Hamsters are the best known and popular small rodents kept as pets.
The most common and largest type of hamster is the Syrian hamster, also known as the 'golden hamster'. People also like to keep dwarf hamsters as pets which is a different species of hamster.
Each species has different traits and needs that you'll need to be aware of.
Is a hamster the right pet for you?
Children need to be supervised when handling hamsters and, as with all pets, an adult needs to be responsible for making sure the hamster is properly cared for. Here are some things to think about before you decide to get a hamster.
How long do hamsters live?
Hamsters live for around two to three years.
Do hamsters need company?
Dwarf hamsters can live quite happily on their own. They can enjoy company, but this is dependent on the particular hamsters and the accommodation they are kept in. If you do decide to get a pair of dwarf hamsters it’s important to ensure they are of the same sex. And never mix species.
Syrian hamsters, however, are naturally solitary and will fight if you try to keep them in pairs or groups – so it's best to keep them alone.
Don’t mix species or different sexes of hamsters. And remember, hamsters can reach sexual maturity (can breed, make and have babies) at just one month old.
What if my hamsters fight?
If your dwarf hamsters begin to fight, you will need to separate them into different cages. Hamsters never play fight, so a fight will usually be quite serious.
It's very hard to reintroduce hamsters if they have had a fight. So prevention is better. You can help prevent them fighting by providing the right space and good enrichment.
Do hamsters bite?
Hamsters rarely bite if they are used to being handled sensitively and correctly from an early age.
When do hamsters sleep?
Hamsters are most active during the evening which can be a problem if they are kept in a bedroom.
Hamsters are naturally nocturnal so if they are disturbed during the day and become alarmed, they may bite. This is why it's always best to make sure your hamster has properly woken up before trying to handle them.
Do hamsters hibernate?
Syrian hamsters will try to hibernate if they get too cold, which can happen if the temperature stays below 10 degrees celsius. This can be bad for their health as they will not have enough fat reserves to survive without food for an extended period.
Therefore, it is important to ensure your hamster’s home is away from draughts, as well as sunlight and direct heat.
If you are worried that your hamster may have gone into hibernation, seek advice from your vet.
Where to get hamsters
Animal charities see thousands of unwanted hamsters given up each year so please consider rehoming one from a centre such as ours.
Breeders and pet shops
The other option is to buy one from a pet shop or a responsible breeder.
If you're planning on going to a pet shop, here are some things to bear in mind:
- Hamsters become sexually mature as young as four weeks old, so make sure that males and females have been correctly sexed and separated
- The breeder or pet shop staff should be able to show you the difference between the sexes. If they are not confident, it's best to walk away as you cannot be sure that your hamster isn't pregnant.
- Hamsters shouldn’t be rehomed before six weeks old
- They should have clean, good-sized accommodation and access to food and fresh water
How much are hamsters?
If you rehome from us, you will pay a fee of £10 per hamster. This includes the cost of:
- having them looked over by a vet
- a behaviour check by a member of our team
However, we appreciate we may not always have hamsters available for rehoming. So, if you choose to go to a breeder or pet shop, you will pay, on average, anywhere between £10 to £20.
What do I need to buy for my hamster?
- A suitable cage for the type of hamster you have
- Suitable food
- Nest box
- Earthenware or stainless steel bowls for food
- Water bottle or water bowl
- A playpen
- Cardboard tubes
- Toys to keep them entertained
- A carry case for trips to the vet
As well as the above, your hamster will need a constant supply of water. You may also want to consider getting pet insurance.
Syrian hamster cages
The ideal home for a Syrian hamster is a large wire cage with a plastic base no smaller than 80cm x 50cm floor space, by 50cm tall. Hamsters love climbing on different levels so a cage even taller than this is better but be careful not to make it too high in case they fall and hurt themselves.
Rat cages can also make great homes for Syrian hamsters as they provide lots of space and height. Additional levels can be added to give your hamster more places to explore.
Avoid elaborate tube systems with all hamsters. Dwarf hamsters in particular are not very agile and struggle to climb.
Dwarf hamster cages
Dwarf hamsters can squeeze through small places so are best kept in a tank or aquarium (unless your cage has bars that are no bigger than 6mm apart) no smaller than 80cm x 50cm floor space, by 50cm tall.
The tank needs a securely fitted wire lid to allow ventilation and stop them escaping. Though the gap between the bars should be no more than six milimetres.
If you are keeping a pair of dwarf hamsters then the accommodation will need to be bigger, this ensures there is plenty of space for the inclusion of more toys and enrichment to keep them living harmoniously.
Some cages are sold with wheels included but these aren’t always suitable. A hamster should be able to use an exercise wheel without curving their spine, as this can cause back problems. For dwarf hamsters, we find flying saucer style wheels better.
Where to buy suitable hamster cages
We've put together a list of suitable sized accommodation for your hamsters. The wheels included are too small so must be replaced with others (see recommended wheels below).
Or, if you have a little more budget, the Ferplast Cage comes with the correct size wheel, accessories included and is nice and big for them.
While falling short in terms of width, this cage does have additional depth and some handy levels. The bar spacing also makes it suitable for all breeds of hamster.
Due to the height of this cage, it would not be suitable for dwarf hamster breeds. However, it does give plenty of scope for hanging toys. Hammocks can be installed to prevent Syrian hamsters from falling from height. The bar spacing also allows for secure housing.
A cage suitable for all breeds of hamster, although dwarf breeds of hamster may struggle with using the tunnel system provided.
The cage has a deep base allowing for a good level of bedding to be provided for digging and burrowing. The wheel provided is too small so must be replaced.
Can hamsters live outside?
No. Syrian hamsters will try to hibernate if they get too cold which can be detrimental to their health as they will not have enough fat reserves to survive without food for an extended period.
So, it's important to ensure your hamster’s home is indoors away from draughts, as well as sunlight and direct heat.
If you are worried that your hamster may have gone into hibernation, seek advice from your vet.
How often do I need to clean my hamster's cage?
How often you clean the cage will depend on the size of the cage and if they use a specific area to toilet. Usually once or twice a month will do.
Make sure you spot clean every few days by removing soiled bedding and uneaten rotten food regularly – this will help keep the cage clean and keep your hamster happy!
How to clean my hamster's cage
- Wait until your hamster is awake
- Remove your hamster from their cage and place them in a pet carrier or in their playpen
- Take out any ropes, hammocks or toys, cleaning them as needed
- Scoop out their bedding and any other material using a dustpan and brush
- Using a pet-safe disinfectant, which you can buy in a pet shop, spray the cage
- Then wipe it all down and wash thoroughly with warm water
- Leave to air until completely dry
- Clean their food bowls and their water bottle, using warm water and a bottle brush
It’s important to keep the cage clean, but as hamsters rely on familiar smells to feel safe, make sure you put back some of the unsoiled used bedding when you do a ‘full’ clean (about a third of the bedding is ideal).
Burrowing is a natural hamster behaviour; you should give your hamster the opportunity to display this behaviour by providing lots of deep bedding.
What is the best bedding for my hamster?
Dust-extracted bedding is good for all types of hamsters.
Most wood shavings or sawdust should be avoided as these can be bad for your hamster’s respiratory system and can become very smelly when urinated on (although Aspen shavings can be used). Also avoid fluffy bedding that could wrap around a hamster’s limbs and cause stomach problems if eaten.
Hamsters can also be litter-trained, which helps to keep their cage cleaner.
Hamster exercise balls must not be used as they can quickly become exhausted and won't be able to escape.
Instead, we recommend giving them a safe, secure place to have a run around (like a hamster playpen) for when you want to let your hamster outside of their cage.
Many experts now advise against using hamster wheels with spokes because it can cause an injury. Solid, wide wheels are safer.
Often, hamster wheels sold along with a hamster cage are too small. Despite this fact, hamsters will continue to use the small wheels and over time it can cause damage to the spine.
Therefore, these wheels should be replaced with a suitable alternative. Any wheels with spokes should also be replaced, due to the risk of feet getting caught.
A suitable wheel for a Syrian hamster should be no smaller than 8.5 inches (22cm).
The following wheels come recommended by our Rehoming Team:
- Savoy Rolly Rat Wheel - this extra large wheel can be fitted to the side of a cage or kept on the stand provided. It gives ample room for a Syrian hamster to exercise without the risk of damaging their spine.
- Trixie Rotating Ferris Wheel - comes with a guard to stop the hamster from falling out should they pick up high speed when exercising
Dwarf hamster breeds will often require a larger wheel to the ones supplied when you buy a cage for the same reason as Syrians, the potential risk of damaging the spine. A suitable wheel for a dwarf hamster should be no smaller than 6.5 inches (16.5cm).
Our Rehoming Team recommends a Kaytee silent spinner wheel for dwarf hamsters.
They like cardboard tubes to chew and run through and if you put up a wooden ledge, they will enjoy climbing on it – though the ledge should be avoided for dwarf hamsters who aren't as nimble as Syrian.
Though tempting to buy a playpen from a pet shop, these are often not suitable as they are made of wire and hamsters can easily climb out.
We would always suggest making your own with some sturdy cardboard. Hamsters are cautious by nature, so your playpen should be small at first so it doesn't cause them stress. Then, as their confidence grows, and over a period of time, you can increase the size.
Always supervise your hamster in their playpen and never wake them up to put them in their playpen. Only pop them in when they're awake.
Hamsters also need a nest box where they can sleep and enjoy a bit of peace and quiet. A cardboard box with shredded paper bedding is perfect.
Scatter feeding some of their dry food is great as it channels their natural instinct to forage for food. You can pop their daily food around their cage and hide some under their bedding so that they can snuffle it out.
Hamsters are omnivorous like us. This means they can eat fruit, vegetables and meat such as bugs and mealworms.
A commercial hamster mix is a good basis for your pet’s diet. Hamsters also like small pieces of fruit and vegetables, like a small slice of apple or a sprig of cauliflower.
A hamster’s front teeth, like those of other rodents, grow continually so they need to gnaw to keep them in shape. Fruit tree sticks or the small, hard dog biscuits in very small quantities make good hamster treats and gnawing on them helps prevent overgrown teeth.
Fresh water must be made available, either in a water bottle or small water bowl, and the water should be changed daily.
Don't worry if you see your hamster eating poo - like all rodents, they do this because it keeps their guts nice and healthy and it's completely normal.
How much should I feed my hamster?
Read your hamster's food packet carefully and follow the instructions. You'll need to be really careful with your portion sizes as hamsters can quickly become obese. Avoid sugary, fatty treats.
If you're concerned your pet is putting on weight or not eating enough, it's best to speak to your vet.
Hamsters hoard food in their beds, so do not give them too many green vegetables as they rot easily. Hamsters also store food in their cheek pouches – always a funny sight to behold.
Although uneaten rotten food should be removed, it’s important that hamsters are allowed to ‘hoard’ as removing their larder completely will be stressful for them. If a hoard has to be completely removed, replace with a similar amount of food with a little of the old unspoiled food mixed in.
How to feed my hamster
Hamsters enjoy fresh fruit and vegetables but like to bury their food. Give them tiny portions to minimise the amount left to decompose and remove uneaten rotten food daily.
When keeping a pair of dwarf hamsters, consider scatter feeding rather than using a bowl to avoid them fighting over how much food they get.
How to keep hamsters healthy
There are some things that are common and harmless on hamsters.
For instance, it's useful to know that hamsters have scent glands on opposite sides of their flanks (between their ribs and their hips), which can look like small, dark patches. These are symmetrical, don't itch and don't change in size. These are normal and nothing to worry about.
Also, the testicles of male hamsters enlarge in the spring, so two large swellings at the bottom end of your hamster are usually nothing to worry about. But, if you are at all concerned about your hamster’s health, do consult your vet.
Like all pets, hamsters have their own health issues that you will need to be aware of.
Storing food in their cheek pouches, though cute, can occasionally lead to problems.
If your hamster seems to have permanently stuffed cheeks, it could be because they've put food into their cheek pouch and can't get it out - this is also known as 'impacted cheek pouches'. Sharp pieces of food may also occasionally pierce their pouches.
Always seek advice from your vet because if either of these has caused an infection, your hamster may need antibiotics.
Diarrhoea (wet tail)
The other common problem needing veterinary help is wet tail, which is diarrhoea associated with stress, especially in newly weaned babies.
You can minimise the risk by:
- preparing the cage before you bring your hamster home and leaving them undisturbed, except for feeding, for the first two or three days
- being careful when handling your hamster when you have a cold as you can pass this on to them
- ensuring you adhere to good hygiene standards and consider wearing gloves should you need to handle your hamster or clean their accommodation
It's worth remembering that hamsters are short sighted, especially those with pink eyes, so keep a close eye on yours if you let them out of their cage. Remember, because of their poor depth perception, they can easily become injured from falling off tables or ledges.
Hamsters can get mites and ringworm, so keep an eye on their skin and be on the lookout for any itchy, red patched.
If you think your pet may have a skin condition, be sure to speak to your vet as soon as possible.
These are hard lumps of minerals that can form inside your hamster's bladder. It'll can cause them to:
- wee more frequently
- have discoloured wee (can be cloudy or darker than usual)
- have blood in their wee
If you spot any of the above, call your vet to get your hamster an appointment.
Regularly check your hamster for any new lumps and bumps and speak with your vet if you find anything that worries you.
Should I allow my hamsters to mate?
Hamsters become sexually mature as young as four weeks old.
A breeding pair will produce a litter every three to four weeks, with an average of eight to ten babies per litter.
And, shockingly, females can become pregnant within 24 hours of giving birth. It's strongly recommended not to breed hamsters as you will quickly become overrun!
Don't forget, there are lots of unwanted hamsters looking for homes in animal charities like ours.
How to handle your hamsters
Try to start this process with them at a young age so they become used.
- Start by placing your hand in their cage so they can sniff and get used to you, then gently stroke them
- Pick them up by forming a cup with both hands either side of their body and scoop them up gently
- Ensure they are always held close to a surface such as a table, your lap or their cage, as hamsters are fragile and they may get injured if they have a way to fall
- You can reward your hamster with a treat when you are holding them to help them understand that it's a positive thing
If your hamster is nervous, check they are properly awake then hold your hand in the cage without trying to touch them, so that your presence and smell becomes familiar. Soon your hamster will get to know you and become easier to handle.
Never put your hand into your hamster’s bed as they may be asleep and will be startled.