Hamsters are adorable pets and they make a great first pet for kids since they are small and easily contained. However, they are not as easy to take care of as you may remember from when you were a kid. Hamsters are great for teaching an elementary school-aged child the responsibility of a pet but, a child should never be the sole caretaker for these caged pets.
Hamster Ownership 101: The Basics
Hamsters require just as much care as any other pet and can get nippy if they are in distress or uncomfortable. This is not great for smaller children with tiny hands since they are often not aware of how gentle they are (or aren’t) being. However, if you think your child can handle your hamster safely, help clean his cage, and watch for signs of illness, a hamster might be the perfect addition to your family.
One or Two?
While some breeds, like Syrian hamsters, should never be paired in the same cage due to territorial reasons, others are great in pair. Some owners choose to get two hamsters to help with your pet’s boredom during the day when they will not get your attention. Dwarf hamsters and Russian or Chinese hamsters are all popular breeds and can do well in pairs if they are littermates or mother and child.
The bigger the better! Hamsters are explorers so giving them as much space of their own to explore will help prevent Houdini disasters. A cage of at least 15 inches long by 12 inches high is the smallest you should get. You’ll want to monitor your hamsters first day or two in the cage closely for any potential escape routes. Fix any escape routes in a permanent way as soon as possible. Hamsters are clever and will often figure out ways around temporary fixes.
Wood shavings are the best option for your hamster’s health as well as the cleanliness of your cage’s surroundings. Avoid clay-based options like cat litter, corn cobs, newspaper, and scented beddings as it can be hard on their tiny respiratory systems. Wood shavings can be bought in bulk at animal supply stores, generally found near the horse supplies.
Exercise wheels are the most important toy for your hamster as they will prevent boredom and health problems. Plastic and acrylic balls are great for the same reasons and they can be a fun way for you and your family to interact with your pet. Make sure to wash the travel ball in soapy warm water after each use to keep it from becoming stinky.
Hamster mix is a specially made pellet food made of a blend of fruits, vegetables, seeds, and grains. You can also feed your hamster fresh vegetables and fruit such as carrots, squash, broccoli, cucumbers, apples, pears, or berries sparingly. Your pet will appreciate some variety in their diet as much as we do!
In order to prevent your hamster from becoming sick with diseases that could be transmitted to you and your family, you’ll want to make sure that his cage is clean! Remember to wear gloves while washing the cage or thoroughly wash your hands with soap and hot water after cleaning.
- Move your hamster to a safe temporary enclosure. This is a great time to let your little guy explore the house in his traveling ball. A second cage or small but deep container will do.
- Dispose of the bedding. Hamsters are hoarders so don’t be surprised if you find stashes of food buried under piles of bedding. Get rid of all the bedding, even if it looks clean, to prevent mold from spreading to fresh bedding.
- Wash the cage using soap and warm water. Avoid using any chemicals but if you do, make sure to thoroughly wash all chemical residue off with soap and water and completely dried before adding fresh bedding and putting your hamster back.
If your hamster has a designated area for toileting, you should scoop this area out daily. A full cage clean using the instructions above should be done once every 2 weeks or sooner if the bedding becomes soiled. Food and water containers should be wiped out weekly. Keep in mind that toys should be cleaned as well. This can be done using a sink full of soapy water every other week. Let the toys soak for 10-15 minutes and then wipe off with a sponge. Let dry completely before giving them back to your hamster.
Hamsters need to be picked up with both hands and cradled in cupped hands. This goes for putting down as well. Make sure to take ample time for your hamster to warm up to you and your family before you try to pick them up. This can be accomplished by using snacks. Feed your hamster a snack first by putting it in front of them and staying close by quietly. Then slowly put the snack farther and farther into your palm until your hamster is sitting on your hand to eat his treat.
To prevent unnecessary bites make sure to educate your family about your hamster’s preferences. For example, hamsters are nocturnal so make sure to interact with them at night or when they are obviously awake so you don’t startle them. Abruptly picking up a hamster could cause an unwanted reaction.
If you are having issues with your hamster socializing with your family consider letting him run loose in a closed-off space, such as a bathroom, with each family member individually. This will allow him to explore you at his own pace and make sure to keep him from becoming overwhelmed.
Overall, hamsters make great pets as long as you know how to handle them and take care of them properly. Children can be taught to do both of those things very easily as long as they are willing to learn. However, younger children (under 12) should not clean hamster feces or urine since it is more dangerous to their underdeveloped immune systems.
But, no matter how great of a caretaker you are, accidents do happen. In those cases, it’s very important to have the contact information of a veterinarian that knows how to care for hamsters. Believe it or not, hamsters are considered an “exotic” animal. So, not all veterinarians are able to provide care for them. Make some calls to a few vets when you bring your hamster home so you know who to call in an emergency.
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