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Hamsters are the most popular of the small pets. They are very clever and adventurous little animals and deserve consideration, care and commitment from their owner.
It is believed that all the Syrian hamsters (the usual bigger hamsters that we see most commonly) all originate from one female and her litter captured in the Syrian desert in the 1930s.
Hamsters belong to the rodent family and their name 'hamster' is derived from the German word 'hamstern' which means ' to hoard'. Wild hamsters live in hot areas of Central Asia. To avoid the heat of the day, hamsters live in burrows and are nocturnal.
In the cool of the evening and during the night hamsters will search for food and can travel up to 8 miles in one night.
This might explain why your pet hamster can be up for hours running in its wheel as soon as the lights go out. They run such distances to collect food in their cheek pouches and return to their burrows and empty the cheek pouches into their food store. They are able to carry up to half their body weight in their pouches.
Their latin name Mesocricetus auratus means 'golden hair.'
Colours/ patterns/ markings
There are over 20 different breeds of hamsters, each with their own individual markings and colours.
The Dwarf Hamsters (Russian, Chinese and Roborovski) are small, very sociable, and will enjoy being kept in pairs or in groups (remember to keep them in single sex pairs or groups if you don't want to breed from them.)
Russian hamsters are mainly white, grey and brown in colour, and the Roborovski hamster is always brown. The Chinese hamster has a greyish brown coat with a dark stripe down its back.
Feeding your hamster
In their natural habitat, hamsters eat a range of grasses, wind-blown seeds and grain. Hamsters are often mistaken as herbivores, but they are omnivores and need high amounts of protein in their diet to keep them healthy.
Left alone in the wild, they will find grubs and insects to supplement their diet. The bulk of their diet is cereals and other hard foods which are chewed and digested slowly.
This slow eating would make them easy targets in the wild, so they would normally bring their food back to their burrow to eat it in the safety of their own home. This also allows them to hoard spare food, in case it becomes difficult to find food at a later date.
A balanced, coarse mix of hamster food is recommended). As long as there is a good mix of ingredients such as alfalfa, maize, wheat, naked oats, beans, peas and sunflower seeds to provide just the right amount of protein in your hamster's diet.
This variety of ingredients encourages foraging - a natural behaviour in hamsters. Hamsters need feeding everyday.
As they are nocturnal, an evening meal is better for them. They will normally wake at feeding time and will be happy to play with you once they have been fed. A good quality heavy, earthenware food bowl is essential to keep the food dry and clean.
Plastic should be avoided as hamsters will chew it. Their bowls must be cleaned after every use.
Treats that you buy or small pieces of apple, carrot or maize (that hamsters love) can be hidden around the cage to encourage your hamster to forage.
You should try to prevent your hamster from becoming a selective feeder and leaving some of his food by reducing the amount you feed him until he eats all of it. Then slowly increase the amount again to the recommended daily allowance. Ensure there is fresh water available at all times.
Housing your hamster
Hamsters can be housed in a wire cage with a plastic base, a plastic hamster home or an adapted aquarium (vivarium) with a well-ventilated cover. Wooden cages should not be used as hamsters can chew their way out.
The most important thing to remember is that a hamster home can never be too big - they love to explore and exercise.
Multi - level cages are a good idea as they add interest to the hamster's environment - but be careful with plastic tubes as the larger Syrian hamsters may get stuck. Provide soft bedding under the hole or a little ladder.
The hamster home must always have a place for your hamster to rest and hide, and another area for play, exercise and feeding.
Hamsters must always be kept indoors and careful thought should be given to where your hamster's home is situated. The temperature in the room should always be constant, away from direct sunlight and draughts and away from constant noise (such as a freezer). Because they have sensitive hearing, they should never be placed near a television, CD player Hi-fi etc.
Choose a cleaner that eliminates odours, germs and bacteria. There are cleaners from petshops that are specific for hamster cages. Clean the cage regularly or as soon as there is any odour.
Use bedding that is absorbent but be careful of synthetic bedding as this could harm your hamster if he ate it and might block his cheek pouches, food pipe or gut. Use a natural bedding such as good quality barley straw which is treated with a cleaning agent and is dust - free.
It is extremely important that your hamster has the opportunity to exercise every day.
If you provide a wheel for your hamster to play in, it MUST be big enough so that the hamster does not have to bend his back when he is inside, and must have a solid floor rather than rungs as these can cause injuries to the feet and tail. Although hamsters sleep during the day, they are really energetic and will exercise for 3 - 4 hours a night.
A hamster's natural instinct is to forage and explore. Mealtime is always over too quickly and this could mean that your hamster will get bored. It only takes a few items to create an exciting environment for him to be in.
Place objects like tubes, tunnels and small cardboard boxes in the cage for him to play with. Place twigs of willow, beech or hazel in the cage for him to climb and gnaw on. By hiding food and the occasional treat in different areas of the hamster's cage, he will be forced to hunt for his food - this will keep him happy for many hours and prevent boredom.
The rolling exercise balls are fun and excellent ways to exercise your hamster but make sure that the latch is closed securely.
Handling your hamster
Always approach him slowly and gently. Place a closed fist in front of your pet and allow him to approach and sniff you. Hamsters rely on smells rather than sound and therefore smell is important so they can detect what is approaching.
If your hamster is confident and appears interested, slowly unclench your fist and offer your palm. He may well crawl onto your hand or you can gently scoop him up. Cup him in the palms of your two hands to ensure that he is safe and won't be dropped. Lift him up slowly. To ensure he is safe at all times, you should hold him over your lap or close to your chest.
Never scruff a hamster to pick him up as this can put immense pressure on the head region possibly resulting in the eyeball popping out.
Dwarf hamsters in the wild live in large colonies with a well-structured hierarchy and are happy in a pair or in a group. Syrian or Golden hamsters are solitary and must be kept alone.
If you are intending to have more than one hamster, you must have a cage which is large enough. It is best to acquire littermates in order to avoid fighting. Female pairs or groups will be fine.
Males will live happily together but may become agitated if in the vicinity of females. Females and males will be happy together but will result in litters. Hamsters come into season 24 hours after giving birth! You should never breed from related individuals.