Syrian or Full-Sized Hamsters Basics
Hamsters are nocturnal and they live 3 to 5 years. They are generally solitary creatures, but occasionally can live with a litter mate in a large clean cage, with ample food. If they start to fight or if they ever injure each other, they need to be separated and live apart. Make sure an extremely knowledgeable person double checks that they are the same sex, or get them spayed or neutered if they are the opposite sex.
A hamster is an intelligent living creature, not a “learner” pet or a child’s toy. Adults are responsible for their health and safety. Hamsters should only be handled by gentle children who are old enough to understand how to be gentle, and only while the child is seated and under close adult supervision. When a hamster is woken up, or first wakes up, s/he may be cranky. Allow him/her a chance to perk up before handling, to avoid being nipped.
Hamsters need temperatures between 65 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit at all times. In winter, if it is below this temperature, they can go into false hibernation, and appear to be dead. If the hamster ever gets too cold make sure it is warm before burial to ensure that s/he is not hibernating. In summer make sure the hammies stay cool. Keep a frozen water bottle in the freezer to use as emergency cage air conditioning in case of power outages or AC malfunction.
Hamsters should eat 50% washed veggies (organic preferable) and 50% hamster food and grain mix (approximately 1/8 to ¼ cup daily). When introducing new foods, do so slowly, one at a time, and check the hamster poop the following day to make sure their stools are solid. If they appear soft, discontinue all fresh foods until they are solid again. Hamsters will not eat all of the dry food every day, but they enjoy hiding it, and need excess to feel secure. Hamsters also benefit from a small amount of oat or timothy hay, especially when they are shedding. Healthy Handfuls by Oxbow or Hazel Hamster are two of the better hamster foods. When choosing a hamster food, make sure that there is no sugar, including corn syrup. Cane molasses is fine if it is lower on the ingredient list, since it is high in B vitamins. Hamsters should never get fruit seeds or pits as these contain arsenic. Hams should never have raw potatoes, yucca, onions, garlic, or food that is spoiled, slimy or moldy. The hamster diet can be supplemented with roasted unsalted soybeans (i.e. Genisoy brand), lentils, cooked beans, tofu, egg, cheese, nuts, and sesame seeds. Grain mixes can include rolled oats, rye, barley, wheatberries, whole quinoa, amaranth, teff, whole grain pasta, puffed whole grain cereals. A health food store bulk section is a great place to look for hamster grains. If hamsters are ill or elderly, baby food sometimes gets them to eat. Fresh foods like veggies and tofu should be removed after a few hours and thrown away.
The hamster needs a bowl big enough to sit in comfortably, as hammies like to sit on top of their food when they eat. The bowl should be sturdy ceramic, and it needs to be rinsed and dried out daily, with excess food thrown out (or to the birds).
Hamsters need fresh water every day, so the bottles they use can be fairly small. They need to have two bottles, because they often become stuck and the hamster cannot go without water. Check the bottles once or twice per day by tapping on the ball to make sure water can easily come out. Also check the bedding under the bottles to make sure the bottles are not leaking.
Weekly, the bowl and water bottles need to be washed with mild soap and rinsed well.
Hamsters should not have salt licks or mineral wheels.
Hamsters should never have store bought treats, with the exception of treats from Oxbow, as they contain too much sugar. They should never have cookies, sticky foods, honey, chocolate, soda, avocados or most people food. They can have nuts, seeds, and a tiny piece of fruit the size of a baby pinkie nail.
Hamsters are master climbers and escape artists. In nature they have a 5 mile range, so any housing we supply for them is going to be too small. Get the largest house you can possible afford and take care of. The minimum for a hamster house is 3 levels, 12″ wide, by 2 feet long, by 2 feet high (4 sq. feet). Anything smaller is inhumane and will lead to cage aggression and biting. The cage sides should be sturdy metal wire or glass, not plastic, since hamsters will happily chew out of a plastic cage in a single night. Plastic toys and tubes can be used inside of a cage, but not as a means of containing hamsters. Wires should be ¼” apart maximum, and smaller for baby hamsters. The cage bottom should be solid, not bars, and all wire floor surfaces should be covered with cardboard or paper, to make cleaning easier and prevent injuries. Ideally babies should have solid walls and not wires. The cage needs to be placed away from direct sunlight and sources of heat, which can cause the hammies to overheat while they sleep, and away from drafts, which contribute to illness. Hamsters should not be kept in bedrooms or anywhere accessible to children without adult supervision.
Hamsters must run many miles (yes, miles) every day or they will develop cage paralysis. This means they must have a wheel at least 8″ in diameter at all times. Smaller wheels are fine for babies, but not when the hammies are full grown. The wheel must have a solid bottom or fine mesh, not rungs. Wheels with rungs break hamster legs and should never be used. Make sure the wheel will be easy to clean. A detachable wheel that is not connected to the cage is best. Hamsters are nocturnal, so check the wheel before you buy to make sure the sound of running will not disturb your sleep. Vegetable oil can be used to grease the joint to decrease squeaking or sounds.
Hamster balls are also great ways for the hamster to get free time to explore and get exercise. The ball should be about 8″ in diameter. Make sure to always tape the ball shut with fresh tape or the hammie will escape. Hamsters should have daily ball time in 20-minute sessions. Hamsters will generally let you know when they are bored in the ball, because they will stop to eat, groom or sleep. When they do, take them out of the ball. Listen while your hammie is in the ball to make sure they are not trapped in a corner or by a cord. If there are children in the house, make absolutely sure that the never kick or throw the ball with the hamster in it, as this will kill the hamster. Young children should not handle the hamster ball ever.
Hamsters need a paper-based bedding, such as Carefresh, Paper Shavings, SoftSorbent, Yesterdays News or Cagetech. Cedar bedding is deadly. Pine bedding is potentially harmful. Aspen may be fine, but why chance it? Use paper bedding, about three inches deep so the hammies can burrow. In winter, provide extra bedding to ensure the hammie stays warm enough, and consider putting towels or blankets around the bottom and sides of the cage to ensure warmth. Never use any hamster fluff or cotton bedding material, as hammies can ingest it and die. Use paper towel, toilet paper, or paper napkins torn into strips for the hammies to make their nests. Tiny boxes (without tape or plastic parts) or toilet tubes make wonderful hammie hideaways. The cage needs to be cleaned weekly. Leaving a hamster in a filthy cage is animal cruelty.
Don’t force your hamster to live in filth. The cage should be cleaned only with white vinegar or mild soap and water, no harsh cleaners. If the hamster has been ill, you can use bleach to disinfect, but only is the hamster is far enough away to be unaffected by the fumes. Hamsters are easily harmed by airborne chemical cleaners and other household chemicals. If you use them in your home, move the hammies to a safe, fume-free area before using the chemicals. Some hamsters will use hamster litter boxes or Hamster Potty. If you use them, make sure to use only hamster litter by Hamster Potty or Small Animal Litter by Kaytee, never cat litter. If your hamster is ever dirty it is because s/he is sick or the cage is dirty. Hamsters clean themselves and should never be bathed. If they are ill and need to be cleaned, use a warm damp cloth and carefully dry the hammie with a soft towel. Keep them warm while they dry completely.
Toys and Hideaways:
Plastic pigloos, plastic tubes, plastic toys, wooden houses, cardboard boxes and tubes (plastic tape removed), Snack Shaks are all fine. Clean them weekly when the cage is cleaned and throw them away if they get dirty or splintered.
Hamsters need to wear down and sharpen their teeth constantly, so they need to have wire bars or wooden chews available to chew on. Apple twigs or willow chews seem the most popular.
Hamsters deserve medical care, just as every other living being does. The “cost” of an animal should never determine its right to a long healthy life. Find a hamster vet before you need one. Usually with a hamster this will need to be a late night vet, because that is when a change in health or behavior is noticeable in these nocturnal animals. By the time a hamster seems ill, they are generally very ill and need prompt medical care. Never use Dritail, because a hamster with wet tail (diarrhea) should be rushed to a vet for rehydration (injection of Lactated Ringers solution) and medicine immediately, if s/he is to survive. Use the skin pinch test to determine if your hamster needs rehydration. Gently pinch the skin between the shoulders and release it. If it stays up in a tent or retracts back to normal shape slowly the hamster is incredibly dehydrated. Keep unflavored children’s Pedialyte in the house in case of emergencies. If you can get your hamster to drink some on the way to the vet it may save the hamster’s life.
Do the pinch test when the hammie is healthy so you have something to compare it to in case your hammie gets sick. Be aware of your hamster’s normal eating, drinking, pooping, peeing, sleeping and activity patterns so that you can tell when they change. Inspect your hammie on a weekly basis to help catch changes early. Common hamster illnesses can include kidney problems, wet tail, dehydration, malocclusion (overgrowth of the teeth), cheek pouch impaction (something stuck in the pouch), upper respiratory infections, broken bones, mites, cuts, abscesses, eye injury, fungus, and tumors. All of these conditions, including tumors, are treatable when caught early. If you feel like your hamster is not acting normally, trust your instincts and get to a vet immediately.