Small Mammals

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Hamster Care

Hamsters are popular pets, especially for children. They normally live for 2-3 years. There are 3 main varieties of hamsters all which have arisen from the Syrian hamster:

  • Common “golden” hamster
  • Coloured short haired “fancy” hamster
  • Long haired “teddy bear” hamster

 

In Hong Kong, we also occasionally encounter dwarf hamsters, also known as the Chinese hamster, which are smaller and have a dark brown coat.

Housing

There are many types of cages available for hamsters. Often they include luxurious furniture such as tunnels, exercise wheels and boxes to hide in. The cages should contain rounded corners and there should be no sharp edges. The cages should be made of hard plastic, glass, stainless steel or wire to prevent damage from chewing. One side of the care should be left open to allow good ventilation. Hamsters are very good at escaping so it is important that your cage is strong, made of durable material and escape-proof!

The flooring should ideally be solid and contain deep bedding material. Suitable material for bedding includes shredded newspaper, wood shavings or processed corn cob. There should be sufficient litter depth to allow the hamster to nest and burrow. The ideal environmental temperature is 15-30˚C and (day) light provided for 12 hours. Hamsters are nocturnal creatures and so are active during the night when it is dark.

The cages and accessories should be ideally cleaned once a week. Cages can be cleaned with hot water and a non-toxic detergent and then rinsed thoroughly afterwards. Water bottles and food dishes should be cleaned daily.

Hamsters should be housed individually. In particular, female hamsters tend to be aggressive to other hamsters (both male and female). Males can also be aggressive to each other and so we recommend that all hamsters are kept apart to reduce the incidence of fighting.

Diet

Normally, hamsters are fed a rodent pellet mix that contains at least 16% protein and no more than 5% fat. Seed diets can also be fed as a supplement but care should be exercised since these diets are high in fat and can lead to obesity and nutritional deficiencies. Fresh fruit and vegetables can also be provided. Other snacks can also be occasionally given such as pasta, sugarless breakfast cereals and wholegrain bread. Hamsters will normally eat around 12g of food a day (mainly at night-time).

Fresh water should be provided daily in sipper bottles. It is important that the bottle tubes are low enough for the hamster to be able to reach easily.

Handling

If handled from a young age, hamsters are docile pets that rarely bite. Hamsters can be lifted by cupping one or both hands and holding them against your body. As hamsters are nocturnal creature, it is advisable to rattle the cage first to awaken the hamster before putting your hand in. Otherwise, a large hand suddenly picking up a sleeping hamster is enough to scare it and for it to understandably try to escape by biting!!

It can be useful to use a towel to restrain an aggressive hamster or to try and coax it to go into a small container such as a can. It is often necessary to “scruff” a hamster by grasping a large amount of skin around the neck. A hamster’s skin is very loose and so it is important to grasp enough skin to prevent the hamster turning around and biting!

Breeding

Female hamsters tend to be larger than male ones. Male hamsters contain large and prominent testicles and their genitourinary to anal separation distance is wider than in females. Hamsters become sexually mature very early on (from 6 weeks of age).

Female hamsters on heat will often stretch out their bodies and sway their backs. You may also notice a small amount of mucus coming out of her vagina. Males can be bred with females on heat – normally placed in the cage for a short period maybe an hour) before the onset of darkness. It is worth noting that females can be very aggressive and so if they attack the male, the hamsters should be separated immediately and you can try again the following night.

Pregnancy normally lasts for only 2 weeks and litters of 5-10 pups are common. If any babies are born, it is important not to disturb the mother or babies for the first 2 weeks to prevent her attacking and killing the young. Plenty of fresh food and water should be available before the babies are born.

Hamsters will normally start eating solid food from one week of age but weaning will not be complete until 3 weeks of age. It is necessary to soak the pellets to soften them for the young baby hamsters.

Common problems

At Acorn Veterinary Hospital, the most commonly encountered diseases we encounter in hamsters are:

  • Skin problems – often causing hair loss. Sometimes, this may be caused by nutritional deficiencies or fighting. Other causes include mites, hormonal problems and kidney disease.
  • Wet tail – this is a bacterial infection often affecting young hamsters. The hamsters may appear inappetant, thin, dehydrated with watery diarrhea and matted fur especially around the tail. This is a serious disease that often can lead to death. If you suspect your hamster may be suffering from this, it is essential for you to bring your hamster in immediately.
  • Geriatric diseases – often from the age of 1 year onwards, hamsters can suffer from internal organ problems. The most common include amyloidosis, where protein is deposited onto organs leading to kidney and liver failure. Also cardiac thrombosis is quite common, where blood clots develop within the heart.
  • Other commonly encountered diseases include dental problems (such as overgrown teeth), tumours (where surgery may be curative) and stomach ulcers.