Creature Comforts

Hamsters, part 2

Quick recap from last time: hamsters are small, adorable rodents with continually-growing teeth and cheek pouches, come in several distinct varieties, should be housed singly on recycled paper bedding, and provided with patient, attentive care. Hamsters have been known to eat their young, which is both disturbing and gross, but, sadly, not illegal in the rodent world. So, what should hamsters eat?

Hamsters are omnivorous; they are equipped to eat a variety of foods, including meat (though not much,) vegetation, seeds, nuts, berries, grass and hay. They will consume occasional insects in the wild.

Pet hamsters derived one distinct benefit from generations of use as laboratory test subjects: commercially available food. Large-sized kibble that is nutritious and complete, palatable and inexpensive, and even takes into account the hamster’s need to chew and file its teeth regularly makes feeding pet hamsters easy. Most pet hamsters do very well with a staple diet of commercial hamster kibble supplemented with hay, and occasional seeds, nuts, and small amounts of fruit and vegetables. The most common nutritional problem of hamsters is not malnutrition these days, but obesity — too much of a good thing. Strict measurement of the daily foods and treats offered can help prevent this problem. While this seems like a no-brainer, it can be hard to implement, as hamsters LOVE to eat and are soo precious when they nibble and stuff their cheeks full of food — people can’t resist giving them a bit more than they should receive.

Hamsters sleep all day, and can be kind of grumpy if disturbed one too many times when they’re trying to catch some ZZs, but they are chipper and energetic from dusk til dawn, particularly in captivity, and especially in a 10-year-old kid’s bedroom. This last statement comes from personal experience.

In the wild, hamsters spend the dusk and dawn hours constructing elaborate, multi-chambered underground burrows, searching for and collecting food to bring back and stash for later eating at home.

Pet hamsters are livin’ the hamster dream: safe from predators, an endless supply of food and water, no time or energy needed for finding and gathering foods. How to spend all that free time? Recreational running, of course. Using a treadmill — or wheel, and skittering around and digging holes that go nowhere in whatever bedding can be found is the norm. All night long. Every night. Picking the right exercise wheel for the size of hamster can be important, so shop around. It should have a closed design to avoid getting limbs caught and injured, and should be large enough for the hamster to run with its back fairly straight, not arched backwards.

Giving one’s hamster some supervised exercise time in an exercise ball (safely away from stairs and potential predators, please!) can help to meet its exercise needs, and lessen the nighttime shenanigans, but no guarantees. Free running through the house, even if there are no other animals in residence, can be dangerous for more reasons than I care to list — and did I mention the continuous pooping and relatively frequent, generally indiscriminate urinating? While urban parkour is a thing in the human fitness world, rodents invented it, and they’re really good at it as well as evading capture when people decide it’s time to pack it in for the day. While some hamsters can be trained to come for a treat, don’t count on this. Also, rodents can squeeze into very, VERY small spaces. And if your hamster escapes and also doesn’t like you, you’ll have the dickens of a time finding him again. So, bottom line: it’s best to keep all pet hamsters confined to quarters or an exercise ball most of the time, and under strict parental guard when being handled.

Quite a few readers of my last column were surprised over the short 2-3 year average lifespan of hamsters. While this isn’t a long time compared to the average lifespan of dogs (10-13 years) and cats (12-15 years) people tend to become attached to their hamsters, and want to help them when they’re not feeling well.

The internet is chock full of advice for just about every problem one can dream up. That said, not all advice one finds is not necessarily GOOD advice. Unfortunately, discerning the good advice from awful advice is not always obvious. Further, trying to sift through it all to decide on a plan of action for a sick pet can be not only confusing, but serve only to delay proper treatment. And when it comes to hamsters and illness, time is often crucial. It’s time to call the veterinarian.

Tune in next time for the third and final installment of … more stuff about hamsters! WHOO!

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