We’ve talked before about how hamsters are not just hamsters; there are several different species, each with its own needs. The same is true for feeding. Whilst many pet stores and online shops still sell “hamster food” (or, the great rodent preserve us, “rat, mouse, gerbil and hamster food”), most of these diets won’t be healthy for your pet without careful modification to meet species specific needs.
Today we’re going to look at what’s needed to feed dwarf hamsters correctly. We’re using the phrase “dwarf hamster” as that’s the name that often crops up on foods or in hamster care. In reality, what we mean is all the hamster species kept as pets, except for the larger Syrian hamsters who have different needs. These are the Chinese, Russian, and Roborovski (robo) hamsters – they aren’t actually “dwarf” animals – just smaller species from other parts of the world – but that’s the pet classification that has stuck.
Chinese, Russian and Robos are all different species, so how come we group them together for feeding? It’s because their needs, as far as we know, are pretty similar. There isn’t a lot of research on them in the wild, but based on the science we do have, this grouping works reasonably well.
Article content provided by Beri Instone, small rodent diet supremo.
Table of Contents
- Where do dwarf hamsters come from – and why that means no sugar?
- How to feed a dwarf hamster
- What does a good food for hamsters look like?
- Does my dwarf hamster need supplements?
- How much food should I feed my hamster?
Where do dwarf hamsters come from – and why that means no sugar?
Russian and Chinese hamsters live in the northern steppe grasslands of China, Mongolia, southern Russia, and Kazakhstan. This heavily influences the diets that are good and bad for them, as it means their bodies have evolved to eat only the foods that are available in these environments.
From our point of view, the most important thing is that this means a diet with no sugar – that includes no fresh or dried fruit, and even avoiding sweet vegetables like carrots. The native wild diet doesn’t include sugary foods as the plants that make them don’t grow on the steppes, so the animals’ bodies haven’t evolved an ability to tolerate them. If a pet Russian (including hybrids) or Chinese hamster is fed sweet foods it has a very high chance of developing life-limiting diabetes.
Wild Roborovski hamsters live in a semi-desert environment in the Gobi. Compared to Russian and Chinese hamsters they are better able to tolerate sugar and are less diabetes prone. However, they also don’t need a diet with extra sugar in, and because they are so tiny, it is much easier to feed them on the same diet as the other small species.
How to feed a dwarf hamster
Should I feed hamster pellets?
Short answer – not as the only item in the diet. Pellets and nuggets can be a tempting option for owners not sure how to feed their animal because they claim to put all the necessary nutrition into one simple form. However, there are three problems in feeding your hamster on these foods alone.
- Firstly, you have no control over the ingredients, which means you can’t adapt their food to health or life stage, and have to trust that manufacturers have taken account of issues like avoiding sugar.
- Next up, pellets are a really, really dull diet for an animal to eat (this applies to hamsters, rats, mice, gerbils and pretty much any other animal you can think of). Every piece of food eaten is identical, at every meal, for life. I don’t think any human would fancy that diet so there is no good reason to impose it on our pets. Wild hamsters are foragers/scavengers, which means they invest huge amounts of their energy and intellectual effort into finding food. Captive hamsters need stimulation and interest through their food to stop them getting bored. Boredom in hamsters can lead to over-eating which puts the hamsters at risk of health problems.
- Lastly, most pellets sold for “hamsters” are quite large – dwarf hamsters only need two or three to make a meal per day, but that is hard for owners to believe which can lead to over-feeding.
So, what should I feed my hamster?
Dwarf hamsters should be fed a dry mix containing a variety of types of food. The crucial guidelines are that it should contain +17% protein and +10% fat. These fat and protein levels are necessary because being small means that these hamsters have a large surface area relative to their size, which in turn means they lose heat more quickly than larger animals and need to burn more calories to keep warm.
If you live in a very hot place like desert and southern American states you might be able to get away with fat around the 7% mark especially in the summer. In the steppe and semi-desert food availability is often seasonal, so having a different summer and winter mix is fine.
But of course, the increased calories needed shouldn’t come from sugar, so no dried fruit, dried sweet veg, fruit juice, honey, and molasses. Be aware that it isn’t just a case of removing bits of fruit from an unsuitable mix – these foods are often sprayed with fruit juice and/or molasses to make them more palatable – and removing one part of the mix will alter the nutritional balance of the rest.
As mentioned above, Roborovoski hamsters can tolerate some sugar. However, they are tiny – really, really tiny! – so a single raisin can form a whole, unhealthy meal. That means that although we can be a bit less vigilant about their sugar intake, it is still best to opt for a mix without sweet things added.
Is it safe for my hamster to eat whole, unprocessed grains?
Yes! There is a myth out there that hamsters can’t have whole grains because the ends of the husks can be pointy and this might damage their cheek pouch lining. This is untrue. Unprocessed grains are what dwarf hamsters eat in the wild, and are much better for their health than more processed foods (such as pellets or processed cereal puffs), because they have a low glycaemic index. This means that they release sugar into the blood stream more slowly than high GI food. Obviously, that is a really important thing in an animal that is prone to diabetes. Ideally, whole grains should be fed rather than more processed versions like flakes and puffs, and should certainly form the basis of the dwarf hamster diet.
What does a good food for hamsters look like?
Finding a good dwarf hamster mix is HARD, especially if you live in North America. While knowledge that they have different nutritional requirements to Syrian hamsters is slowly spreading, understanding of their nutritional needs is still limited. It’s common for commercial foods to be labelled as suitable for dwarf hamsters whilst having unsuitable sugar, protein and fat levels.
Supreme Harry Hamster (called Hazel Hamster in N. America) is a complete commercial mix. The recipe for this has changed over the years, and the current recipe branded as “tiny friends tasty mix” is suitable for dwarf hamsters. It does have quite big pieces and processed grains, so if feeding this it is important to be aware of the amounts being fed and ensure the hamsters have plenty of enrichment and cage space to encourage physical activity.
The other end of the scale is feeding an entirely homemade mix. This can be tricky to balance for dwarf hamsters and isn’t something to attempt without extensive nutritional knowledge. It’s easy to get it wrong and as the animals are so small, it is also easy to miss health problems. In many countries, hamster owners sell their own mixes online directly or via a small company. If you are interested in these diets, it is important to check their nutritional composition, as something that looks great on the surface can still not meet the key needs. If you want to feed foods like this, Beri recommends opting for a known brand such as Rodipet or Getzoo (both German, but can be imported to most European countries).
The easiest way for most people to feed is to combine commercial and homemade foods – by buying small amounts of interesting ingredients from health food shops it is possible to enrich a commercial diet such as nuggets to create something that is both nutritionally suitable and interesting. The simplest way to do this is to feed one or part of a nugget per day along with a tiny amount of homemade grain mix. Aim for the diet to be no more than 60% nugget in total.
Commercial food options for this method of feeding include
- Supreme Selective Hamster – amazon.com
- Burgess Hamster, Gerbil & Mouse (will need some higher protein foods added) – amazon.co.uk
- Mr Johnsons Hamster & Gerbil (will need some higher fat foods added) – amazon.co.uk
For creating a homemade mix to feed in tandem with nuggets, your friends are:
Sold for human consumption
Dried lentils and peas, sold for humans to use in broths and soups – these are high in protein but low in fat. These are more appropriate for dwarf hamsters than pet grade pea flakes due to their size. Note: do not feed dried beans as these are toxic.
Oily seeds and their mixes. Particularly good options for tiny hamsters are linseed/ flaxseed, hempseed, and sesame seeds. It is best to avoid pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds as they are too large and sunflower seeds don’t have the right oil ratios. You can add tiny amounts of ‘spice’ seeds like fennel and cumin for variety of taste.
Other minimally processed grains from health food shops e.g. rice, buckwheat, job’s tears (that last one being East Asian is very species appropriate).
Sold for aviary birds
Aviary foods based on millets and canary seeds – often labelled for budgies, finches, and parakeets. These are kidney-kind grains which are always whole grain still in their husks, and a lovely small size. E.g. Kaytee FortDiet Parakeet (amazon.com link).
An example homemade grain and seed mix is:
- 50% Kaytee parakeet
- 15% other grains
- 20% legumes (lentils/ peas)
- 15% oily seeds
However, on top of that you’ll need to provide protein (especially if the chosen nugget has low levels). The best way to do this for hamsters is to use dried bugs (labelled for exotic pets, wild birds and reptiles). Mealworms are like marmite, some hamsters love them, some hate them. Crickets and silkworm pupae are more readily taken. Depending on the age of your hamster (youngsters needing more protein, oldies needing less) you can feed anywhere from one bug every day, to only once or twice a week.
Once you have your mix, whether commercial or homemade, it is important to add some dried forage. Some German foods have this as part of the recipe but most brands around the world do not. Due to evolving in grasslands, dwarf hamsters need a diet higher in fibre than other omnivorous rodents. Dried grass (more nutritious than hay) and mixed forage of dried leaves / stems / roots are both good. However, make sure the chosen brand doesn’t add dried fruit or veg, and, particularly in America, make sure there is no liquorice, which is unsafe. Dried edible flowers and petals are also appropriate – they are a really good low-sugar way to provide a variety of tastes and flavours. A big handful of forage in total mixed up per 500g of food works well. Appropriate brands include:
- Rosewood Pet 1 Pouch Dandelion Delight Food – amazon.com
- Small Pet Select Heavenly Green Crunch – amazon.com
- Nibbling Herbal Mixture by Crows Nest Primitive – amazon.com
- Rosewood Naturals Nibble ‘n’ Dig Meadow – amazon.co.uk
- Rosewood Herbal Garden – amazon.co.uk
Does my dwarf hamster need supplements?
Dwarf hamsters are hard to supplement. Their small size and caching behaviours make adding supplements to fresh food difficult, while they drink very little water, so adding them to their water bottle also doesn’t work. In fact, the latter can be dangerous, as a tasty supplement can encourage hamsters to drink too much and cause kidney failure. However, by using a proportion of commercial food in their diet, the need to supplement is minimised, as commercial foods generally have supplements added during manufacture.
If you do want to give a dwarf hamster supplements, the best option is to copy what reptile owners do and add a dusting of very fine supplement powder to insects and grubs before hand feeding them (so it doesn’t get rubbed off again). Daily Essentials 3 (amazon.co.uk link), formerly known as Tiny Animals Essentials, is an insoluble vitamin and mineral supplement designed to be added to food and works very well for hamsters.
How much food should I feed my hamster?
Tiny hamsters only need a tiny amount of food. A one-finger pinch of a decent mix is enough food per day for a dwarf hamster.
Bowls are a boring way to feed small animals – they take away all the fun, exercise and intellectual stimulation of finding food. So, it is best to scatter the food in the animal’s cage. However, hamsters don’t tend to dig for food, so scatter it on the top of the substrate for them to hoover up. You can up the engagement levels by dotting bits of food around on various ledges and levels as well as on the substrate – that also helps you keep track of which bits of their cage your hamster is using.
It’s best to only feed a day’s worth of food at a time to stop stashing / caching behaviour. Wild hamsters eat the best bits of food first, and then use their cheeks as a giant bag to transport all the rest back to their nest for later. It’s a vital behaviour in the wild as it prevents the hamster starving during lean periods. However, in captivity it can instead lead to the hamster only eating the fattening stuff and filling their bed with mouldering food. You should check hamster beds for food weekly, especially when they are a new pet, as this will help work out if you are over-feeding. Enclosed beds with no floors are ideal as you can just lift them up to peak underneath without disturbing the hamster’s private space.
To make sure you are giving your hamster the right amount of food, it is best to weigh them regularly on a set of electronic kitchen scales. Sudden changes in weight can point to problems in feeding or health issues.
So, now you know the basics of how to feed your Russian, Chinese, or Roborovski hamster. Got a Syrian hamster? Look out for a future article all about their species-specific feeding needs.