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How to Care for a Pet Syrian Hamster

Cherished for their sweet temperament, charming appearance, and unique behaviors, Syrian hamsters are great pets. While they’re low-maintenance pets, they still have a few care requirements to ensure they thrive in your home. From choosing the right bedding material to ensuring proper nutrition, here’s how to take care of a Syrian hamster.

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Syrian hamsters: an overview

Syrian hamsters, scientifically known as Mesocricetus auratus and nicknamed golden hamsters, are one of the most popular small pets worldwide. As their name implies, these fuzzy creatures originate from Syria and the surrounding areas in the Middle East, thriving in arid desert conditions.

They boast a wide range of coat colors and patterns, ranging from golden to white, black, and everything in between. They have adorable rounded ears, plush fur, and expressive eyes, and grow to about five to seven inches long as adults.

Syrian hamster behavior is similar to that of other hamsters. They have a solitary disposition, preferring to reside alone in their burrows without companionship from other hamsters. These hamsters are known for their nocturnal habits, often preferring to be most active during the evening and nighttime hours. This makes them ideal pets for those with busy daytime schedules.

A Syrian hamster's lifespan is typically two to three years, although some may exceed this timeframe with exceptional care.

Caring for a Syrian hamster: from housing to enrichment

Syrian hamsters are low-maintenance pets, but they still have a few basic requirements to thrive. From choosing the right enclosure and bedding to incorporating plenty of toys, here’s how to care for a hamster.

Syrian hamster habitat

Syrian hamsters need plenty of space for exercise, so choose the largest enclosure you can accommodate. The cage should be no smaller than one foot by two feet by one foot tall, but the larger the better. This ensures your fluffy friend will have plenty of space to stretch their legs.

Select a cage designed for small animals, such as one with smooth plastic or glass sides or one made from wire. If you choose a wire cage, ensure the wires are close enough together to prevent your furry friend from escaping. Some hamsters may also want to chew on the wires. The cage you choose should have a sturdy plastic bottom (even if you choose a wire cage) to ensure your hamster has something solid to stand on.

Place the cage somewhere with ventilation but quiet and draft free. Beyond that, remember to clean your hamster's cage at least once a week. Remove the bedding and wipe the cage down with a cage cleaning mixture. You can also use vinegar diluted in water, but you'll need to ensure you wipe all of it out before reassembling the cage. Replace the bedding to ensure your hamster has a clean place to hang out. Each day, wash their food and water bowls (or bottle) and check for and remove soiled bedding.

Bedding

Once you choose a cage, it’s time to select the perfect bedding to cushion your new buddy. Choose paper-based bedding over wood bedding, as the former is digestible, while the latter can become lodged in the hamster’s gastrointestinal tract if ingested.

Shredded or crumpled paper and processed corn cobs are good bedding materials, while woods like cedar chips and fresh pine aren’t suitable due to their toxicity and strong smell. Top the bedding with a fluffy nesting material that satisfies your hamster's desire to burrow. You can find various types of nesting materials intended for use in small animal cages, including those made from bamboo and cotton.

Syrian hamster diet

Hamsters are omnivores, meaning they’ll happily eat both meat and vegetables. Feed your Syrian hamster a balanced diet featuring nuts, grains, and seeds, all of which are standard in store-bought food blends.

There are many food blends crafted specifically for hamsters, with a few options curated for Syrian hamsters. However, in a pinch, commercially available food for mice, rats, or rabbits will do. Be sure to choose an option with 15–20% protein, as this will ensure your hamster gets plenty of nutrition until you can find a blend made for hamsters. It's best to avoid keeping them on this for long, as these mixes aren't formulated for hamsters and don't contain the nutrition they'll need to thrive.

You can occasionally feed a few healthy treats, such as fruits, vegetables, or chewy treats designed for hamsters, but it’s important to give these sparingly. They shouldn’t account for more than 10% of your pet’s total diet.

Your hamster should always have access to fresh, clean water. Bottles outfitted with sipper nozzles are ideal for this, as they’ll allow your hamster to get plenty of fresh water without contaminating it. However, a bowl will also do. You’ll need to clean and sanitize the bottle or bowl frequently to prevent contamination and infection.

Hygiene and grooming

Syrian hamster care is simple when it comes to grooming. If you’re wondering how to groom a pet hamster properly, the answer is straightforward: let them take care of it themselves.

Hamsters handle their own grooming, requiring no water for bathing to remain clean. They’ll self-groom, but there may be occasions when you need to give them a helping hand. For example, if they get dirt or debris stuck in their fur, use a soft, damp cloth to gently work it out.

Exercise and enrichment

When building your hamster’s enclosure, remember to add a play area for enrichment and a nesting box for sleeping. Your nesting box can be as simple as one of repurposed sturdy cardboard or wood modeled after hideaway boxes you can buy. The play area doesn’t need to be extravagant either; old packing tubes cut into short lengths, toilet paper tubes, and boxes with various holes cut in can all provide hours of fun. If you choose to add tubes, make sure your hamster is small enough to run through them.

Of course, you can always add fun toys designed for hamsters, such as:

  • Wooden climbing toys
  • Tunnels and caves
  • Wheels
  • Platforms
  • Tubes

A running wheel is an essential addition to any well-rounded hamster enclosure. It gives your hamster an opportunity to get in much-needed exercise and enrichment. Wild hamsters can run up to five miles a day, and since a domesticated hamster can’t get that in a small enclosure, having a wheel is a must.

Additionally, remember to add wooding toys for chewing. This will help keep their teeth in check and prevent the problems that can accompany overgrown teeth.

Ideally, you should have a blend of enrichment toys positioned throughout the enclosure for plenty of mind stimulation.

Handling and socialization

Properly socialized Syrian hamsters are often friendly and tolerant of handling. However, getting your new buddy used to handling can take time, especially after you first bring them home.

Give your hamster time to acclimate to their new home before you begin handling them, and when you do, remember to be gentle. Avoid squeezing too tight, even if you’re nervous about dropping them. To avoid injuries, always hold your hamster over a soft or padded surface in case they squirm or jump out of your grasp.

Syrian hamsters may bite if you startle them or handle them too roughly, so it’s important always to keep an eye on your kids when they handle your furry friend.

Common health problems

Like any pet, there are a few common health issues in pet hamsters to keep in mind when considering them for your household. These problems range from mild conditions such as overgrown teeth to severe, potentially fatal conditions like atrial thrombosis.

Wet tail

Wet tail is a common digestive system problem in hamsters that can be fatal if left unchecked. It develops due to fecal-to-oral contact with deadly bacteria, causing rapid bacterial growth in the GI tract and leading to diarrhea and a foul odor. It can be the result of various factors, such as a dirty living environment, poor diet, or stress.

Symptoms often include:

  • Lethargy
  • Appetite loss
  • Diarrhea
  • Wetness around the tail

If you notice these symptoms, contact your vet immediately. While the condition is often treatable with antibiotics, it can be fatal.

Fur and ear mites

An unsanitary enclosure can lead to a problem with fur and ear mites, another common problem that plagues hamsters. Hamsters with mites often lose fur in small patches due to frequent itching. You may notice your hamster frantically scratching at certain parts of their body, which is often a sign of mites.

In some cases, hair loss can be a sign of tumors in the adrenal glands, thyroid gland imbalance, or kidney problems.

Contact your vet for treatment options if you suspect your pet may have mites or you notice hair loss.

Overgrown teeth

A hamster’s teeth keep growing throughout its life. In the wild, they keep their growth under control by chewing on various objects, such as seeds or wood. Domesticated hamsters, however, may not have access to these objects, so their teeth can become long enough to become a problem.

If you notice your hamster’s teeth are becoming excessively long and making eating difficult, talk to your veterinarian. They can trim your pet’s teeth and offer input on suitable solutions to keep them in tip-top shape.

Polycystic disease

Polycystic disease is another common condition in hamsters, which results in fluid-filled sacs called cysts on the internal organs. It commonly affects hamsters older than one year and can affect the liver, pancreas, sex glands in males, adrenal glands, uterus, and ovaries.

Symptoms may include:

  • Abdominal distention (may look like swelling)
  • Abdominal pain
  • Appetite loss
  • Weight loss
  • Hair loss

Atrial thrombosis

Up to 70% of older Syrian hamsters experience atrial thrombosis, a condition characterized by blood clots that form in the upper chambers of the heart. It occurs as a result of congestive heart failure, which weakens the heart muscles and limits the heart’s ability to efficiently pump blood throughout the body.

The condition is more common in older hamsters. Symptoms may include rapid breathing, a bluish tinge to the gums or skin, and an irregular heartbeat. While there is no treatment to address this condition, your veterinarian can evaluate your pet to determine possible ways to manage it. If left untreated, congestive heart failure can cause death within a week of signs showing up.

Does pet insurance cover hamsters?

While many pet insurance providers offer coverage for other household pets, such as cats and dogs, options aren't as plentiful for hamsters. That said, there are a handful of providers that offer coverage for your new hamster. Coverage typically extends to standard wellness expenses, such as routine wellness visits and bloodwork, that help you take the best care of your hamster.

However, it's important to note that this wellness coverage typically excludes treatments and diagnostics for accidents and illnesses, although a handful of providers offer more comprehensive protection for health issues and treatments.

In the grand scheme of owning pets, Syrian hamsters are a low-maintenance, beginner-friendly option. As long as you meet their needs, from choosing the right food for optimal nutrition to incorporating plenty of toys for exercise and enrichment, Syrian hamsters can make great pets for families and solo homes alike.

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