How to Care for a Hamster

By Norma Roche

Syrian, or golden, hamsters have life spans of 2 to 3 years. Dwarf hamsters live for 1 to 2 years. Hamsters require suitable housing with plenty of space and toys, as they're active pets. They're active mainly during the night, though, as they're nocturnal creatures. They need to be fed daily, and their cages need cleaning weekly. Buy your hamsters from a reputable breeder or, better still, adopt from shelters or small animal rescue groups.

Suitable Housing

Syrian hamsters are territorial; they must live alone or they'll fight to the death. A Syrian's home should be at least 2 feet square and 6 inches high. Hamsters need strong steel wire cages or glass enclosures, as they'll chew through wood or plastic. If you use a cage, the spacing between bars needs to be a half-inch or less to keep a hamster from squeezing through. Another option for a hamster habitat is an aquarium with a tight-fitting wire mesh lid. An aquarium suits dwarf hamsters but needs to be a minimum of 24 inches long -- the longer the better -- and 12 inches wide. Dwarf varieties are more social than Syrian hamsters, so you can keep them in same-sex pairs. All hamsters appreciate having an enclosed box to sleep in. Place their cages where they'll be safe from other pets and away from drafts, sunlight and heaters.

Feeding Your Hamster

Hamsters need to eat every day. A tablespoon of a seed or pelleted hamster mix sold at pet stores is enough for any hamster. Because dwarf hamsters are highly active, they can eat about the same amount as Syrians. Supplement the staple mix once a day, with fresh fruit and vegetables such as a slice of apple, a floret of cauliflower or a small quantity of greens. Hamsters appreciate small amounts of fresh grains, alfalfa pellets, nuts and sunflower seeds. For a feeding dish, use a sturdy ceramic bowl that a hamster can't chew or overturn. Hamsters store food in their face pouches and hide it around the cage to snack on later. Provide fresh water, changing it daily, in an inverted bottle with a sipper tube to prevent the cage dry and the sipper clean. Make sure the drinking tube is low enough for a hamster to reach.

Keeping Hammies Fit and Happy

To keep your hamster happy, provide a deep layer of nontoxic, absorbent litter to burrow in. Use aspen shavings, shredded paper, pelleted bedding or processed corn cob. Don't use pine or cedar shavings, as the fumes from these woods can be harmful. Hamsters have fun shredding tissues or napkins to make a comfy nest. An exercise wheel, appropriately sized, is a must for hamsters. They also enjoy having objects they can run through and climb on, such as cardboard tubes, PVC pipes and toys from pet stores. A piece of untreated, unpainted hardwood; twigs; or hard, plain dog biscuits will give a hamster something to chew on to wear down his teeth, which grow continuously.

Hamster Housekeeping

Every day, remove uneaten food and soiled bedding from the cage. Take out all litter and bedding once a week, and wash the cage floor and food bowls with hot, soapy water. Rinse everything and let it dry before refilling the cage with fresh litter. Every so often, or when a hamster has been ill, wipe over the whole cage or tank with a solution of 1 part bleach and 10 parts of water. Leave it for 15 minutes before rinsing well with clean water. Soak bowls and water bottles in the same solution for 15 to 30 minutes, then rinse thoroughly.

Handling a Hamster

Hamsters rarely bite if they're handled regularly when young, unless they're startled or woken suddenly. Get a young hamster used to you by hand-feeding him treats. Gently cup your pet in both hands, close to your body, when handling him. Coax an older hamster who's not used to being held into a container, or wear gloves to lift him out of his cage. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recommends allowing only children age 6 or over to handle hamsters, and then only with adult supervision.

Hamster Health Care

Symptoms of illness in a hamster include dull eyes, matted fur, falling weight, shaking, diarrhea and a runny nose. Always consult a veterinarian if you notice these or other signs of illness. Hamsters are prone to respiratory problems, and they can catch human colds.