Hamsters have been bred in captivity and kept as pets in the U.S. since the 1930’s. The Golden or Syrian Hamster is the most commonly kept hamster and was originally imported for use as a laboratory research animal. Selective breeding has produced a broad range of color and coat variations of the Syrian Hamster such as the Teddy Bear Hamster. More recently Dwarf Hamsters have been imported from China, Russia and Siberia. These small hamsters are quite different in size, shape, coloration and temperament than the Syrians.
Hamsters are seed and grain eaters, and like chipmunks, can stuff their cheek pouches with food to store in their nest. A typical hamster food mix contains sunflower seeds, milo, millet and pelleted or extruded grain products.
Small quantities of fresh vegetables and leafy greens should be offered several times a week.
Clean, fresh water must always be available in a water bottle specially designed for small animals.
Hamsters are kept in wire cages, aquariums with wire screen tops, and plastic molded habitats. Wire cages are not as common because the constant digging and burrowing of hamsters can push the bedding out of the cage, making a mess around it.
Aquariums with wire screen tops are the most commonly used cages. Aquariums are difficult for hamsters to escape from, they keep the bedding in place, they’re easy to clean, and they provide an unobstructed view into the hamster’s environment. A deep layer of bedding material should be used to cover the bottom of the aquarium to allow the hamsters to dig and burrow as they would in the wild.
Molded plastic habitats are popular with children. They have many of the same advantages as an aquarium, and they often provide additional features to enrich the life of the animals, but they do have a few drawbacks. The plastic is easy to chew through and the hamsters will often chew holes in the cage or tubes and escape. The plastic also becomes cloudy over time, and is much harder to clean than a glass aquarium.
No matter which housing option you choose, you should also provide a wheel and several places for them to hide. There are many types of wheels and hides available on the market, but if you’re looking for something inexpensive, paper towel tubes make great hiding places.
Handling & Care
Golden Hamsters are not particularly social animals and they tend to do better when kept as individual pets. Putting two hamsters in one cage invariably leads to fights that can be very fierce. Females in particular seem prone to aggressive behavior towards other hamsters.
The dwarf species of hamsters tend to be more social and get along in multiples if they are raised together.
Hamsters that receive regular gentle handling when young will generally continue to be manageable. Ones that are not acclimated to regular handling tend to bite.
Hamsters are primarily nocturnal, so handling them during the day can be a bit of a challenge since you are actually disrupting their natural sleep pattern. Don’t try to pick up a sleeping hamster as they are liable to be startled and may bite in self defense. It’s better to wake the hamster first, then try to pick them up by scooping them up into the palm of your hand.
Teddy Bear Hamsters tend to tolerate handling better than their short haired counterparts. Chinese Dwarf Hamsters on the other hand tend to resist handling.
Various bedding options are available from wooden chips to alternative fibers. We recommend aspen shavings or paper fiber. Both of these types of bedding help reduce the risk of respiratory problems and other issues associated with the phenols contained in aromatic wood shavings.