The Ultimate Deluxe Guide to Choosing and Caring For Your Hamster
So, you have decided to get a pet. Good idea - so long as you know what to expect. Here is my guide to owning and caring for hamsters. I have done all of these numerous times and include my tips along the way. Especially in relation to that first hold!
Choosing a Hamster
Hamsters look so cute, surely the smaller the better? The simple answer to this is no and if you have never had hamsters before then I cannot recommend strongly enough that you choose the Syrian.
Syrian or golden - largest type of hamster (12-20cm long), generally friendly and not prone to biting unless in danger or unhappy. If the hamster is for a child this is the only type you should consider. These hamsters need to be kept alone. They must not share a cage with any other hamster or this will likely result in both babies (if a male/ female pairing) and a fight to the death. By the way- avoid babies; hamsters are pregnant for only 16 days and have 6-11 babies! You can also get a long haired Syrian who are a little harder to care for and may need brushing.
Dwarf Roborovski - tiny hamster 4-6cm long are very fast, not friendly and bite a lot. These are highly unsuitable as pets but if you do decide to keep them they need to be kept in a cage with no bars or they can escape (literally, the tiniest gap!) and in same sex groups.
Russian Dwarf/ Djungarian - around 7-9cm long. They need to live in same sex pairings and again you should avoid bars in the cages. Again they are a bit bitey but not so bad!
Chinese Hamster - 9-13cm long. These are not so easily found in countries other than the UK. However, they are reasonably friendly an again like same sex couples or groups. Not so vital but do watch the size of the bars when they are little.
All breed have an average lifespan of two years, with three as a real maximum.
Choosing a Cage - advice from expert
Choosing a Cage
So you've decided to go for a hamster - good choice! But now you need to choose a cage. Please don't make a mistake here and choose one that is a bit smaller or a few dollars cheaper. In the long run you will regret it. A hamster lives in a cage, has the majority of its exercise there. If you skimp at this point you're going to end up with a bored hamster and a bored hamster is a sorry sight and noisy.
When choosing a cage you need to consider the RSPCA guidelines which suggests a size of 75x40x40cm. I think this is reasonably fair. I do think the best thing would be to choose a modular cage, especially for a Syrian - less important for the other breeds and as they can't necessarily reach high tubing so do consider this. A modular cage allows you to add bits over time, when your hamster gets older and you maybe have a bit more cash!
Also hamsters love different pockets and areas. They like an area for digging and scratting in sawdust, an area for the toilet that preferably isn't exposed, a bedding area with fluff/ shredded paper or jaycloth. Cages should also be multi-levels (at least 2, preferably 3) and have solid flooring, not bars. The walls can be bars (although see notes about the breeds) but if it has an integrated wheel this needs to be solid as it can cause broken legs and you really cannot get a plaster cast for a hamster.
What Else Will You Need?
A wheel if not integrated- for Chinese & short-haired Syrians
A water bottle- never give a hamster any other drink
A food bowl and dried hamster food plus fresh carrots/cauliflower/broccoli/dandelion leaves etc. Not lettuce as it makes them sleepy.
Treats if you wish - I like the hanging stick of treats that they have to pull and yank around and really work for or natural dried foods like strawberry
Sawdust for all flooring area and in a pile in the toilet area
Fluff (although some don't recommend but I never had a problem) or paper bits or jay cloth bits for the bedding area or hay if you like but beware of mites
Toys- this is vital. Unfortunately this will be very hit or miss with your hamster as it will be up to them what they like. However, you must put in some things for them to gnaw- their teeth grow continuously and wooden gnawing sticks or a log tunnel are good. My hamsters always loved the perennial old toilet roll tube and everytime one was demolished they got a new one. Take a look in pet shops- most hamster toys are reasonably good.
Exercise ball (large) - these are excellent. They keep your hamster contained while you clean their cage and you should exercise them in this for around half an hour daily.
So, set up your cage, you are ready to get your hamster in!
The First Hold
So you've got your hamster, your cage is set up. You should place your hamster straight into the cage and leave him for a couple of hours before you even try to handle him, even overnight. Let him establish his territory and feel comfortable. However, you must handle him within 24 hours or you will become too hesitant and you need to be tough with him.
If you're a bit nervous please, just don't be, or you'll find your hamster has the upperhand and will probably nip you everytime you try to take him out. You have to be tough the first time. Go straight for him decisively but gently. You should offer him your hands first. If he runs away or nips you, you just have to pick him straight up and take him out of the cage. Stroke him, give him a treat and keep holding him. He'll probably be either shaking or trying to jump off initially but will calm down. Hold him for at least 10 minutes. Next time he'll be easier to pick up. Eventually he will climb onto your hand more than likely and be really friendly but he needs to know who is boss first time.
If you got him for a child, you need to do the above and gradually teach the child to stroke and them handle him gently.
For ongoing care, you obviously need to clean out the cage. Hamsters HATE having their cages cleaned. I suggest cleaning every 5-7 days. More often and your hamster will be unsettled. Less and you risk giving your hamster an illness.
However daily you must give your hamster fresh water, fresh dried food and fresh food as well as exercise your hamster (you can't really do this with the dwarf breeds). Learn from my massive mistakes! DO NOT let your hamster run around the floor/ sides. They are pretty fast, can squeeze into the tiniest hole and they love to chew cables.
You also need to keep an eye on your hamster not eating, not drinking, having runny poo or a sticky eye. There are lots of self-help areas on the internet about these and they should be your first port of call. Vets are expensive and as we have been told many times can not do a lot for hamsters.
One Girl's Guide to Getting a Hamster
Enjoy your hamster, they make absolutely wonderful pets!