Syrian hamsters can make wonderful pets, and due to their small size are relatively easy to keep. Most hamster books will tell you all the basics that you need to know to keep your pet happy, but they don’t always explain the behaviour and habits of these small animals, which can sometimes be confusing for pet owners. It is important to learn to read your hamster’s body language, and understand why they react and behave as they do.
Frightened hamsters are often seen as aggressive or unfriendly. Frantic squirming and jumping from your hands is very common among young or nervous hamsters, and is known as ‘pinging’. A hamster will ping when it hears, sees or smells something that has frightened it. Hamsters have incredibly sensitive hearing and can hear sounds that people cannot, so be aware when you handle a hamster that they can pick up on things that you won’t, and can be spooked at any time. Be mindful not to hold the hamster at any great height in case of a fall, as a frightened hamster won’t look before it leaps! If a hamster does ping, gently pick it up and stroke it whilst talking in a soothing voice, hopefully the hamster will calm down and you can return it safely to its cage.
Frightened hamsters may also bite, but this is only as a last resort and it is a means of communicating. The hamster is trying to tell you something. This could be ‘I am frightened’ or ‘I am unwell’ to ‘go away, I don’t want to be picked up right now’. Hamsters can’t speak so it is important to understand that they communicate with their mouths, it is one of the only tools they have, and they are not trying to hurt you.
Talk to the hamster so that it learns the sound of your voice, and offer it treats, so that it learns your smell and associates you with positive things! Don’t forget to reward good behaviour with a small treat and lots of praise. As the hamster grows in confidence it will become less frightened.
Another common reason for apparent aggression in hamsters is due to the fact that they are often territorial, so try not to surprise your pet when it is in its cage, you might trigger a territorial response. Furthermore, do not pick a hamster up from above. Look at the shape of your hand as you do this, does it remind you of a bird’s clawed foot? It will certainly remind your hamster of this natural predator as all hamsters are instinctively afraid of birds. Instead, use both hands to gently cup the hamster from underneath, and scoop it up slowly. The chances are the hamster will be more relaxed and less likely to bite.
Syrian hamsters are very territorial animals and must be housed alone. Two adults placed together will invariably result in fighting and aggressive behaviour. A hamster may also feel nervous if you interfere too much with its territory, therefore it is important to always put some of the used litter and bedding back into the cage when you clean it out. This way the hamster will still have some familiar smells. In fact, you may often see your pet rubbing against its cage and toys. The hamster is not scratching as some owners believe; it is scent marking its territory. Hamsters have scent glands on their hips, which are often more prominent in males. Similarly, although it might be tempting to introduce new toys or rearrange the cage to stimulate the hamster, the results could actually have the reverse effect. Hamsters can feel disorientated and stressed if their territory changes, after all, how you would feel if someone broke into your house, took your food out of the fridge and moved all of your furniture around whilst you were out?
Hamster homes are very important, and pet owners will often furnish their hamster’s cage with accessories such as a plastic or wooden house. When the hamster abandons the house, pet owners may become concerned that something is wrong and the hamster is not happy. In actuality, Hamsters will choose their own preferred nesting area, and will often move their bed around several times before they find a spot that they are happy with. Often they will ignore popular toy houses but this is nothing to worry about, for as long as you provide plenty of soft bedding material the hamster will be warm enough outside of its house. However if a hamster chooses to sleep in a plastic tube, try and discourage this by removing the bedding each time the hamster builds a nest there. Plastic tubes are too confined and ventilation can be poor, the hamster may even end up with scald burns on its skin from the ammonia in the urine which has nowhere else to go.
Providing an active environment is important, and one of the best ways to do this is to place a suitable wheel in the hamster cage. In the wild hamsters can cover several miles each night, so it is important to provide a domestic pet with a wheel to burn off all that energy. Most commercially available cages will come with a wheel that measure five or six inches in diameter. This is fine for a dwarf hamster or a Syrian pup, it is too small for a full grown adult. A hamster won’t use it simply because it won’t fit inside it, not because it is being lazy as many owners mistakenly believe. Adult Syrian hamsters will require a wheel measuring eight inches (approximately 20 cm) in diameter to run comfortably and without arching their backs which could cause arthritis and spine related issues in later life.
Because they are so active, it is very difficult to over-feed hamsters. They are natural hoarders and will stash their food away although it is important to remove old food every time you clean your hamster out. An over-weight hamster is often a sign that they are not getting enough exercise, so make sure that your hamster has a large wheel and access to a good sized exercise ball. The ball is great and safe way to enable a hamster to explore their surroundings outside of their cage. Just ensure that the hamster can’t topple down any stairs, and keep any pets and young children out of the way so the hamster is not scared. If you notice your hamster remains still in the ball, or chews and scratches at it, the hamster is letting you know that they don’t really want to be in the ball. In these cases, return your hamster to its cage, it probably wants a drink or something to eat. You can offer the hamster its ball again later on, it might feel differently then.
Active hamsters will have a sleek physique, but a thin hamster is not necessarily the sign of an athlete! If your hamster appears to be off their food or has started to store food underneath a water bottle or in a water bowl, it could be a sign that they are having problems with their teeth. Any hamster that appears to be off their food for 24 hours should be taken to see a veterinarian, for although they are great hoarders, they eat periodically throughout the night and often during the day so any loss of appetite should be investigated.
However, hamsters do a good job of keeping their teeth in shape and will chew on toys and the bars of the cage if they have them. This is good for the hamster’s teeth, but constant chewing can be a sign of boredom. If you notice your hamster chewing on the bars for prolonged periods of time, try and find ways to stimulate it. Extending the cage so that the hamster has more territory to explore is the most effective solution.
Finally, a happy, healthy hamster is one that washes regularly by grooming itself or taking a sand bath, takes an interest in its surroundings, enjoys food, and stretches and yawns in a leisurely manor. These are all signs of a content animal.