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April 20, 2012

Welcome to Hamsterdam: Tips for Creating a Hamster Heaven

How to care for your cheeky little hammy

All Animals magazine

  • Viachaslau Kraskouski/Shutterstock Images

by Ruthanne Johnson

Pick of the Litter  Rather than perpetuate the cruelties of breeding mills, adopt your hamsters from rescues or shelters. An experienced shelter employee or rescuer can correctly identify gender and provide advice on handling, caging, diet, and local small mammal veterinarians.

On Burrowed Time  In the wild, a hamster burrow has many chambers and can be several feet underground. Cages sold in pet stores are often too small or don’t provide proper ventilation. Cages should be single level and at least 24-by-18 inches (bigger is always better); many hamster enthusiasts build their own from oversized storage bins. Place the cage in a temperature-controlled, draft-free room and fill with a layer of recycled wood pulp bedding or finely flaked aspen chips (don’t use cedar, cat litter, or treated pine). For nesting material, simply tear toilet paper into strips. Keep in mind that Syrians are territorial and must be housed separately. Other species may live in family groups of the same sex, but be prepared to put them in separate cages if fighting occurs.

Ham I Am  Hamsters are nocturnal, traveling up to 12 miles a night in the wild. For pet hamsters, variety and exercise are necessary for physical and mental health. A solid-surfaced exercise wheel (for Syrians, at least 8 inches in diameter) is a must; avoid wheels with rungs, which can cause injuries. Place paper towel tubes, small blocks of untreated wood, large diameter PVC piping, empty tissue boxes, ceramic dishes with chinchilla sand, and other hamster-safe toys in the enclosure, and rotate to keep life interesting. Daily playtime outside the cage—in a large storage container filled with toys—will also help prevent boredom.

Hamming It Up  Hamsters eat a variety of foods—from nuts, seeds, and grains to produce and even tofu. They can stuff their expandable cheek pouches with food and nesting materials (a trait that earned Syrian hamsters, one of several domesticated species, the name “Mister Saddlebags” in their native land). Augment a quality hamster mix with fresh, hamster-safe veggies and occasional servings of fruit (the diabetes-prone dwarf species should avoid the latter). Hamsters also enjoy special treats such as unsalted nuts, cooked whole wheat pasta, or rolled oats. To avoid serving items that may make them sick, keep an approved food list on the fridge.

Hammy Handling  To avoid a nip, don’t grab a sleeping hammy, and wash your hands to remove any food smells. Gently scoop up your hamster with both hands, or coax her into a cup or other container (supervise young children to prevent mishaps). Regular handling socializes your pet and allows you to check for masses, nasal discharge, dull eyes, or other signs of illness.

Click here to watch a video and learn more about hamsters. »

Read more from this issue of All Animals »

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