By Emma Purnell, RVN Cert.Nut.
The term dwarf hamster encompasses several species of hamster including Roborovski and Chinese Dwarf Hamsters. These animals are often seen as children’s pets but may not be ideal for all homes as they have some very specific needs.
Hamsters are nocturnal, they sleep during the day and are active through the night so where their housing is placed is important. They can be tamed and handled fairly easily but are very fast and if scared can give a sharp bite so any interactions with children must be closely monitored for both parties! Handling while sitting on the floor is safest to avoid the risk of a fall from a height. Housing more than one hamster together can be complicated, some species, such as Chinese Dwarf Hamsters, are best kept alone. Some species can be kept in small groups of 2-3 individuals, but these should be introduced when very young, ideally litter mates, and new individuals not added at a later date. Groups can fight and cause major injuries to each other so care should be taken to check them every day to ensure this hasn’t happened overnight. Other animals should be kept well away from hamsters as they will be scared.
Many cages sold for hamsters are far too small, even for dwarf species. The larger a space you can provide the better to allow them to explore. When purchasing a large cage do ensure the bar spacing is small enough to ensure they cannot escape. Plastic bottomed cages are better than wooden ones as they can be more easily cleaned and do not soak in urine. Hamsters love to dig so having a deep base to the cage and plenty of substrate at the bottom of the cage to allow this will make them much happier. There are many materials which can be used for this but dust free wood shavings or paper based materials are probably the most suitable. Hamsters will build nests so providing bedding material is also vital. Bedding material which is made up of thin strands or is fluffy and like cotton wool should be avoided, these can get tangled around limbs and cause severe injuries. Good quality hay or paper bedding is far safer. Adding plenty of hiding places, tunnels, tubes and bedding areas can be very beneficial, especially if there are a group of hamsters. Use of a wheel can be enjoyable for them but ensure that the wheel is large or a ‘flying saucer’ type wheel is provided to avoid any risk of spinal problems.
Food and water
Fresh, clean drinking water must always be provided but avoid bottles with a ball-value tube, they can struggle to drink around this resistance. In terms of diet hamsters are omnivores, eating seeds, plant matter and insects. The best way to provide this is a complete, good quality dry diet specially marketed for hamsters. This can be supplemented by some green vegetables, root vegetables or a very small amount of fruit e.g. apple but fruit should be kept to a minimum as some species are prone to diabetes. Any fresh food should be removed if not eaten within a few hours. It is important to check bedding areas for stored fresh food as hamsters will often move food into stores within their bed using their cheek pouches. Dry food can be weighed out and placed in a small bowl, or weighed out and scatter fed/hidden around the cage to provide extra interest. ‘High value’ (tasty) food items could lead to fights between hamsters housed together so be careful with groups to ensure this does not happen.
Hamsters are very good at hiding health issues and therefore if you spot your hamster is not well it is very important that you seek veterinary advice as soon as possible. Hamsters’ teeth grow constantly so they will gnaw – making sure they have a variety of different things to chew on as well as a good diet can help to keep these under control. If they are out of line however they won’t wear down evenly and can overgrow to cause severe dental issues. If you start to see the teeth sticking out or the hamster struggling to store or eat food they will need a veterinary check to find what is going on. Any reduction in eating, sitting hunched, sunken eyes, dramatic weight loss or gain, excess drinking or instability moving around can be signs they are unwell. They can suffer with tumours and if these are seen as soon as they are spotted they are more likely to be able to be treated. Respiratory issues can also be a problem so any sneezing or discharge from the nose or eyes must be checked. Hamsters can also suffer with something called ‘wet tail’ when their back end becomes wet with urine or diarrhoea. This can be fatal and must be addressed as soon as noticed.
Overall hamsters can be wonderful pets with fascinating behaviours, however it is important that they are provided with much more space and care than is often expected as well as handled daily from a young age by a confident adult if they will be suitable as a child’s pet.