Hamster, hold the ‘P’
My first pet hamster lived 2 1/2 years — to old age. Behold, a photo of the carefully-crafted sculpture I created in 4th grade art class, memorializing this funny, little guy. His name was Dummy. (I was 10.) I loved him dearly. Surprisingly, I found there’s a lot to say about hamsters — more than the space of one Sunday column will allow. So, what started out as one column ended as a series of three. Get ready to learn some stuff about hamsters!
Hamsters are stout-bodied, small rodents with adorable, prominent brown eyes, dainty, stand-up ears, soft fur and (aside from some exotic breeds) very short tails. While there are wild hamsters in Russia, China and Syria, the domesticated versions have been in the pet trade and used as laboratory specimens since the 1930s. They don’t eat much, can be kept in small enclosures, are entertaining to watch, and with a lifespan of an average of 2-3 years, the commitment to their care is relatively short.
When acquired at a young age, and handled with care, they can become tame enough to be handled and petted by people. Untamed, hamsters can be … “difficult”… much like a captive wild animal — unhappy, bent on escape, and prepared to bite the hand that feeds it.
Tame hamsters can make nice first pets for responsible, even-tempered children, though a responsible adult must be ultimately in charge of the whole enterprise. In addition to clean, fresh water and food, hamsters need gentleness and patience to become tame, and require regular, reliable maintenance of their enclosures. I do not advise pet hamsters for children under the age of 10 years, and even with teens, an adult should be integrally involved in the animal’s care, to be sure it is not forgotten after its novelty wears off.
Besides their reputation for extreme cuteness, hamsters also famously possess handy cheek pouches: elongated, stretchy, blind-ended sacs that communicate with the inside of the mouth along the cheeks, extending backward over each shoulder. So, they’ve got pockets. Mouth pockets. Neat, right? Hamsters stuff these pouches full of food items and carry them to another location, where they can deposit the food in a stash for later consumption. When these pouches are full, a hamster looks like a football linebacker suited up and ready for action.
There are quite a few recognized breeds/species of hamsters, but in general, the most popular in the pet trade are Syrian, Dwarf, and Chinese. It is wise to learn about the breed you intend to keep BEFORE you acquire it, as there are distinct differences, such as size, speed, and propensity to escape.
When spelling “hamster,” hold the “p.” When handling them, it’s good to know that hamsters ordinarily don’t hold their pee … or poo. Within their enclosures, hamsters ordinarily choose to urinate in corners, apart from where they sleep or eat. They are regular poo-making machines, however, and defecate anywhere and everywhere. While the tiny fecal pellets do not smell too terrible, hamster urine has a very pungent odor, necessitating frequent housecleaning. Because hamsters are generally best kept on loose recycled paper bedding, this can be a laborious and messy job. It used to be common to house rodents using wood shavings as bedding, cedar being a favorite for many because of its pleasant, odor-masking scent. However, the oils and resins in wood shavings can be irritating to the skin and airways of rodents, and so wood shavings are no longer recommended.
Hamster enclosures should take into account space needed for exercise, burrowing and nesting, and their tendency to chew everything. Large, glass aquariums with tight-fitting metal screen tops work well, though may be laborious to clean. If a cage with bars is chosen, it is important to note that some hamsters gnaw on the bars, damaging teeth and potentially ingesting paint from the surface. Also, some hamsters are small enough to squeeze through the bars. Additionally, the doors/gates of many of these enclosures do not take into account the intelligence, dexterity, and determination of most hamsters. (Cue the “Mission Impossible” theme song.)
Hamsters prefer a solitary lifestyle. Do not be tempted to acquire more than one — they will fight, and it won’t be pretty. While Russian hamsters form close, monogamous bonds, and can become depressed or ill when pairs are separated, this species is the exception. Pretty much all other hamster varieties are better living apart — even “married” couples. Further, it is usual that mothers be separated from their babies as soon as the pups are weaned, at approximately 3 weeks of age. The consequences being mom may EAT the babies. You read that correctly.
Tune in next time to find out what hamsters SHOULD eat, and more!
Daverio is a veterinarian at Williamsport West Veterinary Hospital. Her column is published every other Sunday in the Lifestyle section. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.