Keeping Hamsters as Pets: 10 Things to Know Before Adopting

by Alison Blyth
Things to know before adopting a hamster

Hamsters are often thought of as a low maintenance, low value kids’ pet – something short-lived and easy that is bought for a few dollars from a pet shop.  In fact, hamsters are complex little creatures, with lots of personality, and some quite specialised needs. The old stereotype of a children’s pet that isn’t a big deal doesn’t do these awesome animals justice – or give them a good quality of life. So, if you are considering becoming a hamster owner, here are ten things worth knowing.

This article was co-written with Beri Instone, small rodent wrangler extraordinaire (and custodian of many hamsters)

There’s no such thing as “a hamster”

Many people think “hamster” refers to one sort of animal. But there are 18 different species of hamster, of which five species and one hybrid are commonly kept as pets:

  • Syrian (Mesocricetus auratus)
  • Roborovski (Phodopus roborovskii)
  • Campbell’s (Phodopus campbelli)
  • Winter White (Phodopus sungorus)
  • Chinese (Cricetulus barabensis, commonly known as the striped dwarf hamster outside of the pet trade)
  • In captivity there is also a Russian hybrid species, created by crossing P. cambelli and P. sungorus

“Dwarf” hamsters are officially the three Phodopus species, but you’ll often hear the term used to mean any hamster that isn’t a Syrian. However, it’s important to know what species of hamster you have as the care needs of each are different.

Hamsters are not social animals

Many pet rodents, like rats and mice, belong to social species who need to live with others of their kind. However, hamsters are a bit different and generally prefer to live alone.

Of all of the species, Russian hybrids are most likely to be able to live happily as pairs, although only as same-sex siblings, not unrelated adults. Even this isn’t easy or cheap to do, as each hamster still needs enough independent space, and they need duplicates of all resources so that they’re not competing for the same thing. Keeping more than one hamster in a cage is best left to experienced owners who can identify bullying. Beri has taken in multiple pairs of hamsters supposedly “happy living together” who turned out to be nothing of the sort and had to be immediately split up for their welfare.

In the wild, hamsters live alone, coming together only to reproduce. In some species the male will help with baby-rearing, but please don’t think breeding will allow your hamsters to live together. Keeping males and females together will result in back to back litters which is really bad for the health of the mum.

Hamsters aren’t cheap pets (and are definitely not disposable)

Just because hamsters are small furry things easily bought from a pet shop doesn’t mean they are cheap to keep, or that they deserve less respect or commitment than larger animals.

In thinking about the financial commitment, it is important to factor in the following costs of keeping a hamster:

  • a good sized cage (see below) and furnishings,
  • quality food,
  • and potential vet’s bills.

Hamsters can live for 2-3 years so they are also a medium-term commitment, not a quick experiment in pet-keeping that can be given away if a child gets bored – which is one of the most common reasons for hamsters being dumped or rehomed.

A small body doesn’t mean a small cage

Hamsters need a big cage

Hamsters may be little, but they are super-active. So, their cage needs to offer enough space for them to behave naturally and have a good level of mental and physical stimulation. If they are kept in a cage which is too small (and sadly this includes many pet shop cages sold for hamsters) then they will be stressed, and more likely to suffer from behavioural and health problems.

The minimum continuous uninterrupted footprint of cage should be 4000 square centimetres (620 square inches), which equates to 80 x 50 cm (31.5 x 20 inches) or a longer, thinner 4ft tank. We’re specifying continuous because many hamster cages are sold as modular systems of interconnected smaller areas – however from the hamster’s point of view, lots of little areas don’t achieve the same experience as a single large enclosure.

Hamster balls aren’t a good form of exercise

Hamster balls are popular because the hamster is fully enclosed while out the cage so unable to escape and disappear into furniture or walls. However, while balls answer a human problem (stopping an escape), that doesn’t make them a nice experience from the hamster’s point of view.

If we look at it from the perspective of the hamster in the ball, we can see how unnatural the idea is. Hamsters want to run around at their own pace, explore things, sense obstacles with their whiskers, snuffle and smell. Shutting them in a plastic globe stops all of that.

A better way of letting a hamster out their cage is in a supervised playpen. To stop escapes, the sides need to be solid (not bars) and at least adult knee height. There also needs to be plenty for the hamster to do so they are less tempted to try and escape through boredom.

Hamsters like to climb (as well as burrow)

Hamster's cage should provide climbing options

It’s a common myth that because most species of hamsters sleep below ground in complex burrow systems, that’s their entire habitat. Actually, it’s just where they sleep and go to ground. It is important to provide a deep substrate so a pet hamster can dig and tunnel, but their cage also needs to offer space for other activities, including climbing.

Chinese hamsters are the best at climbing. Their long thin body shape is more mouse-like, and they have inch-long tails that help them balance. They enjoy climbing on thicker branches and ropes.

The second-best climbers are Syrians. They generally can’t manage branches/ ropes as they don’t have the back-limb dexterity, but they love platforms at various heights, narrow steep ledges and tubes.

The least able climbers are the Russian hamsters and Robos, but even they will appreciate a species-appropriate layout including things like shelves that are not fully horizontal to mimic hills. Other good climbing options are connected ledges/ staircase bridges to hop up and down, and higher accessories in the substrate to clamber on as look-outs.

Just like humans, the more practiced a hamster is at climbing, the more they will do it and the more agile they will be. That means a hamster who has no experience of climbing won’t thrive in a complex layout straight away. Instead, they need gentle introductions with easy layouts that can get increasingly more climby as the hamster develops their skills. Developing climbing ability, even in Russian hamsters, will help them use all their muscles and so reduce the risk of obesity.

Hamsters aren’t nocturnal

Like rats and mice, hamsters are crepuscular – most active around dawn and dusk. They will adapt their sleeping patterns to fit with their owner’s routines – but only if they like you. If a hamster is uncomfortable with people, unhappy, or stressed, they will actively avoid interactions. So, a hamster no one ever sees is a hamster whose care needs to be reviewed.

If hamsters bite, it’s for a reason

Hamsters have a reputation for being aggressive and biting people for no reason. However, there is always a justification from their point of view.

The most common reason for hamsters to bite is because people don’t know how to handle them, or misread their signals. As with many animals, if their early warning signals of discomfort or stress are ignored, hamsters will ramp up the aggression to escape a situation that’s making them distressed.

The most frequent situations in which hamsters bite are when people try and pick them up, or prod them to wake them up. For the latter, no animal likes to be disturbed in their bed – it’s their ultimate safe space, and being woken up suddenly gives them no time to assess the threat. For the former, many hamsters will have had bad experiences being picked up in the past and find it scary. The best thing to do is encourage the hamster to come to their cage door at a good time for you, and provide them with a safe area to walk out the cage before being picked up. That way you aren’t intruding on them or the areas where they feel secure.

Pet hamsters don’t tend to hibernate (and they can’t catch your cold)

Some species of hamster do hibernate in the wild, but the exact details of when and why aren’t well known. In captivity, hibernation isn’t something they need to do. Instead, this type of body-shutdown is their response to a situation they might struggle to survive, such as a sudden temperature change – and it’s not a safe state for them to be in as they are unlikely to have had time to properly prepare for it. So, if your hamster lethargic, cold or limp, don’t just assume it is hibernating, instead take it to a vet!

Like all rodents, hamsters have sensitive respiratory systems and pick up infections easily. However, they don’t catch human viral colds. Like rats or mice, a hamster with a snotty nose or a crackly chest most likely has a bacterial respiratory infection and needs vet treatment.

Hamsters are excellent pets – if you put the time in

Hamsters can be amazing pets – Beri usually has 2 or 3 hamster cages that are 1 metre (3.28 ft) long at any one time! If you provide enough space and species-appropriate enrichment then their personalities really shine through and they are every bit as individual as rats. They’re really fun to just sit and watch in the cage doing their own thing, but they also enjoy human interaction that’s respectful of their species-type and life history. As with many animals, the more you know about them, the more rewarding the relationship will be.

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