This Entry, the first in a series on 'Keeping a Pet Hamster' will explain how to choose and name your hamster as well as how to house them and ensure that their home is kept clean at all times.
If you have never kept hamsters before you might not fully appreciate what rewarding animals they are to keep as pets. They can happily sit in their tanks all day (with food and water!) while you are at school or work and, when you get home, they are lively, intelligent and affectionate companions who will be thrilled to see you. Even if you have kept hamsters for many years you can still learn more about them, as there is a limitless world of hamster personality and behaviour to explore. However, it must be said that hamsters are unsuitable for very young children1. They are not always gentle enough (the children, not the hamsters), hamsters can nip and they don't live very long2.They may be lively after you have gone to bed, as they are nocturnal by nature, and a young child may be unable to break this cycle.
Choosing Your Hamster
The best thing to do when choosing a new hamster is take your time, say five or ten minutes. Give them the back of your hand to sniff. If they lick and scrape with their teeth, they are grooming you. This is not to be mistaken for teeth being bared and a low growling click which, for the uninitiated, means get your hand out quick or you might need stitches! Let the hamster do the choosing. How can you tell which hamster is the right one for you? There will be one in particular that stands out, does anything to get your attention long after the others have gone back to play fighting, grooming, feeding or sleeping. They will be at the front of the cage/tank, clowning around, saying look at me, I'm the one!
Settling Your Hamster In
Go gently with your new hamster. Remember that he or she has had a traumatic experience. Left mum, shoved in a box with lots of other hamsters, bumped around in the dark and slapped into tanks/cages under unsuitable lighting3, and stared at, poked and generally disturbed. They will be missing mum and the other pups. Lonely, disorientated and very scared. Let them settle, in their own time. Depending on the hamster this can be anywhere between six and 12 hours4.
Have muted lighting in the room; hamsters really do not like very bright light. No extraneous sounds such as the TV, radio or other noise. Just you and the hamster in its cage or tank. Get talking. Like humans, hamsters have things they prefer — sounds, tastes, smells. Many hamsters get given names that they do not respond well to; they may even ignore you. You can use a baby-naming book, trying out a few sounds to see which they prefer. Then work your way through E, for example, until you get to something that the little one pricks its ears up to and comes to you or looks at you.
Where Your Hamster Should Live
The most important thing to remember about your hamster's home is: they live on their own. With a few exceptions (such as some dwarfs) hamsters live individually and would be likely to fight, perhaps to the death, if they were housed as a pair. There are many schools of thought on how to house one's hamster. Cages are all very well but you can have problems. Long-Haired varieties can get knotted to the bars. Hamsters can climb and slip awkwardly and break a limb. They can chew the bars and make their mouths bleed or sore. Answer: tanks. Plastic Tommy Tanks5 are great. These tanks come with lids that clip on, with one or two hatches on the top. As a precaution, put something heavy (not too heavy — you don't want to break the lid) on either end of the lid to prevent any possible escapes. You will always get one that tries to be a Houdini. Hamsters love to dig, so as much as eight inches of wood shavings in the tank will suit them. It keeps their coat clean and, when it's warm, they sleep in the sawdust where it's cooler. A tank also means no mess on the floor and — especially with little boys who aim high — your wallpaper does not go all whiffy and yellow!
While hamsters love environments with variety where they can play, you should be careful. Some hamster homes can come with a range of tubes, wheels and accessories which are great fun for the hamster but far too easy to escape from or be injured by. Hamsters are highly intelligent animals who will find a way out, but they will also explore anything new and interesting, without realising that it may be dangerous. The tank needs to be carefully located. Hamsters are fragile animals that need to be kept out of bright light and away from drafts, heaters and windows.
Your Hamster's Bed
Hamsters do not skimp on creature comfort. They love to be cosy, secure and warm. The best thing to do is to try arranging the home they live in (tank, cage or wherever you have housed them) the way they want it. The bed is the be-all and end-all for a hamster. Get it wrong and they make you pay! They love ceramic — cool in summer, warm in winter. A one-pint or pint-and-a-half mug in the summer, filled with wood shavings (tissues if it's a little chilly) and in winter, buried beneath huge mounds of wood shavings and half a box of tissues. Occasionally you will get a hamster who will go to the ends of the earth for a box. This can be any box as long as there is no plastic lining. If it smells of tea it's hamster heaven.
Cleanliness is next to godliness. A rule that should be strictly adhered to. Don't just clean a hamster's home out once a week or once a month. Do it every day. The toilet corner/bowl in particular must be cleaned every day6, twice a day if it's hot — first thing in the morning and last thing at night. They must have fresh water every day and this also may need changing twice in hot weather. Check the bed and remove any damp, soiled or dirty bedding as well as hoarded food. Eventually they should get out of the habit of hoarding food. Always make sure any wood shavings you take out are replaced. This whole process should take about five to ten minutes, depending on the mess they've made.
There is one other housekeeping chore that must be undertaken regularly. Once a month, all the bedding in your pet's home should be ditched and replaced with fresh. The rest of the contents should be cleaned in boiled salty water (soak for five minutes) and rinsed thoroughly. The cage or tank must also be cleaned. The plastic base of the cage must be cleaned with the salty water method. For tanks and hutches you can get an antibacterial cleaner. For the wire of the cage use a large-headed, soft-bristled brush and warm, soapy water. When all is washed, dry everything thoroughly. In summer this may need to be done once a week, as it is warmer and bugs are more numerous.
There is plenty more for you to know about hamsters if you are to properly take care of them. The second part, A24833360, will tell you all about the food and health needs of your hamster, as well as how to keep them happy and stimulated. Finally, A24833324 will talk more about the traits and behaviour of hamsters and how you can enjoy good relationships with them throughout their lives. It also lists some varieties of hamster you might consider keeping.