By Dr. Laurie Hess, DVM, Diplomate ABVP (Avian Practice)
Hamsters are first pets for many families, and when cared for properly, they can be great pets.
Hamsters are typically nocturnal, so they sleep during the day, but are very active in the evening and require time out of their cages to run around and exercise. To meet their needs for exercise, many hamster owners purchase hamster balls—translucent plastic balls that typically come as two separate halves that screw together.
When the hamster runs inside the ball, the ball rolls across the floor. When these balls are used properly, they can be a fun way for pet hamsters to exercise; however, when used improperly, they can be dangerous and hazardous to the safety of these small pets.
How Can Hamster Balls Be Used Safely?
Before hamster owners place their furry friends into hamster balls for exercise, they must learn about the dangers of these seemingly harmless hamster toys. Hamster owners should take the following precautions before allowing their pets to entertain themselves inside hamster balls.
Ensure the Size and Color are Right
Hamsters come in all sizes, from the tiniest Russian dwarf to the largest teddy bear, and one size ball doesn’t fit everyone. Be sure to match the size of the ball to the full adult size of your pet. This way, your hamster won’t be cramped—even when he is full-grown—and will have plenty of space to stretch out and run.
Also, never put more than one hamster inside a ball at once, or they may collide inside and get injured or fight.
Ball color matters, too, as dark-colored balls trap more heat than lighter-colored ones, potentially exposing pets to overheating. Opt for a light-colored ball that won’t soak up as much heat as a dark one. With a ball that’s a lighter color, you can more easily see your hamster as he jogs.
Introduce Your Hamster to the Hamster Ball First
Many hamsters are reluctant to enter the hamster ball at first, so it’s best to let them explore the ball on their own before enclosing them inside.
Place half of the ball inside the hamster cage, with the open side facing up, and put a small treat in it to entice your pet to climb inside. Do this repeatedly over a few days to make your hamster more comfortable about climbing into the ball. Eventually you can place him inside of the fully assembled ball with a treat so that he learns to be comfortable in the enclosed space.
Never force your hamster to run in the ball by rolling it; let the pet roll the ball himself at his own pace. Be sure to remove your hamster from the ball immediately if he seems anxious or frightened.
Clean Before and After Every Use
Hamster balls can collect dust inside, and hamsters will often soil them with droppings and hamster food as they use them. Therefore, hamster balls should be wiped free of any material that has accumulated inside to prevent harmful bacteria or other infectious or toxic material from building up and affecting your hamster’s health.
Ensure That Your Hamster Is Ready for Exercise
Just like people, hamsters are not always in the mood to exercise. Before you put your hamster inside a ball for a run, be sure that he’s awake and ready to go.
Many hamsters can be skittish and can nip when picked up improperly or when picked up while they are sleeping; thus, they should never be handled by small children when they are unsupervised.
Never wake a sleeping hamster to put him in a ball, or he could injure himself when the ball starts to roll and he’s not ready. Also, don’t place him in the ball after feeding time, as running on a full stomach could interfere with his digestion and make him sick.
Most hamster balls separate into two halves that twist along their edges to form a complete sphere. Occasionally, a hamster ball comes as a complete sphere with a small circular opening on one side that twists open to form a door. Be sure that after you place your hamster inside, you twist the two halves together tightly or twist the door on securely before allowing the ball to roll, or your pet could fall out and get injured.
Ventilate, Ventilate, Ventilate!
Heat and ammonia (from droppings) build up quickly inside small hamster balls, so be sure to choose a ball that has several holes in it to circulate fresh air. Without adequate ventilation inside a hamster ball, your small pet could become overheated, dehydrated or exposed to noxious fumes.
Avoid the Sun
Hamsters should only be allowed to roll inside balls that are in shaded, cool areas—never in direct sunlight—or they may overheat or dehydrate.
Carpeted areas indoors are best, as the ball will vibrate less than on a hard surface. Also, if hamsters roll in balls outside, they must not be exposed to extreme heat or extreme cold.
Limit “Roll Time”
Never leave a hamster in a ball for indefinite periods of time, or they may become worn out or stressed from being confined too long.
Start with 10-15 minutes per session. If your hamster seems to be having fun, add on a few minutes at a time. If he stops running for a few minutes, he may be signaling that it’s time for him to get out.
Older, overweight hamsters may not be able to run as long as their younger, leaner counterparts. If your hamster starts breathing rapidly or appears weak inside the ball, remove him immediately, and have him checked out by a veterinarian if he doesn’t recover within a few minutes.
Supervise at All Times
Hamsters should never be left unsupervised inside balls; they must be monitored constantly to ensure that they are active and alert and want to continue to run. They should also not be left with children without supervision.
In addition, balls should be allowed to roll only in penned off areas where there are no other pets or small children who might pick up the ball and injure the hamster inside. Even well-meaning, friendly dogs and cats can inflict harm on a hamster inside a ball if they are curious about the ball or its contents.
Perhaps the most common injury suffered by hamsters running inside of balls occurs when the ball gets close to the edge of a staircase and both the ball and the hamster inside go tumbling down the stairs. Hamsters are frequently injured or even killed from balls rolling down stairs, so hamster balls must be kept away from staircases at all times.
Hamster Care and Hamster Balls
If hamster owners choose the balls correctly and monitor their pets inside as they run, hamster balls can be fun and entertaining for pet hamsters of all sizes and ages. The key is to learn about how to safely use this simple toy, and then let the hamster roll, roll, roll!
Image via Victoria Rak/Shutterstock.com