Hamster Care
Taking Care of your Hamster
By: Robin Scott, MS DVM
Hamsters are rodents that were initially used for research purposes and have gained
popularity as pocket pets. The Syrian hamster, which originated in Rumania, Bulgaria,
and Asia Minor includes the common reddish brown hamster and the longhaired teddy
bear hamster and the smaller, darker brown Chinese hamster. Hamsters have cheek
pouches used to transport and store food and to conceal a newborn litter when danger is
present. Hamsters have hip glands, which are dark raised spots located on either flank
or hip area. These glands secrete material used to mark its territory. These glands
should not be confused with tumours. The life span is relatively short, 18-24 months and
usually the males live longer than the females. Sexual maturity occurs at 6-8 weeks of
life with pregnancy lasting 15 days. Litter size is 6-8 pups. Newborns are hairless, blind
and have closed ears. Hair begins to grow at 8 days of age, pups can eat solid food at 710 days of age, eyes open at 1-15 days old and weaning is complete at 21-25 days old.
Lack of experience in first time mothers and environmental disturbances may cause a
hamster to eat its newborns.
Diet
The natural diet consists of seeds and plant materials, however as pets, hamsters do
very well on a pelleted diet or rodent chow formulated for rats and mice. A seed or a
seed/dried-vegetable mix, should not be fed as the primary diet but is fine as a treat.
Fresh vegetables can be fed in small amounts. Greens fed in small quantities. Sudden
dietary changes may result in intestinal upsets and diarrhoea which can be severe and
may result in death of the pet. Hamsters carry food in their cheek pouches causing the
pouches on either side of the face to bulge. They also hide food in their nest to eat at a
later time.
Housing
Wire cages, aquariums and plastic habitats (Habitrails) may be used for a home for your
hamsters. Each cage should provide a safe escape proof home for your pet. Doors and
tops should be well secured to prevent escape. The cage should be well ventilated to
allow flow of fresh air to help prevent the build up of odour from urine, faeces and
spoiled food. Most hamsters will drink from a water bottle secured to the side of the cage
with a lick spout to drink and to reduce spillage. The food bowl and water bottle should
be cleaned daily and fresh food and water should be supplied daily. Cages should be
cleaned at least on a weekly basis. Depending on the size of the cage and the number of
hamsters housed in the cage, it may need to be cleaned more frequently. If the cage has
an odour of urine or faeces then it needs to be cleaned. Constant exposure of your pet to
unsanitary conditions is unpleasant for the pet and can result in infections of the skin,
eyes and respiratory tract. Dilute chorine bleach (1 part bleach to 10 parts water), is
effective for sanitizing a cage. After cleaning with bleach solution, the cage should be
rinsed thoroughly to remove all bleach residue. Do not use cedar or pine shavings as
bedding. These woods contain aromatic oils that are very irritating to the skin and
mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. Safe bedding materials include
recycled newspaper bedding, aspen shavings, hay and plain white unscented toilet paper
or paper towels.
Behaviour
Hamsters are nocturnal (active at night) and may bite if awakened suddenly. Hamsters
do not have good eyesight therefore the owner should always speak to the hamster
before picking it up. This gives the hamster some warning that it is going to be touched
and reduces the likelihood of you being bitten. The approach from above often triggers a
defensive response. The hamster may flip onto its back and try to bite. The teeth are
needle like and the bite can be painful, especially to a child. To pick up your hamster,
cup your hands around it. Some will nip when picked up no matter what. In these
cases, you can use a paper-towel tubes to slide over the hamster, then slide the hamster
out the other end onto your hand. Hamsters are nocturnal animals which means they
spend a lot of their daylight time sleeping and are more active at night. They enjoy
running on an exercise wheel or you may use the clear plastic exercise balls sold for this
purpose.
DISEASES AND MEDICAL CARE
Grooming
Hamsters do not require bathing. They should keep themselves clean
with self grooming. Occasionally, and especially as they get older,
they may require toenail trimming. This toenail over growth can also
be a sign of liver disease. Consult your vet if your hamster's toenails
suddenly start growing very fast. Some of the longer haired varieties
may require combing and trimming of the fur at their rumps.
Sniffling, wheezing, sneezing, runny nose
These signs are typical of upper respiratory tract (sinus) disease. Common causes
include bacterial infections, allergy, irritation due to inhalation of smoke, fumes or
odours from cedar/pine shavings. Do not use cedar or pine shavings as bedding.
These woods contain aromatic oils that are very irritating to the mucous membranes of
the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. Safe bedding materials include recycled newspaper
bedding, aspen shavings, hay and plain white unscented toilet paper or paper towels.
Hair loss
Hair loss may be caused by skin parasites,
bacterial infections, fungal disease, and allergic
reactions to bedding, in particular cedar/pine
chips. Hamsters are very sensitive to the
aromatic oils in cedar and pine. Constant contact
with these substances can result in hair loss,
cracked, dry skin, secondary bacterial infections
and in severe cases, death.
Wet tail, Diarrhoea, Proliferative enteritis
Diarrhoea can result from feeding your hamster a new type of vegetable, an unusually
large quantity of fresh vegetables or any sudden change in diet even to a new type of
pellet. Long-haired and teddy bear hamsters seem more at risk to develop wet tail. Signs
include: matting of fur around the tail, hunched stance, irritability, dehydration, thin,
and watery diarrhoea. If your hamster develops diarrhoea after a diet change, stop
feeding the new diet item immediately to see if the problem clears up. Regardless of the
cause of the diarrhoea, if more than a day passes and your hamster still has diarrhoea,
contact your veterinarian. Diarrhoea is a very serious problem. It doesn't take long for a
small animal to dehydrate. If your hamster develops diarrhoea after he has been started
on any type of medication this can mean that the medication is killing the normal (good)
bacteria in the intestine. Contact your veterinarian right away. In many cases, feeding
small amounts of live culture yogurt while your hamster is on medication can reduce the
chance of this occurring. Diarrhoea can dehydrate and kill a small animal very quickly.
Clinical signs of dehydration include: dull, sunken eyes, slow movements, very
concentrated urine (dark colour and strong odour) and a skin tent i.e. pinch the skin on
the top of the head or the back of the neck-if the skin stays puckered up in a roll and
doesn’t quickly flatten out then your hamster is dehydrated. Contact your vet
dehydration can be corrected by giving fluids by injection under the skin.
Fighting
Hamsters can be very territorial and may fight among themselves. This can be a problem
when introducing a new hamster to an existing group. In addition, female hamsters may
attack their own babies or the babies of another hamster. It is also common for the male
hamster to attack its offspring. Female hamsters and their babies should be provided
with a nest box or separated from the other hamsters when babies are present. Fighting
adults should be separated. Bite wounds can be mild or severe. Any wounds should be
cleaned with dilute Betadine (antiseptic solution) and your veterinarian contacted. Do
not apply topical antibiotic preparations without first consulting your vet. Some of these
products may be toxic to your pet if they are ingested while grooming or cleaning of the
wound. Bites from cats or dogs should be considered serious even if they seem mild.
Bumps and lumps
Cheek pouches filled with food
(swelling on either side of the
face in the cheek area) may
appear as abnormal growths to
the casual observer. This is a
normal behaviour for your pet.
However, hamsters often develop
swellings associated with abscess
or tumours. These may occur
anywhere on the body. Your
veterinarian should be consulted
for treatment. Pictured above is a hamster with a testicular abscess. This was treated
easily with surgery.
Dentistry
Hamsters, like all rodents, have front teeth (incisors) that grow
throughout their life and back or cheek teeth (molars). If the
incisors do not wear properly, they may overgrow and cause severe
problems as pictured right. Signs of tooth problems include wetness
around the mouth, not eating or trying to eat but dropping the food,
weight loss, weakness and death. The teeth can trimmed or filed to
the appropriate length under anaesthesia at the vets. This must be
done every 21-30 days when malocclusion is present. Do not attempt this on your own.