How To Take Care Of A Hamster For Beginners

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Hamsters make adorable, sweet companions, but with their friendship comes with responsibility.

Be aware that your Hamsters are cognizant, curious beings that require not only food, water, and shelter, but intellectual stimulation and attention to wellness in general.


Ferplast-Hamster-Cage-BlackSyrian hamsters are loners and don’t take well to sharing their cages with others. Both males and females will show aggression if housed in groups and may kill their cagemates, so if you choose to adopt more than one (and many do!) you will need to provide a separate cage for each animal.

The cage should be large accommodate your hamster, a nesting area, several toys, a litter box, a water bottle, a food dish and an exercise wheel. For most hamsters, a 10-15 gallon aquarium is a good choice. Anything smaller is really quite cramped, though you can always go larger if you want to offer more play space. If choose to use an aquarium, be sure to also purchase a tight-fitting sturdy wire lid to keep your little friend from escaping and getting lost. You will need to either attach the lid to the cage securely with tape or place a weight on top to prevent the animal from lifting it off. Wire cages are another good choice. These offer plenty of ventilation, though they tend to be a little messier than aquariums because litter can easily be kicked out as your hamster builds nests and plays. Plastic cages with little compartments and tubes can be a lot of fun. Just be aware that they can sometimes be destroyed by chewing and that cleanup will be considerably more time consuming since each tube will need to be scrubbed out with a special brush about once a week. The advantage to these cages, however, is that they provide a lot of entertainment for your hamster.


The best choices for hamster bedding are aspen or Carefresh (or other recycled paper product, such as Yesterday’s News). Cedar, pine, and other softwoods are completely inappropriate since they give off phenols which contribute to respiratory infections and can even cause death. Corn cob litter may be eaten and cause choking. Small animals also benefit from a few handfuls of alfalfa hay added to their home since the oils in the hay are healthy for their skin and coat. They may or may not eat the hay, but enjoy using it to build nests.


Kaytee-Small-Animal-Critter-Litter-4-PoundYour hamster’s cage will need regular cleaning. If you provide a litterbox (look for one specially made for small animals and use either small animal litterbox litter or plain very-low-dust cat litter) which you dump and refill every day or every other day, you should be able to wait a little longer between cleanings, provided your hamster is given enough space. Hammies usually take to using the litterbox quite easily, but if yours needs a hint, just move any “accidents” from other areas of the cage into the litterbox to help him or her catch on to the idea and move the litterbox to the spot where most of the “accidents” are happening. Yes, there are always a few who never catch on, but they usually keep most of their waste in one spot anyway, so it’s easy to pick up with a paper towel daily.


Building a comfy nest is very important to hamsters. They usually will build a comfy spot in the corner using bedding and hay, but they also enjoy having hiding spaces such as a little plastic igloo or house. Wooden versions tend to absorb urine and need to be thrown out frequently, so the plastic type may be the most economical in the long run unless you want to offer the wooden one as a chew toy as well. The choice is up to you. Some animals love the little boxes and bags of crinkly shredded paper or cotton, but be careful to purchase sealed containers since open boxes can be infested with mites, particularly if the pet store sells animals.


There are a number of commercial foods available as well as homemade diets. Your hamster will need a healthy, well-balanced diet, so you may want to start with a commercial block or seed and kibble mix. “Lab Blocks” are formulated to be complete, however, they were developed for use in laboratories in which animals will be slaughtered very young, so they may not be appropriate for promoting longevity. Seed and kibble mixes are more interesting and were developed for pet hamsters. Just keep an eye on your animal’s eating habits to make sure all the pieces are getting eaten (though if there are alfalfa pellets in the food, just dispose of any unwanted ones. These are not very appealing to most rodents and are too often used as filler in commercial food.)


Hamsters need a higher protein diet than many other rodents, so rat and mouse food, for example, is not the best choice for raising your hamster. Look for food that is indicated as hamster food expressly. You can serve food in a food-safe plastic, metal, ceramic, or glass dish or you can increase your rats’ stimulation by “hiding” their food inside boxes, paper towel rolls, or hanging food-dispensing toys available at most pet supply stores. Just be sure the food stays fresh and clean and is eaten in a reasonable amount of time.


A word about water: Always offer water in a small animal water bottle, not a bowl. The bowl will be dumped or filled with litter very quickly and is not sanitary. Water bottles should be dumped out about once every week or two, or when the water gets low. It’s handy to have two so you can have a fresh one ready while you run the other through the dishwasher. If you choose to add liquid hamster vitamins to your pet’s water, you will need to change the water more frequently to prevent mold growth and spoilage.


Treats are great for adding variety to the diet when chosen well. Start with small amounts and increase slowly, keeping an eye out for loose stools. Some good treat choices include:

  • Small pieces of grapes
  • Bits of tomato
  • Soy Yogurt (acidophilus helps digestion)
  • Celery
  • Apple bits
  • Pear pieces
  • Plain bananas
  • Cauliflower
  • Commercial seed bells or hanging seed sticks
  • Dog biscuits (small ones)
  • A few things to steer clear of:
  • Sugary snacks
  • Peanut butter (may cause choking)
  • Cheese and other dairy products (may cause stomach upset.)
  • Iceberg lettuce and citrus fruits (may cause diarrhea)


How To Take Care Of A Hamster For Beginners

Should your hamster fall ill, be injured or just seem “off” you will want to contact a veterinarian. While many people don’t think of taking their hamster to the vet, it is important to do so promptly when things go wrong. More vets are willing to help hamsters than you think! Call around and find a good exotic animal vet before you need them and you’ll be ready should anything happen.

Dental Care

Hamster teeth grow rapidly and continuously. If neglected, the teeth can easily grow so long your pet will no longer be able to eat. If this happens, contact your vet to have the teeth trimmed. The best way to deal with this, however, is to prevent it. Be sure to offer your hammie a variety of chew toys including commercial wooden chew toys, boxes, clean fruit tree branches that have not been sprayed, hard dog biscuits, and/or some of the fun commercial toys such as Hamsteroids, which are a calcium-based toy.


There’s no need to breed! Plenty of animals need homes. Check out your local animal shelter, rescue, or contact 3R Raleigh Rodent Rescue to adopt an animal who needs a home. Breeding can cause health complications and ads more animals to an already overpopulated world. Thinking of doing it to show the kids the “miracle of birth”? Rodents will eat or maim their young if they detect something is wrong with the pups and that’s just not something most people want their children to witness. “Mom” also may die in the process and may be more likely to bite once she’s given birth. There are many videos available of the birthing process and many breeders’ websites have web cameras you can watch together.

Also, if you do breed and are unable to find appropriate homes, please do not release domesticated animals into the wild. They will not be accepted into existing wild rodent colonies and they may spread disease uncommon to the area and destroy an entire ecosystem. At best your rats will die a slow, painful death by starvation or will be torn apart by other animals, and we just don’t think that’s a good option.

Recommended Reading

Homemade for Hamsters: Over 20 Fun Projects Anyone Can Make, Including Tunnels, Towers, Dens, Swings, Ladders and More – by Carin Oliver 

How to Look After Your Hamster: A Practical Guide to Caring for Your Pet, In Step-by-Step Photographs Hardcover –  by David Alderton