How To Care For A Pet Hamster
An easy guide to taking care of a hamster, including what to feed it and how to house it. Follow this advice for a happy pet!
BUYING A PET HAMSTER:
Pet stores are usually decent sources for hamsters. There are many varieties: regular and dwarf, short-hair and long-hair (i.e. "teddy bear hamsters"), and they'll come in several colors. As with most pets, try to choose animals that have bright, clear eyes and seem active. Hamsters are nocturnal, however, so some of them may be asleep when you visit the store. Obviously you should avoid animals that have runny discharges from either end, bald patches on their fur, or seem to be moving unsteadily or with a limp.
Your hamster is going to need a home to live in, food to eat, and bedding to sleep on (or rather, in). All of these should be at the same store. Metal cages are preferable over aquariums, since they allow for more ventilation. You can choose from a number of different beddings. Wood shavings are generally fine for hamsters. If you have a shredder, you can put paper shreds in as well. (Avoid newspaper entirely, as the ink can rub off, and you'll end up with a very black, and possibly very sick, animal).
Once you have the basics, you can get extras for your new pet. Wheels are a good choice, so that your hamster can exercise. Be forewarned that a hamster can chew through a thin plastic wheel. However, it can also get its feet caught in the rungs of the metal kind, so if you can, try to get wheels that are solid (no spokes) and are fairly thick and sturdy. You should also get chew sticks for your hamster to gnaw on; it is an instinctive behavior for them, since their teeth grow throughout their life. Try wedging a stick through the bars of the cage, in a corner, rather than just putting them on the floor. In addition, hamsters will appreciate something they can hide in, whether it's a little store-bought plastic house or the cardboard tube from a roll of toilet paper.
WHAT TO FEED YOUR HAMSTER:
Pre-mixed hamster food will also be available at the store. These will consist mostly of seeds and grains, with the addition of rabbit pellets, chunks of bone meal, dried fruit, peanuts, or any number of other tasty ingredients. Don't feed your hamster plain rabbit pellets; they aren't as nutritionally complete, and you deny your pet an interesting variety to choose from.
You can supplement your hamster's diet once you get home with occasional pieces of fresh fruit (remove after a day to prevent spoiling) green leaves (don't overdo this or your hamster will get runny stool) or raw vegetables. Experiment a little to see what your hamster likes. Wash fresh food as you would for yourself before giving it to your pet. Provide fresh water in a bottle at all times.
Hamsters feel happier foraging for their food, and since any food dish will soon get full of bedding, you're better off just putting its food directly on the hamster's bedding. Your hamster will sniff out everything it likes, stuff its cheek pouches, and hide the food somewhere, usually under its bed. A hamster with full pouches is an incredible sight. Its head will look doubled in size, making its body look even smaller. Don't worry; your hamster will not let itself explode!
CARING FOR YOUR HAMSTER:
Again, hamsters are nocturnal, so you'll probably see more of your pet after dinner than at lunchtime. Keep the cage away from bright lights, drafts, and loud noises. (This basically means: put the cage in a dim corner away from the vent and stereo.) Your hamster will burrow into the bedding as much as possible when it's asleep, and don't be surprised one morning to find that your hamster has patiently moved every piece of bedding to one particular corner for its bed.
Be gentle when picking up your animal. You can either cup your hands around its body, or circle its body with your fingers and then when it's lifted, place your other hand under it. Hamsters are curious, so once it gets used to you, it will probably want to run up your arm or over your hands while you are holding it. These animals don't see very well in that they have no depth perception, so they can't gauge a drop; it's up to you to make sure it doesn't leap/fall off.
A hamster will appreciate the opportunity to run around and explore. However, they can squeeze through unimaginably small cracks, so if you do decide to let them have the run of a room, make sure all doors and drawers are firmly closed. Hamsters won't readily train to come when you call them, but if you do lose your hamster, try leaving its cage open, with some food leading up to it. Or, make the room dim (but light enough that you can still see), sit down, and listen for it moving around. Your hamster should appear soon, assuming you did a good job of keeping the room sealed. If there is no room that you can close off firmly enough, you can always get a plastic ball at the pet store that your hamster can run around in. Look for one that is well-ventilated; color won't matter since hamsters are color-blind. You may want to put a piece of tape on the door to the ball, since I had a hamster get free when it chewed around the door and opened it.
Your hamster cage needs to be kept clean, for both your sakes. Hamsters are pretty odorless, as long as you change the bedding regularly (every week or two). You'll have to change it more often if you have been leaving a lot of fresh food in its cage. Wash the floor with mild soap, and let it dry completely before you add new bedding. Remember to add food, since you've disturbed your hamster's bed and cache. It will probably be busy for a while rearranging things when you put it back in.