Hamsters can make lovely characterful little pets. Many adults keep them, maybe for breeding or showing, and they make ideal pets for children. They are quite easy to keep and don't tend to have the strong odour of other rodents. Hamsters and the equipment they need are relatively inexpensive to purchase - even home-made cages can sometimes be suitable for them. Hamsters are fun to watch and and if regularly handled are quite friendly, but do take care because they can give a very strong bite when they are upset! Hamsters live approximately 2 or 3 years.
Hamsters belong to the Family Cricetidae. Members of this rodent family may be found wild in Eastern Europe, China, Siberia, and North Africa. The species of hamster most commonly kept as a pet is Mesocricetus auratus, or the Golden, (Syrian) Hamster. The second most common is the Chinese hamster, (Cricetulus griseus). Russian and European hamsters are also kept as pets. It is possible to obtain hamsters with a variety of coat colours and patterns; there is also be a choice of short or long haired varieties.
Hamsters generally should be kept alone since they will fight terribly otherwise. However it may sometimes be possible to keep small groups together if they are of the same sex and from the same litter. All animals need a cage which provides adequate space, privacy, warmth and opportunity for stimulating activities. Good cages are readily available from pet shops. They are usually made from plastic which has a smooth surface to prevent injury to the hamster and is robust enough to prevent escape. Plastic also helps keep the hamster warm since it has insulating qualities. Wooden cages may cause injury to the hamster from splinters when the hamster gnaws at the wood. Metal cages can be quite cold. Cages may be any shape and there are modular designs available which can provide an interesting environment. It may be possible to construct a home-made cage using a plastic box but do be aware that hamsters are excellent escape artists, so it must be escape-proof and not attractive for the hamster to gnaw.
Cages should be easy to clean. Once a week is usually frequent enough for cleaning since hamsters can be quite upset by the disturbance and males like to scent-mark their territory. Bedding should always be provided for hamsters. Sawdust is usually used for the general part of the cage with nesting materials provided in a secluded area of the cage for the hamster to sleep in. This can be of cellulose wadding, wood shavings, shredded paper or hay. Don't use cotton wool because the hamster may eat it and become constipated. Also be wary of strands of any type of material since strands may become tangled around the legs and cut off the circulation. I would also avoid the use of a wheel in the cage as legs can be easily caught in them resulting in nasty injuries.
Hamsters should be kept at normal room temperatures ( i.e. 19-23 degrees centigrade) with normal ambient humidity. Do not subject the hamster's environment to sudden variations of these conditions. Below 5 degrees centigrade hamsters enter hibernation and their breathing and heart rates will become very slow. Once the temperature increases again the hamster will wake up and need immediate access to food and water so keep this readily available. Hamsters do not need bright lighting since they are essentially nocturnal creatures.
Hamsters consume approximately 5-10g of food per day as adults. The proprietary hamster foods available from pet stores are usually fine. Treats of fresh green vegetables, fruit, seeds and grains will help provide variety, but don't supplement the diet so much that the nutrient balance is disturbed. Any fruit or vegetables given to your hamster should be clean and fresh, wash and rinse it before offering it to your hamster. Food is usually given to hamsters in nibble-proof containers, but they actually prefer to eat off the floor! This is fine, and contamination of the food with faeces will not be a problem since hamsters are naturally coprophagic, (they eat their faeces); this helps them absorb enough of the vitamins B and K. Adult hamsters drink approximately 20ml of water per day. Water is most easily kept fresh and clean if plastic or glass bottles with a metal sipping tube are mounted to the side of the cage. Make sure all hamsters can reach the tip of this tube especially if there are any babies in the cage (they will need water once they are weaned).
Hamsters are often handled in cupped hands, if your hamster is asleep it is wise to wake it gently before picking it up as even if it is docile and used to being handled it may be frightened enough to bite when disturbed from sleep. Hamsters can give a very painful bite so sometimes it is necessary to restrain hamsters by the scruff of the neck. Hamsters have a great deal of loose skin here and have an amazing ability to wriggle around and bite you, so grasp as much loose skin as you can to restrain a hamster properly. If it is not possible to handle the hamster it can be moved in a container; often their sleeping quarters are convenient for this.
If you would like to breed your hamsters you will need to know their sex. Adult males have a large scrotum so it is usually easy to tell the difference between adult males and females. In young animals it can be difficult to determine their sex, but males have a larger distance between their genitals and their rectum than females. With practice it should be possible to get used to sexing hamsters and it helps if you have several animals so you can compare males and females. Hamsters can reproduce at approximately 8 weeks of age. They often become more aggressive around the age of sexual maturity. The oestrus cycle lasts 4 days and the female will come into oestrus all year round unless in hibernation. The onset of oestrus can be recognised by the presence of a vaginal discharge and by day 2 there is a copious off-white odiferous post ovulatory discharge. Fertility is reduced in the winter in females possibly due to the reduced light intensity and males testes may retract. Apart from during oestrus a female hamster will attack the male so they should always be supervised when together. The hamsters should meet on neutral territory or in the male's cage. Separate the animals if they start to fight. The best time to put the male and female together is during the early hours of darkness as ovulation usually takes place 1-2 hours after dark on the first day of oestrus. If the female becomes pregnant she will no longer ovulate so you will see no vaginal discharges on days 5 and 9. Once pregnancy is confirmed it is best to move the hamster to her own cage with a private nesting area. The gestation or pregnancy duration of hamsters is 15-18 days (21 days for the chinese hamster). Hamsters can have 4-12 babies per litter. The female may eat her babies especially if there is much disturbance during the first week after she gives birth, so don't disturb her during this time. Feeding the female apples and lettuce is said to help reduce this cannibalism.
There are many diseases which can affect hamsters. The problems commonly seen in practice include: Wet tail, dental problems, impacted cheek pouches, injuries such as wounds and fractured limbs, parasites, tumours, Tyzzer's disease, Salmonellosis, constipation, pneumonia, skin diseases, and diabetes. Antibiotics may sometimes cause enteritis, (diarrhoea) in hamsters. All of these conditions are covered elsewhere in the website.