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Find information on animal health topics, written for the veterinary professional.

Providing a Home for a Hamster

By Katherine E. Quesenberry, DVM, MPH, DABVP (Avian) ; Kenneth R. Boschert, DVM, DACLAM, Associate Director, Division of Comparative Medicine, Washington University

Because of their small size, hamsters do not require large amounts of space compared to some other kinds of pets. In addition to a suitable cage, your hamster will need a balanced diet and regular time to play or exercise with you.

Housing

Your hamster will need a protected and safe environment within your home. Hamsters seem to prefer being housed in enclosures with solid floors, relatively deep bedding, and abundant nesting material. This comes closest to the environments in which the animals lived in the wild. The enclosure should be secure; hamsters are outstanding escape artists and, once outside their cages, they are not only difficult to find, they are often reluctant to return to the cage.

Your hamster will need an enclosure with enough space to allow for some exercise, as well as areas for feeding and nesting. The enclosure should be at least 6 inches high, but enclosures 8 or more inches (20 centimeters or more) offer the advantage of allowing for deeper bedding. The floor should be solid and there should be no wood that can be gnawed and no sharp edges that might injure your pet. Smooth plastic or glass is preferred for cage walls, as wire can be chewed. Whatever cage or tank is selected, it should be easy to clean and sanitize, well ventilated, and easy to light. Ideally, a hamster’s living environment should be kept at 64 to 79°F (17 to 26°C).

The hamster cage should be equipped with a water bottle with a sipping tip. The food container should be heavy (to resist tipping) and should have sides low enough for easy access to food but high enough to avoid accidental introduction of feces and urine. Ceramic dishes are good choices. All water and food containers should be easy to clean and sanitize.

Select bedding that is clean, nontoxic, absorbent, as dust-free as possible, and easy to change. Cedar chips and fresh pine materials should be avoided because of possible toxicity. Shredded paper (other than newspapers printed with conventional inks) and processed corn cobs make suitable bedding materials. For nesting materials, plain white facial tissues or unprinted paper towels cut into strips and placed on top of the bedding are well received by most hamsters. Cotton balls are potentially dangerous because the cotton can be caught in toe nails and feet and cause injury.

A nesting box made of sturdy cardboard or wood makes a suitable sleeping area. A play area can be created using old packing tubes cut into short lengths; just be sure that the tube is large enough for your hamster to move through the space freely. For small hamsters, old toilet paper tubes make good running toys. In addition, boxes with holes cut into them make in triguing play areas for your hamster.

Hamsters are normally housed singly except during breeding periods. Sexually mature females are territorial and aggressive and frequently fight each other. Because of this, housing female hamsters in the same cage is not recommended. Breeding females are larger than mature males and the female hamster’s aggressiveness often means that a male hamster will be injured by a female cage mate. Except while breeding, it is safest to house hamsters singly.

Diet

In the wild, hamsters eat both meat and vegetables. Commercially available food for mice and rats, which usually comes in pellet form, provides suitable nutrition as long as the food contains 15 to 20% protein. Extra vitamins are usually not necessary. Or you can feed commercially available pellets formulated for rabbits, which contain more fiber, or “roughage,” than mice and rat food. If you are providing rabbit pellets for your hamster, you may choose to mix this in with mice and rat food occasionally. A few healthy treats—such as hay, fruits or vegetables, or chewy treats sold in pet stores—may be given but should be limited to not more than 10% of the total diet. Seeds should be given sparingly, because hamsters often prefer them over their pelleted food. Hamsters tend to hoard food, and will hide food pellets in their cheek pouches or around the floor of their cages. They usually eat their own feces.

Fresh, clean water should always be available. Your hamster’s water bowl or bottle should be cleaned and sanitized regularly (usually daily) to prevent infection.

Exercise

Regular exercise is necessary for your hamster to stay happy and healthy. Often an exercise wheel is one part of providing the exercise your pet needs. Be sure to select a wheel with a solid running surface (to protect feet and bones). The wheel should also be large enough for your hamster to move freely inside and to easily enter and exit the wheel.

Pet stores often offer exercise balls that can confine the hamster while allowing it to move over a large area outside the cage. If buying an exercise ball for your hamster, be sure that the device is large enough for your pet, has sufficient ventilation, and is constructed securely. Even inside an exercise ball, hamsters can get into tight places and potentially hazardous situations. Keep a careful eye on your hamster if the animal is in an exercise ball and be sure to return your pet to its cage for food and, most critically, water after a reasonable exercise period.

Other encouragements to physical activity include providing a play area with tubes and boxes for play. Be sure all tubes and openings in boxes are large enough for your pet to easily enter and exit.

Temperament

Hamsters are active, curious, and fun to watch as they explore their environment. If they become accustomed to human handling early, they can be easily picked up and should not bite unless they are startled. Hamsters should not be housed in groups, as adults can become aggressive toward each other even if they are reared together.

Because they are nocturnal, hamsters are most active in the evening and at night and prefer to sleep during the day. Just as you do not like to be awakened or disturbed while you are sleeping, neither do hamsters. Plan your interaction with your hamster for the hours when the hamster is most likely to be awake and active. Evenings are usually good times for interactive play, cage cleaning, and other joint activity.

Hamsters are small animals; even the largest can sit comfortably on an adult human hand. Hamster bones and muscles are small and can be easily hurt. Handle these animals carefully and gently to avoid injuring them. One safe way to pick up a hamster is to put your hand under the entire animal and lift it gently. A second hand can then be placed gently over the animal to create a secure area.