Hamsters, adorable as they are, often get tagged as easy pets and ideal companions for small children. But here’s the real deal: these pocket-sized pets have needs far more significant than their size suggests. This guide spills the beans on what it truly takes to care for hamsters properly and why they’re not just a walk in the park.

If you’re ready to invest time and effort into meeting your pet’s unique requirements, join us as we explore the ins and outs of providing the best for these little fluff balls.

Things to Know

Here are some of the things you need to be aware of before adopting your new hamster:

  • Lifespan: On average, pet hamsters live for 1.5-2 years.
  • Hamsters are nocturnal and crepuscular animals. They’re most active at night and during sunset and sunrise. Because of this, you likely won’t see your hamster much during the day.
  • Hamsters are not cheap pets. The initial set-up costs, including an enclosure and all necessary supplies, easily reach hundreds of dollars.

Types of Hamsters

There are 5 different hamster breeds kept as pets. Those are:

  • Syrian hamsters – as the largest pet hamster species, they are easier to handle due to their size.
  • Chinese – these hamsters are smaller than Syrians but a bit larger than Roborovski, Campbell’s and Winter Whites. They have a long body and a prominent tail. They are not as easy to find for adoption as other species.
  • Roborovski (Phodopus roborovskii) – these tiny hamsters are naturally found in desert areas, so it’s important to provide plenty of sand in their cage. It’s recommended that around ⅓ of their enclosure is filled with sand.
  • Campbell’s (Phodopus campbelli) – Campbell’s and Winter Whites are very similar, with only subtle differences that are challenging to spot. Campbell’s hamsters have more prominent ears and pointed muzzles, similar to mice. Their eyes can be red.
  • Winter White (Phodopus sungorus) – Compared to Campbell’s, Winter White hamsters have smaller ears and shorter muzzles. Winter White hamsters don’t have the genes for red eyes.
  • Campbell’s & Winter White hybrid – it’s rare to find purebred Campbell’s or Winter White hamsters in the pet trade today, and most of them are a mix of both species, with mixed characteristics.

Should Hamsters Live Alone or in Groups?

Syrian and Chinese hamsters are solitary animals by nature and should always be housed alone.

The three Phodopus hamster species can be found living in pairs or small groups in the wild, but this is only for mating and safety purposes. Males and females share separate burrows with other hamsters of the opposite sex for mating and rearing offspring.

In captivity, when these hamsters are forced to live together in a small area, it often leads to fighting, injuries, and even death. It’s not natural for them to live so close to another same-sex hamster, so they can get aggressive and territorial.

That’s why keeping dwarf hamsters together is not recommended and is best left to experienced hamster owners who can recognize the early signs of disagreement to separate on time.

Hamster Housing

Minimum Cage Size

The smaller the cage, the more stressed a hamster is. That’s why getting as big of a cage as possible is recommended. The cage should be at least 775 sq. in. (5000 cm) in floor space (which translates to 100 x 50 cm / 39 x 20 inches), if not more. According to The Veterinary Association for Animal Welfare and many other animal welfare organizations, this is the minimum recommended size.

Those small hamster cages you can find in pet stores? Unfortunately, they’re way too small to ethically house a hamster. Also, cages that are interconnected smaller areas joined with tubes don’t provide nearly enough room and are often dangerous for hamsters as they can get stuck inside the tube.

Hamsters need a large area to freely run around, burrow, and explore. I listed some of the best hamster cages here if you want to take a look some suitable options.

Small pet store cages are not suitable for hamsters

Bar Spacing

If you purchase a wired cage instead of a glass enclosure, ensure the bars are spaced apart appropriately, or you’ll have a hamster on the loose.

The bar spacing should be:

  • Syrian hamsters: ½ inch (1.30 cm) or less.
  • Phodopus and Chinese hamster species: maximum ¼ inches (0.6 cm)

Base Depth

Your hamster’s cage needs a deep base to allow plenty of bedding. In the wild, hamsters live in underground burrows, so digging and burrowing is a natural activity for them.

Wire cages don’t usually have a deep enough base; that’s why glass enclosures are typically the best for hamsters. If you already have a good-sized wired cage, it’s possible to adjust it with a bit of work to allow for more bedding. One option is to add acrylic sheets to the cage to keep the bedding in, but keep in mind that this might also decrease the floor space of your cage.

Bedding

Hamsters need A LOT of bedding in their cage. As burrowing animals, they naturally live in deep burrows, from 30 cm (Roborovski hamsters) to 90 cm (Syrian hamsters). We want our setup to mimic their natural environment as much as possible.

Here’s how many inches of bedding is recommended for our hamsters:

  • Syrian hamster: 12 inches (30 cm) of bedding is recommended, but 10 inches (25 cm) is the minimum
  • Dwarf & Chinese hamsters: 10 inches (25 cm) is recommended, 6 inches (15 cm) is the minimum

You can use our hamster bedding calculator to see how many liters of bedding you’ll need based on the cage size. While, yes, you’ll need to buy a lot of bedding, the good news is that hamsters are clean animals that only need their bedding swapped once a month, with regular spot cleaning. When doing a deep clean, you should leave of their old bedding in the cage to keep some of their old smell, as big changes stress them out.

Safe main hamster bedding options include:

  • Paper bedding
  • Aspen shavings

The bedding you use should not be scented or contain anything toxic. For example, raw pine and cedar shavings are unsafe because they contain oils that irritate their lungs and can cause health issues.

I recommend also providing additional types of bedding for extra texture to interact with. These other types of bedding can’t be used as the main bedding as they don’t hold burrows, but they can be used throughout the cage to make it more fun and varied.

Safe options are:

  • Sphagnum moss
  • Hemp bedding
  • Coco fiber
  • Coco husk
  • Cardboard
  • Shredded toilet paper

Cage Enrichment

Enrichment is essential to keep your hamster from getting bored in their cage. You can use many different items to enrich your pet’s home. Here are some ideas for an enriching hamster cage setup.

Sand Bath

A sand bath is a necessary part of a hamster’s home because they use sand to wash themself. Hamsters don’t need water baths. Instead, they roll around in the sand to clean their fur from debris.

As desert species, Roborovski hamsters need even more sand in their cage than other hamster species living in richer vegetation areas. For this reason, it’s recommended to fill ⅓ of their cage with sand, if possible.

Read more about how to set up a sand bath and the best (and safest) types of sand to use here.

Sand bath

A Wheel

Another essential addition every hamster needs in their cage is a wheel that allows your hamster to run to their heart’s content and stay fit.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to make a mistake with a wheel and get one that’s too small. If you notice your hamster running with their backs bent, it means the wheel is too small for them. This can result in injuries, so you want to make sure the wheel is a healthy size.

Here’s a suitable wheel size for your type of hamster:

  • Syrian hamsters: 11″ in diameter (28 cm)
  • Dwarf (Phodopus) species: 8″ in diameter (20 cm)
  • Chinese hamsters: 10″ in diameter (25 cm)

Avoid wheels that are not solid and have a mesh instead, as these types of wheels can trap hamster’s toes or cause foot injury.

Hamster on a wheel

Accessories

Other than bedding, a wheel, and a sand bath, there are many different accessories to add to the cage to make it more fun and enriching. Here are some ideas:

  • A house – This one is a must, as hamsters need a place to hide and feel safe outside of their burrow.
  • Water bowl or bottle – Hamsters can use both. I prefer a bowl as it’s a natural way for hamsters to drink, but each option has pros and cons.
  • Hay – Hamsters love to use it to build their nest.
  • Tunnels
  • Platforms
  • Hideouts
  • Bridges

Chew Toys & Forage

Chewing toys and forage are important not only for enrichment but also to file your pet’s teeth. Hamster’s teeth never stop growing, so they need to keep it at a healthy length with chewable accessories.

Good chew options are:

  • Whimzees (since they are eatable, limit them to one per month)
  • Apple sticks
  • Dandelion root
  • Wooden toys
  • Willow balls
  • Toilet paper rolls
  • Cardboard
  • Walnuts
  • Hazelnuts

Your hamster might have preferences, so try providing a few different options to see which one your hamster will like. You might need to try various options before finding one your hamster loves.

When it comes to foraging plants, there are many safe options that will encourage your hamster to explore and forage around the cage.

You can offer dried and fresh plants such as:

  • Hay
  • Marigold
  • Rose petals
  • Mint
  • Nettle
  • Dandelion
  • Basil
  • Wheatgrass
  • Oatgrass

When buying a foraging mix for your hamster, avoid products that contain dried fruits, as that would be too much sugar for a tiny hamster.

Edible enrichment for hamsters
Hamster treat
Hamster eating oat seeds

A Healthy Hamster Diet

A healthy hamster diet includes:

  • Dry food mix (and optional pellets) – this makes the majority of their diet
  • Small amounts of fresh food, such as vegetables and herbs (1-2 times a week)
  • Extra animal protein if it’s not included in their main food: mealworms, crickets, grasshoppers, unseasoned cooked chicken, egg

I highly recommend getting a species-specific food mix for your hamster. While all types of hamsters have a similar diet in the wild, some key differences make species-specific diets better for them. After all, a diet tailored to your hamster’s species is closer to what they would eat in the wild.

Some good species-specific options are:

Dry Mix or Pellets?

This is a big debate in the hamster-keeping community. Some say pellets are better because they ensure a balanced diet by not allowing the hamster to pick out their favorite bits. Others, including me, say pellets are much more enriching as they provide a variety of tastes and can provide a balanced diet just like pellets.

Pellets were first developed to feed laboratory hamsters because scientists needed all animals to have the exact same diet for research purposes. But I think we can all agree that life in a laboratory is not an enjoyable experience for hamsters!

I prefer to feed a mix that can be scattered throughout the cage so the hamster can explore, dig around, and put some effort into collecting their food. This provides much more enrichment than having the same pellet served in a bowl day after day.

A hamster’s life in the wild is centered around foraging for different yummy bits, so it’s always good to mimic that in captivity as much as possible.

You can always add high-quality pellets to their dry mix, but feeding exclusively pellets is pretty boring for a hamster.

Hamster eating dry mix

Out-of-cage Time

I’m sure most of us have seen hamsters in movies or cartoons running in a hamster ball. This gives new owners the impression that balls are safe and fun for the hamster, which is far from the truth.

Balls are actually very dangerous and stressful for hamsters. They limit the hamster’s movement as they can’t get out of the ball whenever they want and don’t provide adequate airflow. It’s also common for hamsters to get their little tootsies trapped in the holes.

Instead of letting your hamster run in a ball, they can enjoy some out-of-cage time in a playpen with toys and enrichment or another contained area where they feel safe and willing to explore.

Hamster Health

Hamsters might only live for 1.5-2 years, but that is plenty of time for something to go wrong with their health.

Here are some of the most common health issues pet hamsters encounter.

  • Wet Tail: This contagious bacterial infection affects hamster intestines with symptoms like diarrhea and a matted tail. It’s often triggered by stress and sudden diet changes.
  • Overgrown Front Teeth: Hamster’s front teeth may overgrow, which makes eating difficult for them. Chew toys can prevent this, or you might need vet assistance if the teeth get too long.
  • Respiratory Infections: If you notice cold-like symptoms in your hamster—sneezing, wheezing, runny nose, your hamster likely has a respiratory infection. A virus, bacteria, or dusty bedding can cause this.
  • Congestive Heart Failure: Hamsters can suffer from heart problems, leading to fatigue, breathing difficulties, and a swollen belly. It hits old and overweight hamsters the most.
  • Mites: Infestation by Demodex or other mites, often due to a weakened immune system. Symptoms include fur loss and irritated skin.
  • Ringworm: Fungal infection causing circular red spots; contagious to both hamsters and humans.
  • Urinary Tract Infections: Bacterial infection that results in frequent urination and sometimes even bloody urine. It will require antibiotic treatment from a vet.
  • Pyometra: Life-threatening uterine infection in female hamsters with symptoms like swollen belly, discharge, and loss of appetite.
  • Tumors: Hamsters can develop lumps that might need to be surgically removed.
  • Cysts: Fluid-filled sacs, often caused by polycystic disease. They are most common in older hamsters.
  • Warts: Small skin growths caused by a virus; usually harmless but may require veterinary attention if persistent.
  • Skin Abscesses: Infected pockets of pus under the skin. They are typically treated by draining, antibiotics, or surgery under vet guidance.

Hamsters Need an Exotic Vet

Hamsters are considered exotic animals, and many vets are only educated about cats and dogs. That’s why finding a vet who will treat a hamster can be challenging.

I recommend finding a hamster-savvy vet before adopting a hamster. That way, you’ll have peace of mind and can react fast if something goes wrong and your hamster needs to see a vet right away.

Although hamsters are tiny, their vet bills can get as expensive as for cats or dogs. Always have some money set aside in case of an emergency.

Hamster Behavior: Is Your Hamster Happy?

Unfortunately, there are no telltale signs a hamster will show that tell us if they’re happy.

A happy hamster will exhibit natural behaviors such as burrowing, foraging, collecting food, and nesting. They’ll spend their days (or better said nights) running around their cage and on a wheel, sticking food in their pouches and storing it in their stash, gnawing on their chew toys, and enjoying the various types of enrichment in their cage.

But the best way to know if your hamster is really happy is if they don’t display signs of stress that I listed below.

Signs of Stress in Hamsters

  • Bar Biting: If your hamster’s nibbling on cage bars, it’s likely feeling cramped or stressed—time for a change in space or scenery.
  • Monkey Barring: When your hamster goes acrobat on cage bars, it’s craving excitement. Add more enrichment and opt for a larger cage if yours is too small.
  • Repetitive Pacing: Is your hamster on a never-ending walk in their cage? That’s a sign of boredom or anxiety. Give your pet more room or new toys.
  • Excessive Wheel Running: While hamsters love their wheels, marathon-level running may mean stress. Spruce up their environment for more fun.
  • Escaping Urges: Caught your hamster tunneling to freedom? They might feel cramped or stressed. Consider upgrading their living space.
  • Over-Grooming: If your hamster’s going bald from grooming, it means they’re stressed. Try introducing some new activities to break the boredom.
  • Lack of Interest: A once-active hamster turning into a couch potato? They could be stressed or unwell. Vet check first; if all’s good, consider spicing up their home.

It’s common to adopt a hamster and keep them cooped up in a tiny cage without ever giving it a second thought, but if you want your new pet to live a long, happy and healthy life, it’s essential to do your research, put in the work, and provide the best possible care for them.

I hope this guide helped you learn the basics of hamster care and gave you a direction to follow when it comes to your pet’s unique needs. This is a giant step forward in improving your hamster’s quality of life.

Still not sure if a hamster is the right pet for you? Our list of hamster pros and cons should help. And if you decide to welcome one into your family, here are some fun name ideas for your new hammy!