Proper Hamster Care: Caring for Your New Hamster
While I have spent a lot of time focusing on natural living for dogs and cats, I realized I was forgetting an important member of my family – Nuri. So, who is Nuri you may ask? If you saw the title of this article, you have likely guessed that my favorite office companion is my teddy bear hamster. Having never had a hamster before, I spent a lot of time researching hamster care before looking for my fluffy friend.
Since hamsters are very common pets, especially for kids, I expected the internet to be flooded with information on proper hamster care! To my horror, many of the sites had conflicting information, some of which could kill many household pets. Having a pet friendly, natural household, I wanted to make sure my new hamster was cared for right, leading to me purchasing multiple books on hamsters and talking to actual vets online in forums. What I found was that proper hamster care is easy and very inexpensive, assuming you know what you are doing!
Hamster Care: Choosing a Hamster
It doesn't matter if you are buying a hamster for your child or yourself, don't pick the first cute hamster you see. Like most small creatures, it is hard to find an ugly hamster. Don't get me wrong, they exist, but kids especially love small animals. I personally have to be careful since I'm drawn to picking sick animals and nurturing them back to health. For most families, however, not knowing how to pick a healthy hamster can lead to heartbreak.
If it has received proper hamster care at the pet store, you shouldn't have too much of a problem, a healthy, happy hamster should be:
- Not too skinny or fat (some fat is ok, just make sure there is no unusual swelling)
- Chosen a hamster that is perky and alert. A sick or moody hamster will want to avoid people. A healthy hamster will WANT to know what is going on and explore!
- Your hamster should have fluffy, smooth looking fur. This is a sign of proper grooming. Hamsters that are sick stop grooming themselves.
- Look at the hamster's teeth. They should be properly aligned and not overgrown. Ever wonder why hamsters are always gnawing on things? It's because their teeth NEVER stop growing!
- While it may sound gross, check the rear end and make sure it isn't wet or soiled. This can be from diarrhea and severe illness. Usually in pet stores this is a sign of "wet tail," a very serious, contagious illness that is common in pet stores that don't properly care for their animals. If wet tail isn't treated quickly and properly, it can dehydrate the hamster and lead to death. Also, make sure there is no discharge coming from the hamsters nose or ears.
- If any of the hamsters in the store show signs of illness, DO NOT purchase a hamster from that store since most hamster diseases and viruses spread quickly.
- Make sure all the hamsters in the store are running and walking properly.
- Never buy a hamster from a pet store that will not let you hold the hamster. It is the best way to tell the temperament of the hamster and determine if it is a good fit for your family.
Unless you have dwarf hamsters, never put two hamsters in the same cage. Teddy bear hamsters, the most common, are very territorial and will kill another hamster in their territory. While some can live together, it is better to keep them solitary to prevent injury and reduce stress.
Hamster Care: Cage
Have you ever seen all the cute plastic cages with the tunnels? I hate to break this to you, but those cages and wire cages are the WORST habitats for your hamster. Many pet stores claim that these cages are idea for proper hamster care and give your hamster lots of exercise. In reality, these cages are hard to clean, very easy to quickly escape, and do not give your hamster enough room to run. Wire cages are the worst since it's easy for a teddy bear hamster or dwarf hamster to escape. Smaller hamsters can squeeze through the bars, and teddy bears will just nibble on the wires until they are free.
The best cage for a hamster is actually a 20 gallon terrarium with a mesh top. Once the tank is filled with bedding and toys, your hamster has plenty of room to sleep, run, and hide food stashes. If you do not give your hamster enough room to exercise, as well as a wheel, they will start destroying things in their cage out of nervousness. As well, hamsters feel more comfortable and safe when they can have little food stashes. Like most rodents, it is in their nature to hoard, so help them feel a little more comfortable with this extra room. While it is very difficult for hamsters to escape from these cages, I always recommend putting books or other heavy objects on each end of the cage top – our hamster climbed on top of her sleeping house to try lifting the top within a month of coming home!
By now, you are likely wondering what my problem is with those cute tunnel cages. In actuality, I do own one of them for Nuri and consider it a must item for proper hamster care if you travel like us. I use a small tunneled cage (pictured below) when we are visiting family for no longer than a week. Now, Nuri has escaped from this cage, but it took her about three weeks to do and it was by pressing most of her weight against one of the attachment knobs. My big issue with using these cages exclusively is hygiene. If my Nuri has a choice, she will choose one corner of her cage to do her business. In these small cages, she will pee and poop anywhere since she doesn't have a lot of room.
I can tell you that unlike a glass cage, these cages are a pain to clean and usually lead to you having to take the whole cage apart and soaking the pieces in nearly boiling water or in anti-bacterial cleaner. Cleaning out my small cage after a week trip takes about two hours – while cleaning Nuri's glass cage once every two weeks to a month takes about fifteen minutes. Even though many people don't think about it, hygiene is an important part of hamster care. For hygiene and cleaning purposes, I think the glass tank wins. It makes the hamster happy, gives its owners more to watch, and is much better for human noses!
Hamster Care: Bedding
If you ask most pets store associates or look at their hamster care sheets, they will say to purchase pine or cedar bedding. What they don't tell you is that these bedding are actually very dangerous! These bedding can cause splinters, injuries, and are very difficult for hamsters to digest. Even though many of us don't think about it, hamsters use their mouth to transport everything in their cage, including their bedding. Could you imagine having splinters on the inside of your cheeks? If you think this is bad, it gets much worse. Pine and cedar both often contain toxic chemicals (naturally or from treatment) that can actually poison your hamster, making them very ill, and in some cases, killing them. Cedar, which was recommended for years by pet stores, is even worse. When animals pee on cedar, it creates a chemical reaction, creating ammonia in your cage – which your pet is breathing AND putting in their mouth!
So, what is the best bedding for proper hamster care? Aspen shavings. This bedding is biodegradable, easy to digest, naturally absorbent, and neutralizes hamster odor. I never buy my bedding in a pet store since it is usually overpriced. Instead, I purchase a 8 cubic foot bag of Kaytee Aspen Bedding on Amazon for about $39. A bag lasts Nuri a year, making it very inexpensive and always on hand. You can buy smaller bags as well, but (as our regular readers know) I usually like shopping for bargains, especially when it comes to my pets. Currently, Amazon has an excellent price on this bedding and they are always running deals on Kaytee pet items. Also, if you want to make your hamster happy, sneak some toilet paper, still on the roll, in the cage every so often. Nuri especially loves to tear it up and make a bed for herself!
Hamster Care: Food
Like all pets, the best hamster care comes from feeding your hamster quality food. Unlike other pet food, it is easy to pick out quality, healthy food for your hamster. Pick food that mostly consists of seeds, dried fruit, nuts, and dried vegetables. I purchase Kaytee's Fiesta Max Treats for Hamsters and Gerbils. Along with this dried food, feed your hamster fresh fruits and vegetables. I give Nuri strawberries, squash, and other fruits as a treat. She especially LOVES zucchini. Best of all, you can give your hamster foods that are a bit too overripe or soft for humans, leading to you having less produce waste in your household, and a happy hamster too!
Hamster Care: Toys
As a rule of thumb for proper hamster care, avoid anything plastic. Hamsters will chew on plastic and it is very hard to pass through their system. For a food bowl, I always use a ceramic bowl made for pets. Nuri does bite on it sometimes, but not only is it healthier for her teeth, it is hard enough to handle her chewing! Here are some of the items I have bought for Nuri:
- Glass Water Bottle (they will destroy a plastic bottle)
- Wood House (never buy plastic, they will eat it, but wood will help keep teeth in check)
- Coconut House (she had this when she was a baby & loved it)
- Wheel (I will go into this below)
- Apple Wood & Puzzle Piece Combo Toys
- Mineral Chews
Talking about toys and hamster care, it is pretty obvious that a hamster needs a wheel. While they are a bit noisy, they are the best form of exercise for a hamster. This is the one area where it is okay to buy plastic. A safe wheel should be completely solid with no holes in the running area. Even though most pet stores have metal wheels with slats, NEVER buy these wheels. They kill hundreds of hamsters a year and maim/injure thousands. Hamsters when they are running can get their feet and tails stuck in these slats, leading to broken legs and other life threatening injuries. My husband's family learned this the hard way when he was a child, since his pet hamster became trapped in the wheel. When another hamster (they didn't know Teddy bear hamsters should be kept apart) started running in the wheel, it tore the hamster to shreds…as you could guess, this wasn't a very happy memory and one no parent wants to explain to their child.
Hamster Care: Price
Overall, Nuri is a very inexpensive pet. She costs me less than $100 to care for a year, counting food, bedding, and toys. If you are buying a hamster for the first time, I recommend buying the following. I put onetime costs in blue and reoccurring costs in red:
- Hamster – $5 – $20
- 20 Gallon Terrarium – $60 – $90
- Glass Water Bottle - $10 – $15
- House or Sleeping Area – $12
- Ceramic Dish – $3 – $8
- Plastic Wheel (I buy the large one- Nuri is big for a hamster) – $9
- Mineral Chews – $6
- Food – $16
- Bedding – $10 – $39
- Applewood Toys – $5.00
As you can see, proper hamster care is very inexpensive. If you have a child who is ready for their first pet, a hamster is a perfect starting pet for children, making them ideal for birthday or Christmas gifts. Just make sure you are ready for a commitment, since these loveable pets can live anywhere from 3 to 6 years. If you want your hamster to live as long as possible, make sure they receive the right environment, a lot of love and proper hamster care!
Budget Earth & its writers did not recieve compensation or products from any companies mentioned in this article, which is completely the opinion of the writer. Also, Nuri was compensated with grapes for being such a great model!