By Dr. Laurie Hess, DVM, Diplomate ABVP (Avian Practice)
Hamsters are very popular pets that must be handled often to become socialized. Proper hamster care also includes exercise, which means they should be given the opportunity to run around outside the cage each day, as long as they are supervised and kept away from other potentially predatory pets, such as cats and dogs. Hamsters are amazing escape artists; thus, they must be housed in secure, locked cages with bar spacing that is narrow enough to prevent breakouts.
Since they are inquisitive and spend a great deal of time in their cages, they need to be provided with enrichment in the form of mentally stimulating hamster toys. Hamsters that are not offered enriching toys will often chew on their own hair or skin, gnaw on cage bars and break teeth, or overeat from boredom. While dwarf hamsters may be able to live peacefully with other dwarfs in family groups, larger species, such as the golden or Syrian hamster, often do better when housed alone. Given their typically solo existence, it is critical that these rodents be given some hamster toys so that they don’t become bored or self-destructive.
How do you create a stimulating environment for a hamster?
Hamsters like to climb, bury, dig and hide, so providing them a multilevel cage with hide boxes, wheels and tubes is ideal, as long as the cage isn’t too difficult to clean. Barred cages, rather than solid-sided aquariums, are best, as aquariums don’t provide adequate ventilation for the ammonia that builds up from hamster droppings, which can be horribly irritating to their respiratory tracts. Most hamster cages have a detachable plastic base that comes off easily for thorough weekly cleaning. Wheels and hide boxes must also be removable so that they can be cleaned several times per month.
What types of hamster toys can help reduce boredom and provide enrichment for hamsters?
Hide boxes may be purchased commercially or can be made at home using cardboard boxes or sections of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipe. Cardboard boxes are inexpensive to replace when they get dirty and provide the additional benefit of offering a substrate on which hamsters can chew to wear down their continuously growing front teeth. PVC piping can be used not only for hide boxes, but also for tunnels through which hamsters love to run. Cardboard toilet paper and paper towel tubes also make excellent tunnels and chew toys.
Exercise wheels are essential not only for mental stimulation, but also for weight maintenance; without wheels, hamsters typically don’t get enough exercise and tend to become obese. Wheels should be made from easy-to-clean plastic and should be smooth-sided so that hamsters’ tiny legs don’t get caught in them. Since hamsters are more active at night, owners should look for nearly noise-free wheels, or they may be kept awake by their marathon-running pets after dark. Soft wood blocks of various sizes and shapes should be provided, as well, to deter hamsters from chewing on plastic wheels, as they try to grind down their teeth.
What kinds of food are enriching to hamsters?
In addition to hamster toys and wheels, food can also provide enrichment for hamsters. A hamster’s base diet should consist of a commercially available, nutritionally complete and balanced rodent pellet, rather than loose seed, which contains mostly fat and lacks vitamins and minerals. Seed, however, can be used as an enriching treat. Small amounts of seed can be hidden inside crumpled paper, which hamsters will then have to shred to get to the treats inside. Small bits of fruit, vegetables or cooked pasta also can be hidden as treats inside loose paper or toilet paper rolls through which hamsters must chew to get them. Pre-made wooden and paper toys are commercially available to offer small rodents.
Bedding also can be a source of enrichment for hamsters. Hamsters love to hide food, not only in the pouches in their cheeks, but also under bedding, to save for later. They also like to bury under bedding to go to sleep. Although some pet stores offer wood shavings as small rodent pet bedding, paper-based bedding is preferable. Paper-based bedding is non-toxic if ingested and doesn’t contain the aromatic oils that wood shavings have that can be potentially irritating to the respiratory tracts of hamsters. Studies also have shown that paper-based bedding, such as shredded newspaper or recycled paper products, contains lower levels of dust and bacteria than wood shavings. Recycled paper bedding comes in a variety of non-toxic colors and textures, from cottony to egg-crate-like, to suit the preferences of any owner or hamster. Stringy bedding and nesting material, such as yarn or thread, should never be used as bedding, as it can tangle around a hamster’s neck, limbs or toes and cause gastrointestinal obstruction if eaten.
A happy hamster is a busy hamster. Enrichment is key to the happiness of even these tiny pets. Giving your hamster lots to do, see and chew on will keep him active, entertained and never bored or lonely.