Part One of this series on Keeping a Pet Hamster explained how to choose, name and home your hamster. Welcome to Part Two, which explains what to feed your hamster and how to make sure your pet is being properly exercised and entertained.
Remember that wild hamsters would not live on a diet of unsupplemented dry seed; they would have a great variety of foods including plants and bugs. Yes, bugs! Hamsters cannot digest red meat and food with a high-fat content, but they can be given most fruit and vegetables, some dairy products, chicken and fish. They should not be given citrus fruits or any other acidic food. You should not give them more than about a teaspoonful of food in any one 'meal'. They can eat more than one item at a time - for example, they could have a bit of cabbage, a bit of potato and a piece of chicken. (Just make sure the overall amount is not more then a teaspoon full.)
The Menu - Hamster Approved
Fruit and Veg:
- Potatoes/Parsnip/Swede: Boiled/chipped (oven cooked - no fat)/mashed/roasted (in vegetable oil)/baked.
- Cabbage: Lightly boiled, favourite is savoy (white) cabbage, red cabbage (not all hamsters can tolerate red cabbage).
- Courgettes: Lightly dry-fried.
- Peas/Sweetcorn: Cooked.
- Squashes: Cooked; for example pumpkin, butternut squash.
- Salads: Lettuce, cucumber, beetroot (some hamsters - personal taste), cress, celery (good for clearing out furballs!).
- Fruit: Anything that's not acidic.
- Lentils: Yellow and green lentils - red upsets hamster tummies.
- Chickpeas: Must be thoroughly cooked.
- Beans: Haricot (baked bean), kidney runner, broad, green and French. Never soya, mung or Lima beans.
Pasta, Meat and Fish:
- Poultry: Must be cooked thoroughly. Chicken, turkey, duck (small amounts of duck as it is very rich).
- Fish: Never anchovies - they dislike them. Avoid fish with small bones unless it is whitebait or tinned salmon. These bones are soft and hamsters eat the bones like dried grains. They like white fish, pollock, haddock, hake and cod.
- Tinned Fish: Tuna, salmon, sardines, sardinellas and pilchards.
Keeping healthy comes from clean living conditions, a good rounded diet and dental hygiene. Keeping the tank clean and dry prevents wet tail (a virus which occasionally can be transmitted to humans), infected feet, skin and other things like this. Dental hygiene is crucial. If the bottom teeth are allowed to grow too long they can pierce the skull cavity. Nasty. Fatal. To keep the teeth in tip-top condition they need things to gnaw on. Food gnaws are no longer recommended by vets, the RSPCA or other animal-welfare groups. No matter how carefully these are made they can still splinter and cause serious damage to the mouth.
A better alternative is good diet. Make sure they eat hard-shelled nuts, such as monkey nuts or unsalted pistachios. Hard foods such as dog biscuits (made with egg or oatmeal, without meat derivatives), raw carrot, hard-baked bread crusts and, what every hamster loves - a small piece of baby rusk (or any other low-fat teething biscuits made for human babies).
You can also recycle the roll from the centre of a toilet roll or kitchen towel, they love to chew on these. Cardboard tubes for sending items like posters through the post are also useful. A large one cut into pieces will last a long time, so don't give them the whole thing all at once.
Hamsters need more than just good diet to stay healthy. Regular exercise for hamsters helps build bone structure (especially in inbreds1 and fancies2) and tones muscles. Hamsters like to be out of their tanks whenever possible, playing not only by themselves but also with you. A wheel is a common way to exercise your hamster, but owners are being increasingly advised by both vets and the RSPCA that they are a risky toy. Hamsters can not only get hypnotised by the flickering of their wheel, they can also get themselves trapped, causing injury and even death.
Much better are plastic balls for your hamster to run in. Available from a variety of places, plastic balls are safer than wheels and at the same time allow the hamster to explore their environment, then doze off when they feel the need. Hamsters seem to feel safer in coloured rather than plain balls. Make sure you get a solid moulded ball, not one that comes in two halves, as the little darlings learn either to open them by smashing into something or chew through the clips. As an extra precaution, get some masking tape and seal around the centre and across the lid. Do not use anything like Sellotape or equivalent as this damages the plastic.
If you have more than one hamster, they can be allowed to run and play together in their separate balls, and create games of tag and chase - which they sometimes involve you in! An adult hamster can happily be popped in their ball at, for example, 7.30pm and go to bed at about 10.30pm.
Attention and Entertainment
Your hamster is like a person in miniature. It is very important to remember that they need personal space and to be treated with consideration. Just like humans, hamsters have feelings and emotions. They can feel pain and distress. They can be sad or happy, angry, hurt, wistful, thoughtful or moody. Treat your hamster with dignity and respect for their individuality and your relationship will be the richer and deeper for it.
Did you know that hamsters can have nightmares, dreams and may even sleepwalk? No? Well they do, especially the pups who are disorientated and confused and more than a little scared stiff. At first you won't be able to offer a cuddle so talk to them - croon as you speak till the distress noises stop. In due course, as your hamster gets older, you will be able to pick it up and cuddle it if it wakes from a bad dream. They also dream and make soft whistles or chirrups in their sleep. Hamsters love to be with you, and the more time, love and attention you lavish on them, the deeper the bond between you two. Spending time talking to, cuddling or playing with the little one stops them from becoming distressed, bored or a biter (although it should be noted that some are little biters regardless of what you do).
You need to entertain and stimulate hamsters. They are lively and deceptively bright with a healthy dose of mischief and cunning. They can enjoy TV and develop preferences for programmes. Radio, especially classical music stations, can stimulate or soothe hamsters. They like the dialogue between pieces of music; you can sometimes catch them listening!
Hands-on contact is crucial. They will make you aware when they want to play, and each hamster has its own way of letting you know. The most common method is jumping up at the side of the tank using a star jump! With cages, if you are not careful, they suss out where the hatch is and... er... open it. Unusually some will find a pitch they know you can hear if you are in the same room and call you. Play with, cuddle them, stroke them and most importantly talk to them. Talk in a normal voice as if you were addressing another person. Talk to them about your day, about them, and ask how their day was.
That's all you need to know to keep a healthy hamster. But there's plenty more for you to learn, especially if you want your hamster to be more than just a cute little rodent running around in a ball. You can develop a strong bond with your pet, so why not check out Part Three of this series, Hamster Behaviours and Breeds, to learn a lot more about your furry friend?