Regular health checks
Your vet can carry out a ‘nose to tail’ MOT but you can play a role too by following the guidelines below to keep an eye on your hamster’s health, help him to stay in tip top condition and live a long and healthy life:
- Look out for changes in your hamster’s food consumption, drinking and toilet habits. Does he have less energy or is he slower in getting up or jumping? Monitor your hamster’s faeces for colour and consistency
- Rub your hands over your hamster’s body including his head, legs and feet to check for any lumps or bumps or anything stuck in his claws. Check your hamster’s coat quality and whether any dandruff or hair loss is evident. Is your hamster scratching, chewing or biting excessively?
- Check your pet’s nose, eyes and ears for any abnormalities or discharge. Your hamster’s nose should be moist, the corners of his eyes should be free of discharge and his ears should be clean
- Regularly examine your hamster’s mouth for signs of disease and overgrown teeth
- Monitor your hamster’s body condition by running your hands over his ribs and backbone. If he is losing weight or is overweight, it’s advisable to take him to the vet.
Dental problems are a major health issue for hamsters. Hamsters need to eat fibre and have something to gnaw to wear down their continuously growing teeth. If teeth don’t get worn down enough this can cause drooling and lack of appetite. Your vet or pet care specialist will be able to advise you on your pet’s teeth.
Hamsters are not hardy animals and cannot live outside. Your hamster’s cage should ideally be kept as close to a constant temperature as possible - placed out of the sun, away from radiators and sheltered from draughts.
While hamsters do like to snuggle into a small space with bedding to sleep, it’s important to remember that in the wild, they are very active and run long distances. So your hamster needs space to exercise. As well as the traditional cage with a wire lid (which must fit tightly so your hamster cannot escape!), one common type of cage is effectively like a cat litter tray with a Perspex lid. Size wise, approximately 60cm wide by 30cm should suit. There are also containers with more elaborate series of tubes and levels which your hamster can play in. Hamsters also like to come out of their cage to play – but make sure they are safe and cannot escape.
Remember hamsters can squeeze through tiny gaps, particularly the dwarfs, so if you have one of the more traditional cages with bars, it’s important the bars are not too wide apart to prevent this.
Syrian (golden) hamsters are solitary and need to be housed on their own – if you try to put two in together they will fight, possibly even to the death. While Dwarf hamsters can be housed in pairs or groups (depending on species) experience tells us that their relationships need to be watched, and even they may need to be separated.
Wood shavings are ideal for hamsters for their cage. Don't use cedar or pine shavings as they can cause allergic reactions and hay and straw are not good either as they may eat their bed, upsetting their diet (maybe even damaging their cheek pouches). The cage should be completely stripped out and scrubbed, ideally at least once a week.
Your hamster will enjoy having shredded paper to burrow and snuggle in to sleep in its sleeping area – don’t use newspaper as the ink can irritate.
Hamsters arrange their living environment into separate areas - sleeping, playing, feeding and toilet areas - the cage will need 'tidying' at least every day and the toilet area will need to be cleaned out more frequently than the weekly scrub.
The easiest way to make sure your hamster gets everything he or she needs is to feed a complete food specifically for hamsters, which provides all the nutrients in the correct amounts and proportions - check the label for how much to feed.
Water must be accessible at all times and bottles are often easier to keep clean - your hamster will need this refilling with fresh water every day.
You can give a bit of variation too. As hamsters are omnivores in the wild, they can have some extra animal based-protein, such as a small amount of hard-boiled egg or cottage cheese, or even chicken, once or twice a week. We would not recommend food that has been formulated for another species, say cat food, as this will be unsuitable for your hamster’s digestive system.
You can also give small amounts of washed fresh fruit and vegetables. Apples, carrots, broccoli, pear and cabbage are fine but avoid citrus fruits such as oranges because they are too acidic. Don't feed too many treats though, as even hamsters can get overweight and don’t forget to remove any uneaten food at the end of the day. Small amounts of hay can add some extra fibre to your hamster’s diet. Whatever you feed, don’t change your hamster’s food suddenly as this can upset their digestive system.
While Syrian hamsters and some dwarfs are fiercely territorial and fight, hamsters are very social animals towards people and as such, their body language is a very good barometer of how they are feeling!
Hamsters love to gnaw and if they don’t have items to gnaw on such as wooden blocks, they may take this out on your carpet or sofa. If your hamster stops gnawing then it is good sign that there is something wrong and you should take him to a vet.
Regular exercise, play and exploration is important to keep your pet fit and prevent boredom, which could lead to behavioural problems. Items for the cage, such as hamster wheels (choose a solid, wide one not with spokes which can cause injury), boxes and tubes are fun for both you and your pet, and also keep him busy at night while you are asleep.
Hamsters will spend a large amount of their time grooming themselves. You can also groom your hamster with a brush or comb, if needed, and longhaired pets will need grooming daily otherwise their coat will quickly become matted. Grooming is a good idea as it strengthens the bond between you and your hamster and gives an ideal time to check him out. You should check a hamster’s eyes, ears, nose, mouth, bottom and claws daily.
Syrian hamsters need to live alone, as they fight. Some dwarf hamsters, particularly the Russian breeds, can often be kept in social groups, as living as a pair or group of three allows them to interact and perform normal social behaviour. Make sure that they are single sex groups, otherwise you could end up with a family! And keep a close check - they can suddenly take a violent dislike to one another, fight and need to be separated. You can try a gentle re-introduction but this may not always be successful and you may just have to invest in a separate home!
Neutering hamsters is not something that many vets will do due to their short lifespan and size. Syrian hamsters and some dwarf breeds need to be kept alone. If you do keep dwarf hamsters together, to prevent an unwanted population explosion keep them in single sex pairs or groups. (See the Company section below for further information.)
Before attempting to handle your hamster, let him become accustomed to you by feeding out of your hand and stroking him. Chat away gently to him to get him used to your voice. Once he’s happy to feed from you or be stroked, gently scoop him up with both hands. It is best, once you have picked him up, to hold him against you or keep him on your lap - hamsters can move fast and you don't want to drop him.