minutes). So, don’t assume its left this life because it hasn’t moved around for awhile!!
Hamsters are very prolific. They have short gestation periods (16 to 18 days), have litters up to 15, and the doe (female) is ready to breed again after 4 to 5 weeks.
Some believe that males make the most user-friendly pet, but its a close call. Females will be less friendly while pregnant or caring for her litter. Other than that their temperament is about the same.
Hamsters are normally active during the evening hours, but are usually eager to play at any time.
If you are positive you want to get a hamster, double-check the following items before buying:
- They are nocturnal – they make noise after dark!
- Talk to a vet, preferrably one you would use for your hamster.
- Visit someone who owns a hamster.
- They need daily attention and handling (to tame and to have them remain tame)
- They need to be fed – every day (including the days that you just don’t have the time).
- Their cages need to be cleaned, partially on a 1 to 2 days basis, and always once a week.
- Does anyone in the home have allergies? Could they be allergic to hamsters?
- Hamsters are not good surprise gifts!
- Can, and will, you take it to a vet when necessary? Hamsters are not throw-away toys.
- Hamsters have short life spans.
Where Do I get One?
The most common place to get a hamster is a pet store. Exotic breeds, breeding and show stock are available through breeders, but they may be hard to find. Check your local papers, pet magazines and the Internet if you are interested in a breeder.
Animal shelters may have hamsters, but generally not. If you find one at a shelter, and it appears healthy, give it a home. You won’t regret it. But, make sure you check it thoroughly to determine the status of its health and its age.
Check out the following items when evaluating your place of purchase:
- Does the staff appear competent, friendly, and eager to answer all of your questions?
- Is the store or breeder’s area clean and sanitary.
- Are the hamsters clean and in a clean environment?
- Except for very young siblings are the hamsters kept in separate cages (the answer should be Yes)?
How do I Determine a “Good” Hamster?
Here are several things to do and look for when evaluating a hamster for a pet:
- Look for your hamster later in the day, or in the evening (remember, they’re nocturnal and naturally won’t be as active during the day).
- Because of their short life spans you probably want to get a young hamster (a sign of old age is hair loss, apathy and difficulty in moving (that all sounds too familiar).
- Ears. Alert and erect. Younger hamsters will have white fur inside the ear.
- Eyes. Bright and prominent. No puffiness, crust or discharge.
- Nose. Dry, not crusty, runny or wet.
- Fur. Abundant, soft, silky, and shiny with no bald patches. Should not be dull or coarse.
- Body. Cylindrical and filled out, solid. Should not be thin.
- Anus and surrounding areas should be clean. Rear-ends should not be wet (could be a very contagious condition called “wet tail”
- Should be vigorous (that’s why you choose one later in the day), but should not be running around frantically
- Should not be apathetic (again, time of day is important).
How Many Should I Get?
Hamsters, by nature, are solitary creatures, and should be kept in separate cages. So getting a second hamster as company for the first one is not a good thing.
Two hamsters can quickly lead to many, many more hamsters. Make sure you know the sex:
- Males have paired testicles near the base of the tail
- In females the distance between the genital opening and the anus is noticeably shorter.
More than one hamster in the same cage may work out, especially if they are siblings who have been together all the time. But you need to keep a close watch and separate them if things get out of control.
Housing Your Hamster
Today’s pet stores have a wide variety of cages suitable for hamsters. The cage should be:
- Light and airy
- Glass, plastic or metal construction (hamster gnaw wood)
- If metal, check for the distance between the bars. A grown hamster can fit through a hole the size of a quarter. The young can fit through openings less than 1/4″
- No smaller than 20″ x 16″ and at least 10″ high.
- Solid floor.
Place the cage on a raised platform, out of harm’s way. It must be free from draft, the humidity should be low, and NO SMOKING!. Do not place it in direct sunlight or near a direct heating source. TV’s, radios and stereo speakers will only add to a hamster’s stress level — as will surprise visits from a cat, dog or iguana.
Cover the floor of the cage with soft hay, wood shavings, dry sawdust (not too dusty), or other such materials. Do not use soil. Provide additional material for bedding (shredded tissue or toilet paper). A hamster will become creative with bedding, as many a curtain too close to the cage has proved.
Provide playthings and exercise devices. Twigs for gnawing. Small cardboard boxes that the hamster can turn into “safe” places. Swings, ladders and wheels.
The cage must have the ability to water and feed the hamster. Water bottles and bowls are available, as well as food dishes.
Your hamster, itself, will not need to be bathed. They are very clean animals, and spend a great deal of their time grooming themselves. Their cage is what will need your attention.
The cage must be thoroughly cleaned once every week. That means changing the litter, washing, disinfecting the floor, and placing new litter.
- Water and food dishes need to be cleaned daily. Fresh water should always be available.
- Remove damp litter every two days.
- Remove food “stashes” before they spoil.
Keep your hamster inquisitive and active. Change its playthings to keep it from becoming bored. Set up games like hiding food in clumps of paper or in small, cardboard containers. Encourage use of the swings and exercise wheels. Provide it with an ability to climb.
Handle with care!
- Let a new hamster adjust to its new surroundings before handling – usually 2-3 days. Give it time and patience.
- Once settled in, handle your hamster frequently, especially when they are very young. This helps tame the hamster. Cubs (babies) should be handled as soon as they become self-sufficient.
- Approach the hamster so it can see you
- Pick up the animal from above, and then place it in the palm of the other hand.
- Never lift a hamster by its legs, or from underneath.When picking up a hamster:
Ya, they can bite. But, once trained and frequently handled these occurences should be rare. Here’s some things that will help:
- Don’t tease or mistreat the hamster, in the cage or in your hand.
- The bite will usually not break the skin. It will be more shock than pain. Don’t pull away from the bite – this can set training back a long way.
- The hamster will become accustomed to your smell. But, remember, if you have anything on your hand that cause an unfamiliar smell, the hamster may react unfavorably out of fear.
Freedom from the Cage
It is good to remove the hamster from the cage and handle it. When tamed it can be allowed to climb up (sometimes in) your clothing. If it disappears in your clothing make no sudden movements or you may be rewarded with a “nip” from the frightened pet.
When the hamster is out of its cage it must be closely watched. If it escapes from your custody your are in for a “situation”! Hamsters are very curious, hard to find and regain custody of, they can hide in the most un-seemingly places (in tight places, dark places, and high places).
An escaped hamster’s safety is at high risk. It is exposed to:
- electric wiring
- toxic household plants
- toxic household cleaners
- open containers (especially those containing liquids)
- game for other pets
- falling – they climb things easier than they descend
- getting stuck in small places
- etc, etc, etc.
How the #*%#@ do I Find It?
Try to isolate it to a single room
- Look and listen for gnawing, scratching, especially during the night.
- Place bait – apple or carrot.
- Check under, in and around furniture. During the day it will probably be curled up somewhere, sleeping.
- Place small cardboard tubes (toilet paper tubes) that it may use to hide in.
- Make a trap — A tall container with food and bedding. Place a ramp to the top of the container. The hamster should climb to the top and then fall in.
Isolate all other pets from the scene of the escape, or the suspected hideout locations!!!
Set out the hamster’s food at a set time each day. Watch its eating habits until you can determine what is the right amount for each feeding. Hamsters will store food in a pouch on the sides of their face, and then deposit it in a safe place for later consumption. Over stocking by the hamster is a clue that your are overfeeding. The hamster will only eat what it needs at the time.
Pet stores carry food that is suitable for hamsters, and pellets may be the best choice. It provides consistent levels of nourishment as well as a hard substance that is good for its teeth.
However, other foods can be used, and are highly recommended to maintain a varied, yet balanced diet.
- A hamster’s diet should never contain less than 20% protein. Also, available through dog biscuits, beef bones, small amounts of sour cream, yogurt, or mild cheese.
- Grain (for carbo requirements), and fresh fruit (apples, pears, bananas, grapes, but no acidic/citrus fruit.
- Fresh vegetables (sprouts, potato, cauliflower, carrots, celery, cucumbers. No onions, cabbage, garlic or leaks. Some lettuce is OK, but not head lettuce.
- Wheat-germ oil for Vitamin E and milk (in small amounts – NEVER raw milk.
- Some believe that raw meat is OK, but it probably isn’t worth taking the chance. Anyway, thoroughly research the subject before feeding raw meat to your hamster.
Hamsters are normally very rugged and hardy animals, but they can have health problems. The best way to treat these ailments is to limit the hamster’s ability to contract illness:
- Keep them out of drafts
- Maintain low humidity, and ambient temperatures between 73 and 77°
- Reduce stress (quite living arrangements, and routine days)
- Fresh food and water
- Clean facilities
- Frequent handling
- Don’t handle the hamster if you are ill, or people in the immediate vicinity are ill
- Hamster will become inactive
- Lay in nest with ears back against its head
- Nasal discharge
- Loss of weigh
- Lack of coat luster
- Treat by:
- Put it into a cleaned cage, out of the draft
- Provide plenty of bedding
- Feed stale bread treated with cod liver oil
- Plenty of water
- Should see signs of improvement in a few days.
- Distended belly
- Will not like to be handled
- Usually caused by lack of exercise or insufficient fresh fruits and vegetables
- Treat with drops of olive oi
- Formless stool.
- If no other symptoms, feed greens and juicy foods.
- Weak, black tea (no sugar)
- See vet if no improvement in a few days.
- Hamsters can usually tolerate falls that are not too extreme.
- May lay unconscious for a short while, but should revive.
- Take to vet if unconsciousness continues
- Falls may lead to paralysis, usually by damaging the sminal cord. But, it can also be caused by the cage being too small to allow for adequate recreation and exercies, or a lack of Vitamen D.
- The hamster may be hunched over and unable to raise its head
- Stiffness in the limbs
- If there is no reason to suspect a spinal injury. try to exercise the hamster out of the cage. Then, make sure it has a cage adequate enough for recreation.
- If you suspect spinal injury, or it doesn’t respond to exercise, immediately take it to your vet.
- Breathing is loud, the hamster sneezes and its eyes may be slightly sticky.
- Can be caused by high humidity, sudden changes in the ambient temperature, or drafts
- Move to less drafty, humid location and maintain ambient temperature between 73 and 77°.
- Contact vet if the condition does not improve.
- Wet diarrhea. The hamster’s appearance will be scruffy, it will lose its appetite, become dehidrated, and reluctant to be hanled. Possible rectal bleeding.
- A bacterial illness common to hamsters. Can be fatal.
- Causes can be stress, sudden dietary changes, too confined of an area, extreme temperatures, or unsanitary living conditions.
- Can only be treated by a vet – get to a vet immediately!
- Caused by prolonged exposure to direct sunlight or some other direct heat source.
- Fur will be damp, the hamster will be unresponsive.
- Cool the hamster in cool water and get it to drink water.
- Get to vet if no immediate recovery is seen.
- Usually only present in hamsters under 3 months old, but older hamsters have been known to contract the disease.
- Can be transmitted to humans.
- Usually not dangerous except to pregnant women
Signs of Old Age
Between the age of 2 and 3 years a hamster will start to show signs of old age. It will start losing its fur, sometimes leaving bald spots. It will become more apathetic. sleep more, eat less, and may find it more difficult to move around.
At this stage in its life you should leave it in familiar surroundings, greatly reduce risks of stress, and handle less frequently.
When your hamster finally crosses the Rainbow Bridge set aside time to grieve; to remember the pet’s life, good and bad; the comfort and joy given and received; and the special warmth you experienced with your furry friend.
Written by Ron Lueth, Pet Guardian Angels of America