Some time ago now I was in a pet shop with my daughter. She is 5. I am impulsive. We were looking at the pets and while she was fawning over the rabbits I noticed the dwarf hamsters.
There are actually 5 different types of hamster. Syrian Hamsters are the large ones that people usually think of when they think of hamsters. There are also several dwarf hamster breeds: Dwarf Winter White Russian Hamster, Roborovksi Hamster and the Chinese Hamster.
The ones we came home with were Dwarf Campbell’s Russian Hamsters. Yes, I did say the “ones” we came home with. The Syrian Hamsters do not socialise well and can fight. But Dwarf Campbell’s Russian Hamsters can be kept in groups.
My daughter was highly excited at the prospect of having hamsters as pets. We chose a three leveled cage with bars smaller than usual because they can get through surprisingly small gaps. Then we chose the hamsters.
Dwarf hamsters have a short life span only living between a year and a half and two years. It is not likely that new hamsters introduced to an established group will be accepted. For this reason we came back with four hamsters! At least that’s the reason I’m giving.
Hamsters need food and water and clean bedding. The water must be changed every day and the wood chip must be scent free (no cedar or pine wood please) because they it would be a bit like asking you or I to live inside an air freshener. I’m not sure if that would be fatal to us but it can be to them.
I buy commercially available bedding material (that looks like cotton wool) in addition to wood chip that lines the bottom level of their cage. I place this bedding throughout the cage and love to watch them taking it and creating beds. They do this in different places every time, with some favorites developing.
I did mention that I bought them for my daughter didn’t I?
Hamsters need regular handling. This is particularly true of the dwarf breeds. The dwarf hamster breeds will revert to wildness if not handled regularly, although living in a group does help a bit. The downside of a return to wildness is that they will nip.
A dwarf hamster bite comes in two flavours. The first is more of a taste, to see what you are (they have very bad eyesight and rely on whiskers and taste close up). The second is a proper bite. I’m an adult and it is a bit sore, but it would seem that to a five year old it feels a bit like an amputation with no anaesthetic.
Be gentle with the hamsters!
My daughter is used to a dog as a pet. Hamsters are much smaller and dwarf hamsters are tiny. They are very delicate. A small fall could result in a broken limb. They cannot be hugged. They squash easily too (we didn’t squash any). Dogs and cats will eat them and frankly one wonders how they ever survive in the wild at all.
When handling hamsters they will nip if they feel threatened. Overzealous “cuddling” of a hamster will result in a bite (and tears). They do not like their heads to be stroked much either. They are quite happy for their bodies to be gently rubbed though. Gently really means gently though. My daughter is capable of being very gentle but it took a bit of supervision to get her to really fully understand just how gentle she needed to be.
Hamsters are surprisingly intelligent (I use the term loosely). They can be trained to use a specific part of their cage as a toilet with several toilet products and hamster litter brands available. Hamsters are clean animals by nature, spending quite a bit of time preening themselves.
Toilet training a hamster is possible. Toilet training four hamsters in impossible in my experience. The amount of poo they produce is epic and they will throw it out of the cage themselves if it is not cleaned often enough. Hamster poo is relatively innoffensive, hamster wee is not so easy to live with.
Hamster urine (like any urine I suppose) smells. When you have four hamsters running around peeing the smell quickly builds. You may forget any ideas you had of only cleaning out the cage once a week.
Hamster group dynamics
Hamsters will develop a pecking order when kept in groups. They need to have enough space to get out of each others way when disagreements occur.
Our hamsters sleep together for the most part, but occasionally one will chose to sleep elsewhere. Judging from the timbre of some of their conversations I can imagine that feelings are sometimes hurt and hamsters just like people are capable of going off in a huff.
Hamster noise levels
Hamsters are generally silent. They only squeak when arguing. That is just the vocals though. They will throw food out of their cage, and worst of all they love those hamster wheels. It was not long before another trip to the pet shop was needed and although silent running hamster wheels are much more expensive than the regular ones, I would have happily paid double.
Silent hamster wheels are one of the worlds finest inventions in my opinion.
Hamsters are not expensive to keep. Even four hamsters do not eat that much food and costs are kept low. Bedding is inexpensive and once the cage is bought there is very little in the way of noticeable ongoing costs.
Hamster Dark Side (murder and cannibalism)
I am writing this post as a result of discovering the hamster dark side this morning. Last night as I went to bed I heard noises from the cage that sounded like murder was being committed. This is not all that unusual. They are highly vocal when they want to be.
This morning I discovered that murder had indeed been committed. The hamster named Cloudy is no more. Cloudy was a nervy little hamster at the bottom of the pecking order.
Do not read further if you have a weak stomach!
Hamsters can be vicious. I don’t know what the fight was about, but we just went from a generally happy cage of pets with no blood ever spilt at all, to an actual murder.
This is not the worst of it. Hamsters are gruesome. When I found the body of cloudy this morning I mean it. There was no head. Two of the others were happily eating him and his guts were pulled out. This may seriously affect my relationship with the other hamsters.
For now hamsters have gone from being cute, curious little animals to being nasty, murderous cannibals that I don’t really want to share my living space with. My daughter however is blissfully unaware – in fact I have not even told her that one has died yet.
Update – only a few hours later
It would appear that I may have jumped the gun on my murder accusation. I have been doing some internet searches. It would seem that it is highly unlikely that the other hamsters murdered Cloudy. It is more likely that he died without their help. However, hamsters “get rid of the body” because in the wild a body would attract predators. I’m feeling a little better about the other hamsters now, but only a little.