Hamsters: Care and behaviour

Hamsters are often bought as children's first pets. They live from 18 months to two years, though some have been known to live to three years. This means that children are less likely to grow out of a hamster than, say, a guinea pig, or a dog, because hamsters have such short lives. Children have to come to terms with losing their little friend, which is part of learning to cope with mortality. 

Hamsters need gentle handling, and they sleep while children are at school, coming out in the evening and at night to play, so they're suitable for older children who can learn to handle them calmly, who aren't likely to interrupt the hamster's sleep in the day, and who go to bed late enough to be able to enjoy watching their hamster in the evening. Young children might be tempted to poke or squeak at them, or pick them up and drop them if the hamster moves fast!

Hamster behaviour

There are different types of hamster kept as pets. The most common is the Syrian hamster, which is descended from wild hamsters which live alone as adults - they're solitary animals, rather than a social species like rabbits, guinea pigs and humans, which like to live in groups. This means that hamsters often fight if they are put together in a small space.

Hamsters are also prey animals, so are on the look-out for signs of dangerous animals that might want to eat them. They find safety in burrows, and their nests are especially important as safe spaces, which they keep nice and clean. Wild hamsters build nests in spaces that are safe from predators and other hamsters, and they'll move somewhere else if the nest is disturbed. This is why it's important to leave your hamster's nest undisturbed as far as possible. Hamsters also like to store their food, filling their pouches to take it to a safe place, their 'larder'. Again it's kinder to leave most of the food in the larder undisturbed, just removing anything perishable.

Hamsters also like to travel a lot, especially in the evening. Most hamster cages have wheels, which hamsters frequently use at night, not something that wild hamsters would do. Pet shops often sell small cages with wheels, and they don't really make good homes for your pet. More space, and cage enrichment can give your hamster a fuller life, as can letting your hamster out for a wander in the evening, always supervised, to prevent accidents with electric cables or injuries from falling from high places.


Hamsters are solitary animals, so only one adult should be kept in a cage. They like to move about a lot, especially at night, so they need a big cage at least 70 cm by 40 cm by 35 cm high. You can let them explore your house, but always supervise them, because they will chew holes in carpets, curtains and clothes, and have been known to electrocute themselves by chewing electric wiring. They need a chewing block in their cage to prevent their teeth from getting overgrown, and will chew the cage if they can.

The traditional small wire cages sold for hamsters don't allow enough space for exercise and toys. Hamsters need to have fun things to do, and space to explore.There are very complicated cages for sale which have tunnels going to different levels to allow the hamster a chance to explore upwards. What hamsters really like, though, is to burrow downwards! Some hamster owners prefer a big glass tank, which is easier to clean and won't fall apart accidentally. A tank has to be large and provide adequate ventilation.

Hamsters get bored with just a wheel to entertain themselves, so look around to see what you can use for toys for them.You can put toys such as wheels, tubing, the inside of a toilet roll, and egg boxes in the tank, for them to play with. You can also make them a multi-storey home, with little rooms they can explore, even in a glass tank. Do remember to have a lid, to prevent escapes. Your hamster is likely to chew his toys, so make sure they have no sharp edges that could hurt your pet's mouth, and that they aren't poisonous. An old shoe box with little entrance and exit holes cut into it at the side and the top can become a fun place for your hamster to explore. Give the hamster some way of reaching the top, some branches to act as a ladder, for example, and watch for his little head to come out. You need a nest box in one corner for the hamster to sleep in.

Put a thick covering of wood shavings on the floor, and provide hay or shredded white tissue paper for bedding. Unbleached toilet tissue is ideal. Some people successfully use cat litter based on wood or paper (note clay). Feathers, newspapers or artificial fibre shouldn't be used as they can cause health problems. Hamsters put their bedding in their pouches, so they need to be able to take it out easily, and feathers and some fibres can get stuck. Sawdust and shavings from lumber yards may contain dangerous preservatives, and cedar shavings can harm hamsters, so you need pet quality shavings and sawdust. You also need to make sure that nothing in the cage that a hamster can put in its pouch has sharp edges.

Hamsters usually use one corner of the cage as a toilet, and this should be cleaned every day. The area under the toilet will tend to rust in a metal cage, but you can put a plastic tray under the sand or sawdust. Clean the whole cage every week, but try to leave the hamster's nest as undisturbed as possible. Check for rotting food in the hamster's food store. Hamsters like to have well-stocked larders and don't throw out food when it's past its best, but they like to feel their larders are safe, so don't throw out all their goodies.

Today, humans lead very unnatural lives, and we use artifical light well after dusk. Hamsters need dim light at dusk, and dark at night time. You can cover the cage after about 10 pm, so the hamster is in the dark, if you want to have the light on for yourself. Hamsters don't like loud, or high-pitched noises, so keep their cages somewhere quiet, away from the TV. They can hear high-pitched sounds that we can't, so it's best to keep the cage away from all electrical appliances. Hamsters don't like being disturbed generally, they're prey animals, so sensitive to changes that might mean danger. You might find it fun to take your hamster out for a walk if you get back late at night, but being woken up and exposed to bright light can be stressful for your hamster!  Once the hamster's cage is covered, or in a dark room, it's best to leave the hamster in peace. They also need 'night' to fall at about the same time every night, and 'dawn', or uncovering the cage, to happen at about the same time every morning.

Hamsters come from dry places, so they can fall ill if they're kept somewhere damp. They're ideally kept at a temperature of around 18 deg C to 21 deg C. They don't like sudden changes in temperature, and the burrows they use in the wild help keep the temperature stable. If the temperature falls below 5 deg C at night they may start to hibernate, but can be revived by being gradually warmed and fed warm sweet milk. Hamsters are sometimes thrown out in the belief they are dead, when they're only hibernating! Resist the temptation to prod and poke them to see if they're alive, just warm them up and let them get up of their own accord.


Hamsters are omnivores, and wild hamsters often eat insects and larvae. Pet hamsters should be fed once in the evening, while they're awake. They enjoy nuts, grain, and pellet seed preparations, but also need fresh green and root vegetables, like dandelions and carrots. Fresh water must be available at all times, prefereably from a sipper bottle, so it stays clean. They can have a little milk as an occasional treat. They shouldn't be given grapes, chocolate or tomatoes, or anything that might damage their pouches. Like rabbits and guinea pigs, hamsters recycle fresh droppings, in other words, they eat them, to get more nutrition out of the food they eat.


You can avoid a lot of health problems if you make sure your hamster has proper housing, food, a chew block, and enough exercise, and that your hamster is supervised outside the cage. Hamsters may get fleas and lice which can be treated with preparations available from the vet. Be careful to keep them away from anything sharp that they might put in their pouches.  Infections in their pouches show as a swelling on one side. Check that their teeth don't get too long. A vet can show you how to clip a hamster's teeth if they grow too long, and it can happen even though you've provided a chewing block.


Hamsters are prey animals, so their first instinct is to run away from any strange creature that tries to handle them, and to bite to escape if they feel trapped. Resist the temptation to handle your hamster as soon as you get home from the pet shop. Just talk quietly to allow your pet to get used to your voice and your smell, and offer some food, to tempt your hamster to approach you. Only try to handle the hamster once he or she feels safe enough to approach you. Very young hamsters move fast, and may nip you when you first handle them. Talk to them and handle them gently for very short periods at first, and they'll learn to trust you.

The correct way to hold a hamster is to cup it gently in both hands. In the beginning, practise handling them close to you and the floor as they're more likely to jump off you when they're young or don't know you well, because they can easily be injured if they fall. When the hamster is used to you, you can let it tunnel down your sleeves. It's safer to do this when you are sitting on the floor, or on a sofa so there's less risk of the hamster falling on hard ground and hurting himself.


Hamsters can breed from as young as 45-60 days, so you need to separate the sexes after weaning, at 21-28 days, to avoid unwanted litters. A mother hamster may also attack her offspring and even kill them, if they're kept too long with her.

The gestation period is only 16 days, and they can have up to 15 babies at at time (the norm is five to seven), so you could quickly get overrun with hamsters! They aren't easy to breed, however, because adults will fight if they don't get on, and may even kill each other. Usually it's the female who attacks the male. They're less likely to fight if you put the couple in a very big cage so they can get away from each other if they need to. The breeding cage should be neutral territory, so the female doesn't defend her home from the male. He should be removed after mating, because there's a risk that she may attack him, and hamsters can inflict nasty injuries on one another.

Hamsters shouldn't be allowed to breed until they're adults, at three months. The young are born hairless and are blind for the first two weeks. Cannibalism is sometimes a problem, but is less likely if the mother isn't too young, has had time to recover from previous litters, is well nourished, has access to enough food and water, and has peace and quiet to have her babies. 

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