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10 Things to Know Before Getting a Pet Hamster

A Syrian golden hamster peeking out of its cage.
Mary Swift/Shutterstock

Hamsters are one of the most popular pets in the United States. Here’s what you should know before you get a hamster for you or your family.

Hamsters are arguably the cutest members of the rodent family. These little creatures are known for their fluffy fur and ability to cram a ton of food into their cheeks.

Originating in Asia and Europe, the first hamster was captured for domestication in the 1930s. It quickly became popular in the pet trade, and many other hamster breeds have been domesticated since then. Hamsters still exist in the wild and prefer warm and dry conditions.

If you’ve been thinking about adding a hamster to your family, here are 10 common questions and answers about caring for one.

What Different Types of Hamsters Are There?

There are 20 different species of hamsters in the world, but only five are domesticated. The most popular domesticated species is the Syrian hamster, which is also called a golden or teddy bear hamster.

The other four domesticated species are Dwarf hamsters. These include the Campbell’s Russian hamster, Winter White hamster, Roborovskii’s hamster, and the Chinese hamster.

Syrian hamsters are the largest of these species and typically grow to about five to nine inches long. Dwarf hamsters can be anywhere from two to five inches long by adulthood.

Check out this book if you want to learn more about hamster breeds and which one is right for you.

The Hamster Handbook

This book is an excellent start-to-finish guide to selecting and caring for hamsters.

How Long Do Hamsters Live?

A light-colored hamster looks curiously at the camera from inside a wire cage.

It can be surprising to some people to learn that hamsters have a relatively short lifespan. All five species of domesticated hamsters typically only live for two to three years. Syrian hamsters may live up to four years, but this is uncommon.

You can ensure the longest life possible for your pet by keeping it healthy and happy. Make sure it has plenty of room to run around, a varied diet, and lots of toys to keep it physically stimulated.

You should also be careful when handling your hamster—aside from their delicate bodies, hamsters can catch some illnesses from humans. A mild cold from you can translate to a serious illness for a hamster.

In addition to a healthy diet, mental stimulation, and basic health practices, you can help your pet stay healthy by adding a multivitamin supplement to their water.

Kordon Oasis Vita Drops for Hamsters

A multi-vitamin for your hamster to ensure optimum health.

Do Hamsters Make Good Pets for Kids?

Although hamsters are popular pets for kids, you shoulder give serious consideration to the age and temperament of your child before selecting a hamster as a pet. Hamsters are small, delicate creatures. Young children usually don’t have the motor skills to gently handle a hamster, which puts the hamster at risk of being squeezed or dropped. Generally speaking around age 8 or so children have enough fine motor control to handle a hamster gently enough.

Further, because hamsters are nocturnal their schedules don’t align very well with those of younger kids. Young kids are in bed early and asleep when a hamster is awake and full of energy. Waking up hamsters to handle them in the middle of the day can lead to a bit of grumpiness (and even a nip or two) from the hamster.

Overall, hamsters aren’t great pets for young children unless an adult will always be supervising them when they handle the animal. If you have a young child who really wants one of these pets but isn’t old enough to be gentle with it, consider getting them a hamster toy to play with until they’re ready for the responsibility of a real one. That might sound like a sort of flippant suggestion, but if you read the reviews for the toy you’ll find many of them describing how they bought the fluffy toy specifically for children who loved hamsters but were too young to safely handle a real one.

Chippy the Hamster

Kiddo not old enough to care for a real hamster? This stuffed hamster is soft, adorable, and they can pet and squeeze it as much as they want!

How Do I House My Hamster?

A hamster cage sits on a table and a close-up shot of a hamster wheel in the cage

Hamsters are curious and active creatures. They need a secure habitat with plenty of space for them to explore.

Fish aquariums are popular habitats for hamsters, but there are many wire cages available as well. Make sure you get one with limited space between the wires so that you escape artist doesn’t find a way to squeeze out.

This double-decker hamster cage has a deep plastic bottom for burrowing and plenty of room for toys on the top floor. Regardless of what habitat you use, your hamster should have room for toys, a food dish, a water dish, an exercise wheel, a hideout, and plenty of bedding for burrowing.

Favola Hamster Cage

This party upstairs, naptime downstairs cage offers plenty of room for your hamster.

What Kind of Bedding Should I Use?

A hamster sits in a pile of white bedding

Burrowing is a natural part of hamster behavior, so they need thick, soft bedding spread around their habitat. Hamsters also like to chew on their bedding and carry it around in their cheeks, which means it is important to have bedding that is safe for them to ingest.

Paper-based bedding is the most popular option because it is soft, absorbent, and will pass through your hamster easily if they accidentally swallow some. Timothy hay, which is often included in hamster food, is a great addition to paper bedding.

Avoid pine and cedar bedding for hamsters (and other small mammals, too). The popularity of cedar shavings for rodents is thanks to how well the strong scent of the cedar masks smells. Unfortunately, the very thing that makes cedar and pine aromatic is very irritating to the lungs of your pet hamster and potentially toxic. This paper-based bedding is one of the most popular options among hamster owners and a safe alternative to wood shavings.

Kaytee Clean & Cozy White Small Animal Pet Bedding

This bedding is soft, fluffy, and perfect for a hamster or other small rodent.

Do Hamsters Need Toys?

Yes! Hamsters are intelligent, energetic creatures that love to explore their surroundings. They were once wild animals, after all.

People are often surprised to learn that hamsters can run for miles every day. That’s why the most crucial toy to include in your hamster’s cage is an exercise wheel.

Hamsters also like to spend their time exploring, burrowing, and chewing on things around them. Rope toys, ladders, and hideouts are all great ways to keep your pet stimulated. This hamster hideout is made of wood and doubles as a gnaw toy that will help keep your pet’s teeth trimmed and healthy.

BWOGUE Pet Small Animal Hideout

Wooden construction means your hamster can safely indulge their inner beaver.

What Do Hamsters Eat?

A mix of dry food for hamsters

Hamsters are omnivores and can eat a wide variety of foods. In general, their diet needs to consist of dry food, fresh fruits and vegetables, and a little bit of protein.

In addition to dry food, give your pet fresh fruits and veggies to munch on throughout the day. Some safe options include apple slices, carrots, peas, and Timothy hay. Be sure to remove any fresh food your hamster hasn’t eaten within 24 hours of giving it to them so it doesn’t rot in their cage.

This dry food mix is highly rated for its variety of ingredients and nutrient profile.

Kaytee Fiesta Hamster And Gerbil Food

It looks like dog kibble, bird seed, and Fruit Loops mixed into one, but your hamster will love it.

Do Hamsters Need Friends?

Two adorable Russian dwarf hamsters enjoying some peanuts.

If you’ve ever visited a pet store, you’ve probably noticed that some hamsters are housed alone while others have plenty of friends in the same cage. This is because some hamster breeds prefer to live alone, while others may enjoy having company.

For the most part, hamsters are solitary creatures who can be very territorial. Syrian hamsters should never be housed with another animal. A fight that results in serious injury or even death will inevitably break out.

Dwarf hamsters are a little more sociable than Syrian hamsters and may be okay with a roommate. It’s best to introduce hamsters when they are both very young and to keep a close on eye them when you do it.

Should you opt to house hamsters together, you’ll want to house them in a larger cage and double up on everything in the cage to decrease their territorial urges and fighting over things. That means having multiple burrow spaces, two food dishes, two water bottles, two exercise wheels, and so on. They’re less likely to get in a fight over the exercise wheel and other accessories if they can just go use the one on the other side of the cage.

If you want to play it safe, stick to one hamster per cage. They won’t get lonely or bored as long as they have plenty of toys and accessories to keep them busy. This 12-piece kit is a great place to start.

Suwikeke 12 PCS Hamster Chew Toys

Hamsters go through toys and accessories like crazy, so a multi-pack of safe and sturdy toys is a must.

How Often Should I Clean My Hamster’s Cage?

There are multiple steps to cleaning a hamster cage. Every day you should scoop out any soiled bedding and replace it with clean material. All bedding in the cage should be replaced once a week. You should also clean out food bowls and water bottles every day or two.

At least once a month you should perform a deep clean of your hamster’s cage. This involves soaking the entire cage in warm soapy water and scrubbing any gunk from the walls or wires. This cleaning spray controls odor in their habitat with a pet-safe formula.

Kaytee Clean & Cozy Extreme Odor Control

Small pets are very sensitive to chemicals, so it's smart to use a cleaner designed just for them.

Are Hamsters Nocturnal?

Yes, hamsters are nocturnal. Pet owners are sometimes caught off guard by the fact that hamsters want to sleep all day. This is yet another reason they don’t make the best pets for kids—they’ll probably be asleep whenever your child wants to handle them.

To respect a hamster’s natural sleeping habits, make sure its habitat is placed somewhere that will not get too noisy during the daytime. You might also want to drape a breathable blanket or sheet over the cage or tank during the day.

Because hamsters sleep all day, they are extremely active at night. That means lots of scurrying, running, and eating when you’re trying to sleep. If you want to keep a hamster habitat in or near your bedroom, make sure you get them an exercise wheel that won’t squeak and creak all night long. This one stays super quiet, even when your pet is running a marathon.

Niteangel Super-Silent Hamster Exercise Wheel

Your hamster can run all night with nary a squeak or rattle if they are on this ultra-quiet wheel.

Hamsters are undeniably cute but they aren’t for everyone. If you don’t think a hamster will be the right fit, we have some tips on how to find the best pet for your family.

Anne Taylor Anne Taylor
Anne Taylor is a writer with a BA in Journalism and a passion for storytelling. Her work has been published on a variety of websites including Mental Floss and Well + Good, and she recently published her first novel, What it Takes to Lose. When she's not writing, Anne loves to travel (19 countries and counting), spend time outside, and play with her dog, Pepper. Read Full Bio »
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