Basics of Hamster Care

Kelly Roper
Pet hamster

Hamsters make great pets if you take care of them and interact with them daily to keep them tame. Their lifespan is about two to three years on average, but a lot depends on feeding them a proper diet and providing them with clean and spacious living quarters. They're not difficult pets to care for, but you do have to be dedicated to providing for all of their needs.

Feeding Your Hamster

A healthy diet is one of the keys to having a happy hamster that's around for a long time. The following guidelines will put you on the right track.

Pellets

High-quality hamster pellets should be the staple of your hamster's diet. These pellets are formulated to provide balanced nutrition for your pet in every bite. According to Aspenwing Animal Hospital, you should choose pellets that contain 15 to 20 percent protein.

Hamster eating pellet mix

Amount to feed:

  • Dwarf hamsters: one-eighth cup a day
  • Large hamsters: one-third cup a day


Hamsters tend to hoard food in their bedding and in their cheek pouches, so be sure to check for hidden food supplies so you aren't overfeeding your pet.

Supplemental Foods

You can also supplement your pet's diet with a small amount of fresh foods and cereals for added variety and nutrition, but keep this to a minimum so he still eats his pellets. A teaspoon of fresh food several times a week is sufficient, and all uneaten fresh foods should be removed after three to four hours to avoid spoilage. Only offer one or two types of fresh food at a time to avoid upsetting your pet's digestive system, and be sure to wash all fruits and vegetable before chopping them.

Safe foods include:

  • Apples
  • Banana slices
  • Blueberries
  • Carrots
  • Kale
  • Peas
  • Raspberries
  • Squash
  • Strawberries
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Plain corn flakes
  • Plain Cheerios

Foods to Avoid


According to the ASPCA, there are certain foods that are toxic to hamsters. These include:

  • Raw kidney beans
  • Raw potatoes
  • Chocolate
  • Onions
  • Rhubarb

Aspenwing Animal Hospital also recommends that you avoid feeding hamster mix to your pet. Although you'll find it at nearly every pet supply store, hamster mix contains a lot of fatty seeds, corn, and peanuts, and your pet will fill up on mix instead of eating his pellets. This can lead to obesity and other health issues that might shorten his life span. If you can't resist feeding hamster mix, limit it to about one or two teaspoons a week as a treat.

Housing

The type of habitat you choose, as well as what you put into it, also plays an important role in your hamster's well being. Most hamsters prefer to live alone, so it's usually best to house them in separate cages to prevent fighting. Plan to clean your pet's environment about twice a week or more frequently as needed, and clean his food and water containers at least daily and more frequently if he soils them.

Cage or Aquarium

Hamster cage with proper bar spacing

A wire cage with a deep pan bottom is typically the best habitat for your hamster. Wire cages allow better air flow, which can help keep the bedding dry and prevent ammonia fumes from building up between cleanings.

An aquarium is another option that will certainly keep the bedding inside the habitat, but the glass sides do reduce air flow. If you choose to use an aquarium, be sure to you use a screen lid on top to ensure some ventilation and prevent your hamster from escaping.

Size

Bigger is always better, but according to St. Francis Animal Hospital, you should try to provide a cage that has at least 19 square inches of floor space per hamster, so there is sufficient room to move around, as well as room for all the accessories you'll need to add. Bar spacing should be close enough that your hamster can't squeeze his head through and escape, and any doors should have locking mechanisms. Avoid cages with plastic bars that can be easily chewed.

Bedding

Your pet will need about three to four inches of bedding in his habitat so he can burrow. Aspen shavings or recycled newspaper are some of the safest bedding choices for your pet. Avoid pine and cedar shavings because they give off unhealthy fumes.

Accessories

Every hamster habitat needs some accessories to make it a suitable home.

hamster in solid wheel
  • Food dish and water bottle: Use a heavy, ceramic dish that won't tip over, and opt for a water bottle with a drinking tube, so your pet can have fresh water that isn't filled with bedding and poop.
  • Exercise wheel: Hamsters need a lot of exercise, and a wheel gives them the best opportunity for exercising in their confined environments. To prevent injuries, choose a solid wheel rather than an open wire wheel. You'll also find a variety of other exercise toys available to use inside or outside of your pet's cage.
  • Hiding hut: Huts are sold under various names and made from various materials, but they all provide some much needed solitude for your pet. Plastic huts are easy to clean, but wooden huts give your pet something to chew on as well. Simply replace a wooden hut once it's well chewed.
  • Chewing items: Your hamster needs to chew to keep his teeth in good condition. You can give him wooden chew blocks or pet-safe branches and chewing toys, and you can also provide him with timothy hay to chew as well as burrow in.

Spending Time with Your Pet

Watching your hamster go about his business in his habitat can be very entertaining, but you may also want to take him out of his cage. Here are a few helpful tips to keep him safe.

The Correct Way to Hold

holding a hamster

Always hold your pet with two hands. Hamsters are kind of like a slinky toy; they have a way of leaning backward or forward and "pouring" out of your hands. One hand should support the entire bottom from the bottom, while the other hand should cup around the hamster's shoulder and over his rear.

Out of Cage Time

Never turn your pet loose in the house. He can quickly disappear, and he may chew electrical wiring. You can give him some protected freedom by letting him explore while walking in a hamster ball, but take care he can't get near any stairs where he could fall down. 10 to 15 minutes is plenty of time to let him explore before you put him back in his habitat.

Monitor Other Pets

Keep an eye on any other pets in your household, such as dogs, cats, or free-flying pet birds. They may chase after your pet, which will frighten him and could even lead to an unfortunate accident.

Veterinary Care

A healthy hamster typically sleeps most of the day and becomes active at night since these creatures are nocturnal. They don't require any vaccinations, so you'll probably have little need for veterinary care as long as you provide the correct diet and a clean environment. However, it's still a good idea to schedule a well pet exam once a year to make sure your pet is in good health.

Hamsters do occasionally get sick or injured, so it's important to know the signs to watch for which include:

  • Lack of appetite
  • Weakness/lethargy
  • Wet tail or visible diarrhea
  • Overgrown teeth or difficulty chewing
  • Coughing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Discharge from the eyes/nose/mouth
  • Lumps or swelling anywhere

If you notice any of these warning signs, schedule a trip to the vet as soon as you can.

The Responsibility Is Yours

Pet ownership can be a joy, but it's also a big responsibility. It's up to you to provide everything your hamster needs to live a comfortable life and stay as healthy as possible. Interacting with your pet everyday will help you keep an eye on him and spot troubles as soon as possible, as well as help the two of you create a loving bond.

Basics of Hamster Care