Hamsters as pets: what you need to know

Hamsters are adorable to look at and take up very little space. However, like all animals they do have particular needs to stay healthy and happy. Here’s a guide to the basics:

Hamsters as pets: what you need to know

If you are thinking about getting a hamster for your child, it would be best if your child is at an age when they themselves can properly clean, feed and care for their hamster, probably from the age of 8 onwards.

“Unfortunately, this isn’t the perfect small pet for young children. Hamsters require a lot of care, can get nippy [and] are not always great in tiny hands,” says Laurie Hess, an exotic animal veterinarian.

If your child is old enough to handle a hamster carefully and help clean the cage, however, then Hess says a hamster can be a good, fun, educational pet for families.

  • What type of hamster should you get: whether you buy one or two depends on your preference and, more importantly, the type of hamster you’d like. Syrian hamsters should never be put in pairs, as they will violently fight over territory once they reach maturity. Dwarf hamsters, Russian or Chinese, are also popular hamsters, and while they can be territorial, they do well in pairs only if they are littermates or a mother and child.
  • A cage: purchase a cage at least 40cm long by 30cm high, but opt for something larger if you can to give your hamster more room to exercise and explore. Make sure the cage is also escape-proof so bars need to be close together. Ask your EberVet Vetshop to source the right cage for you.
  • Bedding: as a general rule, the best and healthiest type of bedding is one that isn’t made of wood shavings. Try to find bedding made from cellulose or plant-based paper fibers and avoid cat litter, corn cobs, newspaper and any scented bedding (which contains chemicals that can cause respiratory trouble).
  • Toys: an exercise wheel is a must to prevent boredom, and you can also purchase a ball for your hamster to run around a room in under your supervision.
  • Food: you can buy bags of hamster mix, which will generally have a blend of fruits, vegetables and seeds and grains, but you’d do well to also give your hamster small pieces of fresh vegetables and fruit. You’ll also want to give your hamster access to fresh water at all times.

Not all greens are good for hamsters, neither are all fruits and vegetables. Stick to broccoli, parsley, apple, pear, carrot and turnips while avoiding onions, garlic, chives, leeks, lettuce, raw potatoes and oranges. As hamsters can be prone to diabetes, you’ll want to give them fruit (which is laden with sugar) sparingly.

Hamsters need clean cages

Hamsters need clean cages to keep them from getting sick. Some diseases can be passed onto humans so a clean cage is an absolute must. Follow these steps for cleaning your hamster’s cage:

  • Move your hamster to a safe area: as long as you can keep your hamster from rolling off somewhere while you aren’t looking, an exercise ball would be an ideal spot to keep your hamster while cleaning it’s cage. A second cage or deep container that your hamster can’t get out of will also work.
  • Get rid of bedding: don’t worry about cleaning your hamster’s bedding, just throw it away and start fresh. Hamsters can sometimes hoard their food so tossing the bedding every time you clean will help prevent it from going mouldy and passing on disease.
  • Wash the cage: use regular soap and warm water to thoroughly rinse and clean your hamster’s cage or container. If you use vinegar, bleach or any other type of cleaning product on the container, make sure everything is thoroughly cleaned off and dried before adding new bedding and returning your hamster back to its cage.

A home for your hamster

Start by purchasing everything you need for your hamster, like its cage, food, water, bedding and exercise wheel, then bring your hamster home. You’ll want to make the transition as easy as possible as it can be stressful for a hamster to go from a pet store or a shelter or a rescue to your home. While a pet store, shelter or a rescue has loud people and unusual smells, your home has its own unusual noises and smells that your hamster will not be adjusted to.

Hamsters are prone to a bacterial disease called wet tail, which can be caused by changes like coming to a new home or suddenly living in an overcrowded cage, and it can be fatal if not treated within 48 hours. Signs of wet tail include lethargy, loss of appetite, failure to groom and diarrhoea. If you see any of the above signs, call your veterinarian immediately to have your pet examined and bring a stool sample to the visit for parasite testing.

Hamster behaviour

Hamsters are very smart and can be trained. They can be skittish a lot of times, but if you hold one and give it a treat, they begin to anticipate you holding them. If they’re getting food as a treat, they smell your hands and see your fingers and think, ‘OK, pet me. This feels nice.’

You can even train them to do tricks, like retrieving small items, using food to reward their behaviour.

Like all pets,  hamsters are prone to illness so should they go off their food, seem lethargic or show any signs of odd behaviour get them to your vet. An annual checkup is a good idea.

How to care for baby hamsters

If your hamsters breed or you take home a pregnant hamster, you’ll need to know how to care for the babies, which will be generally easy to do in the beginning. It’s essential that you leave them alone for at least a week. Just food and water; no handling or disturbance.

  • Get a sheet: cover the cage with a sheet to give the mother an opportunity to get used to her new family and to keep odd smells off the babies, which will lower the risk of the mother harming them.
  • Take a break from cleaning: give your hamsters their own space for the first week, and then begin cleaning the cage again.
  • Add protein: to the mother’s diet while she nurses. This can include small pieces of boiled egg and chicken.
  • Separate the hamsters: eventually, the hamsters will need to be separated, which can be done in the form of purchasing new cages for them to live in or rehoming the babies to new pet parents. Dwarf hamsters should be sexed and separated at about four to five weeks old; Syrians at about six weeks. Not separating your hamsters can encourage fighting amongst them, spread diseases and encourage even more pregnancies

Department of Health COVID-19 updates available at www.sacoronavirus.co.za

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