So you think you want a Hamster!

The very first thing you should know about owning a Hamster is that it will break your heart.

Hamsters have a relatively short life span, just 18 months to 2 years on average. However, 2 to 3 years has been known, and if you’re lucky enough to have one that lives that long, it will be even more heartbreaking when he dies. And die he will, make no mistake, leaving a large hamster shaped hole in your heart.

But, if you think you can handle the grief of losing a dear and funny little companion, then please read on.

In this book I will cover the general rules sharing your life with a Hamster and share tales of Dave, my seriously cool Syrian hamster. Everything in this book has been learned through first-hand experience during by my personal 3year journey with Dave.  Throughout the book I will be referring to Hamsters in general as ‘HE’ although the same rules apply to both sexes, and, for convenience, abbreviating Hamster to Ham.

1.      Choose your Hamster

There are several breeds of hamster, the most popular being the Syrian, also known as the Golden, Banded or Teddy Bear Hamster. And that’s the one we’re going to concentrate on. You should only buy from a reputable breeder or pet shop as Hams can have many congenital problems that won’t be immediately obvious. The age of your new ham should ideally be 7 – 8 weeks. Reputable breeders and pet shops will be able to provide you with proof of age. Any younger and they will still be weaning, any older and you get less time with your short lived pet, and they take longer to tame. Size is an obvious sign of age, a large Ham is unlikely to be young. But the ears are a simple clue. Young Hams have very pink ears. The darker the ear, the older the Ham. You should also look at the clarity of eyes, they should be big and shiny with no signs of discharge or crustiness like ‘sleep’. You should also check his rear end to check for signs of wet tail (see illness). The rear end of your Ham should be clean and dry. Your Ham is a vain little bugger and takes a lot of pride in grooming, so if a Ham looks scruffy or unkempt, I would advise you steer clear. I would also recommend handling your ham in the pet shop/breeders home. This should give you clues to his temperament. While you can’t expect them to be tame, if they try to bite, it’s a sign of a poor temperament, and poor temperament should be avoided. If the pet shop/Breeder refuses to let you handle the Ham, there is obviously a problem, so, again, steer clear

Please note: while many breeds of hams can live happily side by side in the same cage, Syrians MUST be kept solo. They are extremely territorial and will fight to the death.

Dave was born on 9th Jan and I received him as a birthday present on 28th Feb. He was 7 weeks and 1 day old. I hadn’t even considered owing a hamster. I was quite happy being pet free. To be honest, I wasn’t over the moon when I got him. I had never owned a Hamster and I never wanted a Hamster. My brother, who bought Dave, hadn’t given a thought as to who would look after him when I was away from home – which was quite often, he just thought it would be a funny gift.


But here I was, with a 7 week old hamster in a cage looking at me as if to say “I’m ready, are you? Well then....bring it on!

And so our journey began.

The only information I had was in a small pamphlet which covered the basics, and I mean basics....This is a poops! This is why I am now writing this, to help you with realities that you really need to know.

2.      Housing your Hamster

When you buy your hamster, make sure you buy a suitable cage with enough space for a wheel and a place to nest. Hamsters are very energetic and nosey. They get easily bored and are fascinated by anything new. But beware! They grow. They grow quite quickly, so please bear this in mind when choosing a home for him. A happy Ham is one who has more than one floor to his cage. They love climbing and having at least two levels in a cage gives them something to explore. There are many types of Hamster cage available, and the ones with tubes can be incredibly expensive. If money is tight, you could always check out online auction sites such as eBay. But you MUST have your cage ready and waiting when you buy your Ham.

When I got Dave, he came with a smallish cage – big enough for him as he was tiny – but not overly big, with a wheel and ‘mezzanine’ level which he could access via a short green tube. He was more than happy with this. He would scoot about from the bottom to the top, back again before jumping into his wheel and running flat out. Dave had the habit of stopping every few minutes to look around as if he had expected to be somewhere else! Then, after about a month or so, I noticed that he was starting to look a bit podgy. I put it down to eating too much as he had a voracious appetite. Another week went by and he was getting fatter. That’s when I realized that he was too big to run in the wheel that came with the cage. In hindsight, I would say that the pet store sold the wrong cage for a Syrian Ham. It would have been perfect for a dwarf or Russian hamster, and probably for the whole of their lives, but definitely not a Syrian. So beware, if you don’t get the right cage at the beginning, you could end up replacing it within a few months! I was lucky enough to have an old but lovely Parrot cage which I adapted for Dave. This was perfect as it could accommodate a larger wheel. I bought a large ‘Rat’ sized wheel from a pet shop which I knew was safe (see Exercise) and wouldn’t need replacing.

3.      Nesting/Housing/Bedding Materials

Hamsters like to build nests. They will pick out a favourite spot in their cage and make a nest. There are various bedding materials on the market. Never use shredded Newspaper as the ink may cause you Ham problems. Bedding material can be bought in shops but any fluffy cotton wool type bedding is best avoided as these can cause harm if eaten by your Ham. Pieces of material or wool should not be used for bedding as this will also cause problems if eaten. If you have any doubt as to whether any bedding material is safe for your hamster then don’t even bother with it. Soft shredded ‘edible’ paper bedding is best used as this causes no harm if eaten as it dissolves and is easily broken.

When Dave and his cage arrived, unfortunately it didn’t come with any bedding! However, I had some shredded paper that had been packaged around a bottle of wine, so I put that in. Dave then decided on which corner of his cage he wanted to live in, and set about building his nest. I bought a small ‘hamster TV’ from an auction site, designed with an opening at the back, the idea being that if you put food in, you could watch your Ham feed from the front.

Dave had other ideas.....

Within an hour of the TV being placed in his cage, he had carried all his bedding over to and moved in! He slept in his TV until he could no longer fit, even though he tried! It was hilarious to see him trying to curl up while his bum was hanging out! As Dave had decided he was a ‘nest box’ type of Ham rather than one who just nests on the ground, we provided him with an empty tissue box stuffed with shredded paper

4.      Sleep.

Contrary to popular belief, Hams are NOT nocturnal. They are what is known as Crepuscular. This describes animals that are mainly active during twilight hours, dawn and dusk. Your Ham will appear to sleep for most of the day, although he will wake several times for a quick snack, before waking in mid to late evening and then playing in his cage. If you are planning to keep your Ham in your bedroom, make sure you buy a ‘silent’ wheel as he is going to be running, flat out, for several hours! If you have a squeaky wheel, you won’t get much sleep!  After a thorough workout, your Ham will return to his nest for a couple of hours sleep before starting all over again in the early hours of the morning.

When Dave arrived, he would be up from around 10pm till midnight or so, and then again at 6am for a couple of hours. But as the season changed from spring to summer, he would get up earlier and earlier, which generally meant that although we got to see him for longer in the evening, we missed his early morning stint.

5.      Toilet Training

Hams, particularly Syrians, are very particular about their toilet habits, and do not really need training. Simply cut a plastic bottle in half and place in a corner of the cage, preferably close to the nest, and you will probably find that they will investigate because it’s something new, and then will just use it as a loo. If you use this method, remember to rinse it out every day to avoid smells. Hams like to play in sand, so a small sand pit is essential. However, Syrians like Dave will use the sandpit as a loo.

After reading about the plastic bottle thing, I thought I’d try it with Dave. I cut a 2ltr coke bottle in half and placed it next to his ‘nest’. The next morning I was amazed to find that Dave had actually used the bottle as a loo. We used the bottle for a few weeks before I found out about the sandpit. Then we used the packaging from a pack of pork chops, cleaned it out thoroughly, and filled it with sand. This became Dave’s regular toilet/sand bath. We used children’s play sand as that was safest. NEVER use builder sand as it contains chemicals and salt that could harm your Ham.

6.      Food (see index for list)

There are many different brands of dry mix on the market, but they all contain roughly the same ingredients. The dry mix is important as it helps keep your Hams teeth in good order. You may find that your Ham will pick out his favourite bits and leave the rest untouched. These little creatures can be incredibly finicky about their food and once they decide they like something, they can’t get enough of it. You should try your Ham with fresh veg such as broccoli, carrots, bell peppers and cucumber. But please remember, when you first give something new to your Ham, give it in moderation. Too much of a good thing can actually do your Ham more harm than good.