Hamster Care Basics for Beginner Pet Owners

Updated April 7, 2022
Pet hamster

Hamsters make great pets if you take care of them and interact with them daily to keep them tame. There are 24 species of hamsters, with a select few being common pets. Common hamster species include Syrian, Dwarf, and Roborovski. Their lifespan is about 2 to 3 years on average, but a lot depends on knowing how to take care of hamsters. They're not difficult pets to care for, but you do have to be dedicated to providing for all of their needs.

Hamster Cage Requirements

The type of hamster habitat you choose, as well as what you put into it, also plays an important role in your hamster's well-being. Syrian hamsters prefer to be alone and will often fight if another hamster is caged with them. If you would like more than one Syrian hamster, they must be housed separately or have some type of divider. Dwarf hamsters, on the other hand, are incredibly social and love to live in pairs. If you don't want hamster babies, bring home two hamsters of the same sex.

A wire cage with a solid, deep-pan bottom is typically the best habitat for your hamster. Wire cages allow better airflow, 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 airflow. If you choose to use an aquarium, use a screen lid on top to allow proper ventilation and prevent your hamster from escaping.

Provide a variety of platforms for your hamster to explore and climb on. Even a simple homemade wooden platform and ramp will suffice if you're utilizing an aquarium for their habitat.

The bedding should be absorbent. Bedding made from paper products or aspen shavings is recommended. Do not use pine or cedar shavings, as these are harmful to hamsters. If you want to add another bedding type to supplement, Timothy hay is great for hamsters. The bedding should be changed daily, along with any wet or stale food. Once per week, thoroughly clean the cage with warm, soapy water.

Keep the cage away from direct sunlight to avoid overheating, drafts to avoid chills, and other pets to avoid capture. The temperature of the cage should range between 65 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, with a relatively low humidity level ranging between 40 to 70 percent.

Habitat Size

Bigger is always better, but according to Animal Health Care Center of Hershey, you should try to provide a cage that has at least 19 square inches of floor space per hamster. This amount of space means there is sufficient room for your hamster 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 their head through and escape, and any doors should have locking mechanisms. Avoid cages with plastic bars that can be easily chewed.

Hamster Bedding

Your pet will need about 3 to 4 inches of bedding in their habitat so they 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 for Your Hamster

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

  • 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 their teeth in good condition. You can give them wooden chew blocks or pet-safe branches and chew toys, and you can also provide them with Timothy hay to chew as well as burrow in.

Feeding Your Hamster

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

Feed High-quality Hamster Pellets

hamster eating pellet food

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 CaringPets.org, you should choose pellets that contain 15 to 20 percent protein.

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 number of fresh foods and cereals for added variety and nutrition, but keep this to a minimum so they still eat their 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 vegetables 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

You also should 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 their pellets. This can lead to obesity and other health issues that might shorten their lifespan. If you can't resist feeding hamster mix, limit it to about 1 or 2 teaspoons a week as a treat.

Time and Handling

Watching your hamster go about their business in their habitat can be very entertaining, but you may also want to take them out of their cage. Hamster handling takes a lot of patience. To get your hamster accustomed to handling, begin by hand-feeding your hamster small treats. Once they are comfortable taking treats from your hand, pick them up using a scooping motion.

Once your hamster is completely hand-tamed, you can begin allowing them out of their cage for brief periods of time. They may also enjoy an exercise ball to roam around with. Make sure the area they're wandering has been checked thoroughly for any hazards.

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

How to Hold a Hamster

hold hamster two hands safely

Always hold your pet with two hands. Hamsters are 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 their rear.

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 your hamster and could even lead to an unfortunate accident.

Veterinary Care for Hamsters

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, or mouth
  • Lumps or swelling anywhere

Hamsters are also prone to respiratory problems. Common signs you may notice if there is some type of respiratory condition include:

  • Matted fur
  • Weight loss
  • Diarrhea
  • Shaking
  • Lethargic behavior
  • Runny nose

To prevent respiratory illness, avoid handling your hamster when you're sick. The common cold and pneumonia can be transferred to your hamster, so you want to make sure you don't pass it along.

If you notice any abnormalities with your hamster, contact your veterinarian as soon as possible to make an appointment.

The Responsibility of Hamster Care 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 every day will help you keep an eye on them, and spot troubles as soon as possible as well as help the two of you create a loving bond.

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Hamster Care Basics for Beginner Pet Owners