Dwarf Hamster Basics
Dwarf hamsters have different care needs than Syrian or big hamsters. They are nocturnal and they live 2 to 3 years. They are generally social creatures, and can live with littermates in a large clean cage, with ample food.
If they start to fight seriously or if they ever injure each other, they need to be separated and live apart. Make sure a knowledgeable person double checks that they are the same sex, or get them spayed or neutered by an expert hamster surgeon if they are the opposite sex.
A dwarf hamster is an intelligent living creature, not a “learner” pet or a child’s toy. Adults are responsible for their health and safety.
Dwarf 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. Dwarfs often do not like being picked up by a hand directly from the cage, and may bite. To avoid this, let the hamster climb into a ball, cup or toy, then lift the hammie out. Once they are out of the cage, allow them to climb onto your flat palm at their own speed. This takes patience when they first meet you. They may try to dig through your hand or nip lightly to make sure that you are not food (make sure your hands are clean and do not smell like food). This light nipping is not the same as an aggression bite. When first handling a new dwarf, do so over a soft surface, close to the ground in case they bite and you drop them accidentally. Always wash your hands before handling your hamster to avoid transferring germs to them from the outside world.
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 appears to be dead, before burial move it to a warmer location, and wait until the body is warm to ensure 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. It’s a great idea to hang a thermometer on the outside of the hamster cage so that you can monitor the temperature.
Dwarf hamsters are very prone to diabetes and need a specific diet to ensure a happy healthy life. If they are not fed this diet they are likely to develop diabetes and may be surly and aggressive. They should eat 50% washed veggies (organic preferable) and 50% sugar-, corn-, fruit-, carrot-, and pea-free hamster food and grain mix (approximately 1/8 to ¼ cup daily). Any food containing sugar in any form, including fruits corn, carrots or peas will harm dwarf hamsters over time. 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. Dwarfs will not eat all of the dry food every day, but they enjoy hiding it, and need excess to feel secure. Dwarfs also benefit from a small amount of oat or timothy hay, especially when they are shedding. Healthy Handfuls by Oxbow or Hazel Hamster (with corn and peas picked out) 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, sesame seeds and seeds with shells. 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. Dwarf hamsters with diabetes will consume massive amounts of water. This is an early clue that your dwarf may have diabetes. If the cage is much wetter than usual or is moldy, this is also a sign of diabetes. Diabetic dwarfs must have access to lots of water as they need it to help flush their kidneys, which are required to work hard to cope with the diabetes.
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 or seeds. Dwarfs without diabetes can have a tiny piece of fruit the size of a baby pinkie nail once a week maximum. Diabetics should never have fruit, carrots, beets or peas (any sweet veggie). If hamsters start to gain too much weight, especially diabetics, eliminate seeds from their diet until the weight is lost, and then add back in moderately.
Hamsters are master climbers and escape artists. In spite of their tiny size, in nature they have a five-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. 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. Babies should have solid walls and not wires, as they will walk out from between the 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 children’s 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 5″ in diameter at all times. Smaller wheels are alright 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 a great way for the hamster to get free time to explore and get exercise. The ball should be about 5″ 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 they 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. Diabetic hamsters or hamsters starting to develop diabetes may not like the ball, since they do not have access to water while inside it. Do not force them into it if they resist.
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, unless the hammie has diabetes, in which case it needs to be checked for moisture daily, and cleaned. The mold that grows on wet hamster bedding is highly toxic. 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 when 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), are all fine. Clean them weekly when the cage is cleaned and throw them away if they get dirty or splintered. Snack Shaks are not recommended for dwarfs because they contain sugar.
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 dwarf 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 regularly 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. Use this test daily on diabetic hamsters. 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 dwarf hamster illnesses can include diabetes, 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 diabetes and tumors, are treatable when caught early. If you ever feel like your hamster is not acting normally, trust your instincts and get to a vet immediately. Please check the Dwarf Hamster Diabetes care sheet for additional information on warning signs, testing and treating diabetic dwarfs.