Hamsters can deliver a painful bite (Whittaker 2010). If you have a hamster that bites, remember that he is probably frightened. He may never have been handled or have been roughly handled. A human hand looming overhead may look like a predator and biting is one way wild hamsters try to see off predators (Robinson & McBride, 1995)
Some hamsters are more aggressive than others. Sometimes, a hamster won’t wait till the hand touches it but will run towards it growling. These hamsters have discovered that if they bite, the human hand retreats fast! And if they growl the hand will remove itself even before it has bitten. So they do it again! And again!
Stress can make things worse. It is so stressful for them to be in a pet shop and then put into a new home that many hamsters become ill (Rosenthal, 2005). So give a biting hamster time to settle in before trying to handle him. Hand feed special treats through the bars so he associates you with good things.
Make sure your hamster is generally happy by giving him a good cage, a good environment, a suitable nest for privacy and plenty of things to keep him busy. Lowering his stress levels in this way will help a hamster become less aggressive (Arnold & Westbrook, 1997).
Your hamster needs to learn that your hand is a nice place to be – and we know that hamsters can learn by rewards or rewarding activities (Meisel & Joppa, 1994). Both food (sunflower seed, a rice crispy, a dried mealworm or a piece of fresh veg/fruit) and bedding are rewarding (Guerra & Ades, 2002) so use one of these as a reward.
The way to teach it to like your hand, without getting bitten, is to take a piece of small mesh wire, put your hand underneath it on the bottom of the cage, and reward the hamster when he walks over it by putting some bedding or a treat on the mesh. Slowly get it used to being raised and lowered (Magnus 2013). It will help if you rub your hand in some used bedding first, so that your hand smells of home.
Or you can make use of the fact that hamsters like exploring. Use a plastic plumber’s pipe blocked at one end, a lavatory roll if your hamster is small enough putting your hands at both ends, or even a hamster ball. Most hamsters will climb into these and you can then move them to a safe place while cleaning the cage. Some laboratory workers use gloves to handle these hamsters (Whittaker 2010) but gloves are not safe for young children or inexperienced adults. Gloves make it easier to hurt this tiny creature by mistake (Balk & Slater, 1987).
Arnold C. E. & Estep, D. Q., (1994) ‘Laboratory caging preferences in golden hamsters (Mescocricetus auratus), Laboratory Animals, 28, 232-238
Balk,M. W. & Slater, G.M. (1987), ‘Care and Management’, in eds Van Hoosier, G. L., Jr. & McPherson, C. W., Laboratory Hamsters, Orlando, Florida, US, Academic Press, 61-67.
Guerra R.F. & Ades C (2002), ‘An analysis of travel costs on transport of load and nest building in golden hamster,’ Behavoural Processes, 57, 7028
Magnus, E., (2013), ‘ Handling Hamster,’ Available from http://www.apbc.org.uk/articles/handlinghamsters Accessed July 28 2013
McBride, A., (1996), ‘The psychology of human-small vertebrate interactions,’ Symposium Zoological Society of London, 69, 293-308.
Meisel, R. L. & Joppa,M. A. (1994), ‘ Conditioned place preference in female hamsters following aggressive or sexual encounter,’ Physiology and Behavior, 56, 1115-1118.
Robinson, I. & McBride, A., (l995), ‘Relationships with Other Pets,’ in ed. Robinson.I.,The Waltham Book of Human-Animal Interactions, Oxford, UK, Elsevier Science, 113-125.
Rosenthal, K.L., (2005), ‘Small mammals in the pet store,’ Proceedings of the North American Veterinary Conference 2005, 1374-1375
Whittaker, D., (2010) ‘The Syrian Hamster’, eds Hubrecht, R. & Kirkwood, J., The UFAW Handbook on the Care and Management of Laboratory and Other Research Animals, Eighth Edition, Wheathamstead, UK, UFAW, 348-358.
Hamsters that bite or cannot be handled are not vicious; they are wild. They’ve probably been brought up in huge tanks by commercial breeders and never handled. Or possibly they are brain damaged from in-breeding from the same source. A good pet shop should not be selling animals that have not been handled in infancy. It is cruel to make them into pets and it is unfair on children. “An animal brought up in this way may never be tame,” says Pamela Milward of the Southern Hamster Club. The other possibility is that the hamster is in pain – so a visit to a vet would help identify this.
To pick up a hamster that bites, she suggests wearing cotton gardening gloves and using either a small fishing net (with a piece of cardboard to pop over the net when it’s inside) or a household paper towel tube. Block off one end of this, and the hamster should rush inside for safety. Keep the gloves or equipment next to the cage.
If you have lots of patience you could try training it to be handled. “Try a biggish piece of cooked chicken, sardine or lettuce, ‘ says Pamela Milward. “Hold it out to it and then while it is eating try to stroke it. If you are able to do this, the next stage is to hold it firmly round the middle to pick it up.” Hamsters will also probably respond well to the dry meal worms used to feet garden birds. Of course, if the hamster is brain-damaged from in-breeding, no amount of training will help.
Sometimes a hamster bites because your hands smell of food. So see if washing your hands, before handling the hamster, will prevent this. If you are cleaning out the hamster and putting in new food, do this AFTER handling not before.
Sometimes hamsters “taste” the owner¹s hand by giving a gentle bite that does not break the skin. “It is disconcerting but once you get used to this, it is not a worry,” says Pamela Milward.
If you decide to get a new hamster, ask the shopkeeper if you can handle the new animal. If they refuse ask to watch them handle it. If they refuse (or if the animal bites them) do not buy it.
Syrian hamsters, the traditional kind, do sometimes bite. Russian female hamsters are quite likely to bite. Chinese hamsters are less likely to bite.
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All normal safety precautions should be taken when dealing with animals. The advice in this section should be taken only at the owner’s own risk. All sick animals should be seen by a vet.
General advice of the kind found in this website is no substitute for an individual consultation with a vet or qualified behaviourist working on a vet’s referral.