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All About Your Hamster

The hamster is not golden by accident. This small rodent makes one of the most popular introductory pets in the U.S. - and for good reason. Hamsters are by nature clean and easy to care for. They eat little, they are readily available through pet stores and they’re inexpensive. Most importantly, hamsters are also a playful source of entertainment.

Out of the desert and into your heart

Hamsters were domesticated in the 20th century but, if you think these little guys are just another small animal, you’re wrong. These playful critters bear little resemblance to their mice and gerbil relatives and look more like miniature bears. Their inborn behavior comes directly from habits crucial to surviving in extreme climates.

Your hamster is solitary by nature. After three or four weeks, mothers will drive their children to independence with tiny nips. Hamsters don't need, want and should not have, fellow hamster companionship. Your hamster much prefers the company of humans.

Watch those whiskers

First and foremost, safety is key, and your hamster knows it too. Check out some of the heightened senses and behavior patterns that make hamsters such survivors.

  • A heightened sense of smell helps hamsters identify where, who and what belong with them. Smell is also important for exploring surrounding environments.
  • To compensate for weak eyesight, your hamster's whiskers are in constant motion. These whiskers help your hamster detect obstacles and define space.
  • As a natural hoarder, hamsters can spend hours burrowing, tunnelling, and moving bits of food, bedding, and toys into certain “safe” places. They do so by way of cheek pouches that doubles the size of their head.
  • Your hamster must also chew and gnaw. As a rodent, your hamster uses chewing to constantly sharpen and shorten these chisel-shaped front incisors, which grow continuously.
  • Your pet is also nocturnal, and has no problem hoarding, burrowing, and exploring in the dark.

Enemies are abundant out there

Being skittish is also in the hamster’s nature. The hamster’s acute sense of smell alerts them of nearly everything, and you can often see your hamster rising up on their haunches, sniffing the air.

When frightened or scared, instinct will take over, causing your little one to burrow. But, if burrowing is not an option, they'll puff out their cheeks, and even play dead. Never knowingly frighten your hamster. Just as in humans, fear can lead to stress, anxiety and related diseases.

Clean freak

As previously mentioned, hamsters are clean and odor free by nature. They leave a minor scent when first "marking" fresh territory, and females exude hormones when in heat. But, that’s where the scent trail ends.

Rubbing, brushing, and licking can be misinterpreted as illness or parasite infestation but is most often part of your pet's daily ritual of keeping themself spotless.

Many hamsters keep a clean home too. It’s common for hamsters to maintain separate food, sleep, and elimination areas but a hamster can only do so much. So, it’s important as a pet parent to supply them with plenty of fresh material, nutritious food and space to exercise.

Do hamsters need routine?

Yes, nearly all pets are happier with a general routine, especially when it comes to feeding. Being a regular caregiver through routine also helps your hamster trust you more deeply. But occasional changes of pace can help your hamster stay excited, and wards off apathy. By placing a new tube of cardboard in their cage every week, and supplying them with strange smelling items, you can help keep things fresh and exciting for them.

An important routine your hamster should adhere to is an exercise routine. In-habitat activities are just as important as out-of-cage play, so make sure you are supplying your fur ball with plenty of interesting toys.

Essentially, the key to a happy and healthy hamster is a balance of routine and spontaneity.

Choosing your hamster

Once you have decided to include a hamster as part of your family, there are a variety of ways in which you can easily adopt or purchase the new addition to your pet-family.

  • Look for small animal rescue agencies established near you.
  • Petco stores have hamsters for sale.
  • You can seek out a breeder if you are looking for a certain species or color of hamster. Professional pet dealers are usually glad to answer questions and offer advice.
  • Look for a hamster that matches your personality and circumstances. Be sure to watch for possible signs of illness as well.
  • Never use a service that sells hamsters through the mail. The transport alone is torture on the animal.

Important questions to consider before adoption

The decision to adopt a hamster should be made carefully and with logic. Impulsive or spur of the moment adoption is always a bad policy when adopting any pet. There are several factors you need to consider before you become a pet parent, and these factors will help you identify important needs that must be met. Ask yourself:

Are you okay with hamsters being mostly nocturnal animals?
Your hamster needs a suitable place where they can sleep during the day but be noisy at night. Any disturbances during the day means stress for your hamster and could lead to illnesses or poor health.

Do you have enough room for a habitat?
Your hamster should have as large of a habitat as possible. Choosing the right location can take time. Pick somewhere that is appropriate for you, but still safe for your hamster.

Are any family members allergic to animal hair or dust?
You don't want to be responsible for them having an allergic reaction to your hamster.

Who will take care of your hamster while you are away?
It is relatively easy to take your hamster with you if you are traveling by car, but subjecting your pet to heat, cold, noise and drafts can prove to be harmful. You should have someone reliable take care of your hamster if need be.

Do you have the necessary time it takes to care for your hamster?
Hamsters enjoy a clean habitat and fresh water daily. Properly caring for a hamster takes a little bit of work and time, which you may be short on.

Do you have proper exercise equipment?
Hamsters like to move around and should exercise every day. Having an exercise wheel in their habitat or putting them in an exercise ball can help them stretch their legs.

If you have other pets, how will they react to a hamster?
If you already have pets, you should ask yourself if a hamster would be safe in your home.

Can you afford the cost of owning a hamster?
Food, supplies, equipment, veterinary bills and toys can add up. Make sure you are in a financial position to bring a new member into your family.

Have you done your homework on the needs and requirements of hamsters?
Learn all you can about these animals before you bring one into your home. Find out how to properly care for your hamster and be aware of habitat requirements.

Reality check

Just as there are situations where a hamster makes the ideal pet, there are other instances where a hamster is not a good idea.

Immature caregivers
Parents should not count on one of their kids to be the pet's primary caregiver. While a child may have the best intention to care for their pet, they can easily lose interest or become too busy. But, the hamster's need for care and attention remains.

Surprise gifts
No matter what the occasion, presenting a hamster as a gift is presumptuous and dangerous. All potential parents need to review their situation to determine if owning a hamster is a good idea for them. While the gift of a hamster may be well received in some instances, it can also be an unwanted surprise.

Final decisions

After selecting the type of hamster for you, there are several factors you still need to consider.

One or two?
Hamsters are solitary animals, and do not live in social groups. Males and females come together to mate, only to separate quickly afterwards. Even in motherhood, females spend only a few weeks with her young.

Hamster encounters
Encounters between hamsters that don't know each other can result in violent fights. Remember, large cages with varied and interesting interiors are better at providing places to hide, and can decrease the chance of a hamster fights.

What if you really want to keep two or more hamsters in a single cage?
You should adopt littermates that will become used to each other. Male hamsters seem to get along best. If you are interested in breeding your hamsters, be sure they are unrelated.

Male or female?
Both sexes are equally good natured and agreeable. While each hamster is different, some say males hand-tame quicker and that females are more aggressive.

Young or old?
Starting out with a young hamster will give you the longest relationship with your new companion. However, time and patience can tame a hamster regardless of their age.

Basic rules for choosing your hamster

Purchasing any pet can be an emotionally driven decision. So, when selecting your hamster, remember to choose with your head, not just your heart. Both you and your hamster will be better off that way.

  • Have everything ready to go beforehand so that you can welcome home your hamster without distractions. It’s important to have your hamster settle in before they have any company.
  • If a child is making the selection, remember that their decision is usually based on looks and emotion. Kids can also be easily overwhelmed by too many choices, so it’s a smart idea to give them intentionally limited options.
  • Choose a specific time to view your potential pet. Call ahead to the pet store, breeder, or shelter and find out when their feeding and adoption times are.
  • Allowing time for an adjustment period is wise if you have other pets. Your new hamster will need to be left alone so that they can acclimate to their new surroundings in peace.

Now that your hamster is safely home. Investing in a carrying container made of transparent plastic with a barrel lid can be a wise purchase. Carriers with two handles usually work best for transporting your hamster. When transporting your hamster, it’s also important that you line the carrier with litter, tissue or hay to keep your hamster from sliding or being injured. Keep the container upright and out of the sun. This will make your furry friend feel secure.

During short trips, it’s not necessary to feed them extra, because they usually lose their appetite due to the stress of moving. Be aware that the cardboard or paper cartons supplied by pet stores will rarely stand up to the gnawing teeth of a hamster. So, it’s best not to use them more than once.

Making the choice
With careful observation and the help of the following checklist, you should be able to tell if your hamster is healthy. Before you make your final selection, thoroughly examine your hamster for the following.

A healthy hamster should have:

  • A smooth, shiny coat.
  • No hair loss.
  • A symmetrical body with no lumps.
  • A clean anus.
  • Clear eyes without any discharge.
  • A dry nose.
  • A steady gate.
  • Teeth that are not overgrown.
  • A lively disposition.

An unhealthy hamster will display:

  • Rumpled or dull fur.
  • Caved-in sides.
  • An anus smeared with feces.
  • Red eyes.
  • A runny nose.
  • Shaky legs.
  • Trembling.
  • Sneezing and/or breathing with a rattle.
  • Diarrhea (a clear signal of a contagious viral or bacterial disease).

It’s not a bad idea to arrange a visit to the vet on your way home from picking up your new hamster. The vet will check and make sure your little one is healthy, and can answer any other questions you might have.

It is also important to know how to properly handle your hamster. Tamed hamsters don’t mind being handled if you pick them up around their middle with one hand, and place them in the palm of your other hand. You should form a little cave with your hands when handling your hamster. This can prevent not-so-tame hamsters from running away.

Just like a hamster, always use your instincts when making your final selection. Common sense is your best guarantee for living happily ever after with your furry little friend.