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A Trip to Hamsterdam

Tips for shiny, happy hammies

  • Eric Isselée/

by Ruthanne Johnson

As a volunteer with North Jersey Guinea Pig and Hamster Rescue, trial lawyer Justin Walker sees the heartbreaking side of hamsters in the pet trade. Snowflake was found in a dumpster, bleeding from an injured leg. “He must have had a day or two of hell,” Walker says. His own adopted Snuffler and the pregnant Panda were abandoned in a parking lot; Runty and Baby Hammie came from the litter of 16 that quickly followed.

Carla Holusha founded the rescue in 2005 after her husband saved a baby guinea pig from a storm drain. Most of the group’s rescues are the result of incorrectly sexed hamsters being housed together. With gestation periods of just weeks and large litter sizes, two hamsters can quickly multiply into dozens; Holusha has received calls from people wanting to surrender up to 50 unplanned pets.

Considering such anecdotes, remember the most important element of hamster care: Don’t let your fuzzy-wuzzies be fruitful and multiply! Divide them by gender when housing them. Here are more tips for keeping them happy.

Hamming It Up: Hamsters eat a variety of foods—from nuts, seeds, and grains to produce and even tofu. They can stuff their expandable cheek pouches with food and nesting materials (a trait that earned Syrian hamsters the name “Mister Saddlebags” in their native land). Augment a quality hamster mix with hamster-safe veggies and occasional servings of fruit (the diabetes-prone dwarf species should avoid the latter). Hamsters also enjoy special treats such as unsalted nuts, cooked whole wheat pasta, and rolled oats. Keep an approved food list near their enclosure so that no one accidentally feeds them something iffy.

On Burrowed Time: Wild hamster burrows have many chambers and can be several feet underground. Cages sold in pet stores are often too small or don’t provide proper ventilation. Cages should be single-level and at least 24-by-18 inches. Place the cage in a temperature-controlled, draft-free room and fill it with a layer of recycled wood pulp bedding or finely flaked aspen chips (don’t use cedar, cat litter, or treated pine). For nesting material, simply tear toilet paper into strips. Keep in mind that Syrian hamsters are territorial and must be housed separately. Other species may live in family groups of the same sex, but be prepared to separate them if fighting occurs.

Ham I Am: Hamsters are nocturnal, traveling up to 12 miles a night in the wild. Variety and exercise are vital for physical and mental health. A solid-surfaced exercise wheel (for Syrians, at least 8 inches in diameter) is a must; avoid wheels with rungs, which can cause injuries. Place paper towel tubes, small blocks of untreated wood, large diameter PVC piping, empty tissue boxes, ceramic dishes with chinchilla sand, and other hamster-safe toys in the enclosure, and rotate them to keep life interesting.

Hammy Handling: To avoid a nip, don’t grab a sleeping hammy, and wash your hands to remove any food smells. Gently scoop up the hamster with both hands, or coax her into a cup or other container. Regular handling allows you to check for masses, nasal discharge, dull eyes, or other signs of illness, and helps socialize the animals so they’ll be adopter-ready.

Watch a video on hamster care.

Read the rest of this issue from Animal Sheltering magazine

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