Food plays two roles for our pets. It provides them with the nutrition they need, but it can also, in fact, should also be, something enjoyable and intellectually stimulating. Finding food is such a large part of wild animals’ lives, that our furry friends at home also need to be engaged by it to be healthy. Treating food as an enrichment activity promotes movement around the cage, which is a healthier type of exercise than obsessively running on a wheel. Many hamsters with suitably sized cages and lots of edible enrichment to forage and sniff and generally interact with will spend minimal time in their wheels compared to the stereotype.
With that in mind, when talking about treats, rather than picturing the animal equivalent of handing a child an ice cream, we need to think about a food experience. This has the bonus of ticking boxes for other senses as well as taste, and you get to watch your hamster manipulating things with their tiny hands, and whiffling their nose in an ultra-cute fashion. Depending on your preferences, your hamster’s temperament, your setup, and a whole heap of other factors, these food experiences can be provided either in the cage, or during free range, or both!
Article content provided by hamster diet supremo Beri Instone.
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Edible enrichment for hamsters using dried plants
Hamsters are originally from desert and/or steppe grassland environments, so the easiest way to replicate natural feeding experiences for your pet is to provide access to hay, dried grass and other dried herbage. This is particularly important for owners of Chinese hamsters. While grains are a fundamental part of their everyday diet, hamsters do better overall if they have free access to a variety of non-grain parts of plants too (although of course, for dwarf hamsters, avoid any parts containing sugar, such as fruits or root veg).
Depending on your hamster’s setup it may be most practical to provide a layer of dried edible plants on top of their usual substrate, or it may make sense to create a foraging box to contain it in one place. Hay with longer stems is more enriching than short uniform lengths as it works well as a top layer to burrow through (which can improve skin and coat health) as well as eat. Some hay will have immature seed heads, which are delicious for your hamster to forage for. Hay will need to be topped up periodically depending on how quickly your hamster munches. Short chop hay (shorter lengths cut an inch or two long) works better when offered in a pile in a specific area, not least as it’s then easier to tell when it needs topping up! Straw can be a substrate enrichment option, but it provides minimal nutrition so isn’t an option for edible enrichment.
The very best thing to do is to provide multiple types of dried hay and grass at once. At any one time Beri has:
- Long strand meadow hay (sold as orchard hay in the US), which is a mixture of different grass species and often has other safe plants mixed in. It tends to be aromatic and filled with lovely flavours.
- Short chop flash dried annual ryegrass (any dried grass sold for small animals is likely to be this if it is not explicitly labelled otherwise).
- Short chop flash dried Timothy grass – although many hamsters find this coarser, more fibrous hay off putting, so don’t use it as a single enrichment on its own.
- Green oat hay with immature seed heads still attached (this is harder to get hold of in Europe compared to the US)
These forages can be provided in rotation, but to give your pet hamster some choice in their life (choice and decision-making being both physically and mentally beneficial to pet animals) you can provide them mixed up or in layers in the same place.
If you’re buying in person, look for bags of greener hay as this has more locked in nutrition than brown. If you have access to hay sold in bulk for horses this is fine, but don’t use hay of farm animal quality as this is likely to contain a lot of thistles, which could be dangerous for your pets and is often the lowest quality in terms of dust.
Some hays sold for small animals have flowers and dried leaves from safe plants already added (marigold, rose petals, mint, nettle and dandelion are most common and appropriate) for greater interest and micronutrients. These are great, but avoid products with added dried fruit or vegetables such as carrots, as these will have too much sugar for diabetes-prone dwarf hamsters.
Herbal mix packs available for purchase
An alternative is to buy “bunny herbs” to mix in with your plain hay. These are dried forage of leaves and flowers sold for rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchilla and degu. It’s also becoming more common to see them marketed to tortoises and plant-eating lizards – you get the same ingredients, but different branding. Packs sold for larger pets are generally better value for money than tiny packs sold specifically for hamsters.
Bunny herbs usually contain a big mix of ingredients, often including larger pieces, which can be great fun for little hamster hands to interact with. For dwarf hamsters species remember again to check if there’s any dried fruit or veg.
In Europe looking for produces marketed at rabbits and other small herbivore pets gives the best range of suitable products for a reasonable price. In America it looks like those marketed to tortoises and plant-eating lizards is best.
- Kaytee Food from The Wild Natural Snack – pick out the dried strawberry and carrot for non-Syrians hamsters
- Zoo Med Tortoise and Box Turtle Flower Food Topper
- Zoo Med Lizard Flower Food Topper
- Pasture Plus+ Dandelion Delicacy
ZooMed brand looks good for America, Rosewood brand is good for Europe.
Creating your own dry forage
It’s also possible to dry your own herbage for your pet hamster, although of course, only do this if you are sure you can identify safe plants! Home drying can be done in small amounts in an oven on a cool temperature (take care not to burn it), or hanging in mesh bags outside if you live in a hot dry area (in temperate areas like Northern Europe, they are more likely to grow mold, which would be bad for your hamster). As Beri has a lot of animals needing dried forage, she uses a dehydrator – but recommends making sure it is one where you can set the temperature to avoid burning thin leaves. If you only have one hamster then it’s unlikely to be worth buying a dehydrator unless you want to make food for your yourself as well.
To provide enrichment by smell, you can sprinkle finely cut dried herbs around your hamster’s cage. Many of these herbs are sold in bulk for horses, but if you need smaller amounts for just one hamster, then dried culinary herbs or dry herbal tea bags can be used. If you use teabags, make sure they are tealeaf-free infusions and don’t contain liquorice. It’s dangerous to give hamsters liquid herbal tea, as they’re not evolved to process large amounts of fluid; flavoured liquids will lead them to over-drink and could harm their long-term health.
Edible enrichment using fresh plants
Note, it is critical that hamsters are allowed on interact only with the plants offered are safe and non-toxic! Better still if they’re actively beneficial to eat and interact with.
The easiest method for this is to offer some culinary kitchen herbs. Most of these have exciting and novel tastes, smells and textures to interact with, with basil and tarragon being particular favourites. You can either cut parts off kitchen herb plants, or – a messier option best saved for out of the cage – let them loose on the whole plant.
Another option that requires slightly more preperation is to sprout some seeds in a tray or spare low-sided food bowl. Once the sprouts are a few centimetres tall, offer the tray for your hamster to trample through and nibble.
Options for seeds to sprout include:
- Grass seed (a mixture of species is best, rather than just ryegrass as most “lawn grass” labelled packs are made up of)
- Whole wheat or oat grains for wheatgrass or oatgrass
- Whole grain wild bird seed
- Any seeds sold in health food shops labelled as safe for humans who want to eat sprouts
The sprouts can be given during your hamster’s free range time, but if their cage is large enough, a sprout tray is a great thing to give them unrestricted access to for a limited time. If your hamster enjoys this, it can be a good idea to have a couple of trays at different stages of the sprouting process.
Coming up in part 2 – treats to hand-feed your hamster!