All pet golden Syrian hamsters, (Mesocricetus auratus), should be housed on their own. If they are housed in groups (as they are in some laboratories), they often fight and their health suffers (Kortz & Gatterman, 1999). Do not ever put hamsters with pet gerbils or pet mice or pet rats. (There are different smaller hamsters who do like living in groups, but this page does not deal with their needs.)
Small cages make hamsters chronically stressed (Kuhnen 1999) and develop bad habits (Normando & Gelli 2011) so buy the biggest cage you can afford. Hamsters like more space – at least 10,000 square centimetres (Fisher et al., 2007). It must be tall enough for them to rear up on their back legs, a minimum of about 6 inches high at the very least. Hamsters kept in small cages are more likely to gnaw at the cage bars, a habit which usually shows that a hamster is bored or unhappy (Gerber et al. 2008).
They need complex, not bare, space. Hamsters in a cage with lots to do are more optimistic than those in small barren cages (Bethell & Koyama 2015). As hamsters like climbing, a two-tier cage may give them a chance to do this. Try to buy a cage without a fixed wheel already in it, as often wheels in cages are too small. Buy a relatively large wheel separately and fix it securely.
Some all-plastic cages, including the sort with tunnels, may look good but have poor ventilation. If a hamster gets fat it may get stuck in the tubes. These are best used for temporary recreation not for a permanent home. Fish tanks are not suitable either because of poor ventilation. Make sure any cover on a cage fits properly as hamsters are escape artists. Females grow larger than males so be careful to get big enough cage fittings.
Hamsters do not like bare plastic or wire floors (Sherwin 2007, Arnold & Estep 1994) so cover wire flooring with cardboard and provide lots of litter and bedding for a bare plastic floor. Hamsters like digging tunnels and so the deeper the litter (if it’s the sort they can tunnel in), the better (Hauzenberger et al., 2006). Try to buy a cage which allows them to dig into the litter (RSPCA 2013).
The cage should have a water bottle with nozzle and a small bowl for food – though scattering the food is better. Bottles should be sterilised and refilled once a week and bowls washed once a week. A hamster will consume 5 ml of water per 100 g of body weight per day (Gibson & Brady 2000). Make sure the nozzle is at a height the hamster can easily reach.
Within the cage hamsters like a little house or shelter for them to sleep in, preferably in wood with a flat top to sit on. Plastic shelters can make for condensation (Adby & Neill, 2004) and a pitched roof means the hamster cannot enjoy climbing on top of the shelter. The shelter must have a dark corner where they can sleep – just a little arch (sometimes sold) or a pile of bedding doesn’t give enough privacy. They will often store their food there and quite often they will urinate there (Gerber et al. 2008). If a wooden shelter cannot be found, try a plastic pipe of a 7.6 cm diameter and 15 cms long from a local hardware shop which suited 55% of hamsters in one study (Veillette & Reebs 2011)
If for some reason you can’t give them a shelter then there must be masses of bedding so that they can make their own shelter/hideaway out of it (Gerber et al. 2008.) Wild hamsters live in burrows, so making a tunnel in the bedding is the next best thing for them. Ideally they should have a shelter, as well as much bedding as they like.
Locate the cage away from bright light (Castelhano-Carlos & Baumans 2009) and from loud noises, which can give hamsters high blood pressure and convulsions (Russell 2002). The temperature should be 20-24º C or 68-75 F. Your hamster, because he is nocturnal, should have 10-14 hours of darkness (Gibson and Brady 2000). Therefore do not put the cage in bright sunlight where the temperature can get too high – this is particularly important for cages with solid sides. Do not put it close to a light or on a windowsill. Keep the cage away from draughts or temperature extremes. Car fumes in a garage may make the little animal ill.
Bedding is crucially important for hamsters so read the page on Best Bedding and Litter for your hamster. All hamsters need toys and things to do – read the page on Keeping your hamster Busy not Bored.
Adby, S., & Neill, D. O, (2004), Hamsters in Sickness and in Health, Milverton, UK, Capall Bann Publishing.
Arnold, C. E. & Estep D. Q., (1994),’Laboratory caging preferences in golden hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus),’ Laboratory Animal, 28: 232-238.
Bethell, E. J. & Koyama, N. F. (2015), ‘Happy hamsters? Enrichment induces positive judgement bias for mildly (but not truly) ambiguous cues to reward and punishment in Mesocricetus auratus,’ Royal Society Open Science, 2, 140399.
Castelhano-Carlos, M. J. & Baumans, V., (2009), ‘The impact of light, noise, cage-cleaning and in-house transport on welfare and stress in laboratory rats,’ Laboratory Animals, 43, 311- 327.
Fischer, K., Gebhardt-Henrich, S. G. & Steiger, A., (2007), ‘Behaviour of golden hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus) kept in four different cage sizes,’ Animal Welfare, 16, 85-93
Gerber, E., Gebhardt-Henrich, S. G., Volanthen, E. M., Fischer, K., Hazenberger, A. R. & Steiger, A., (2008), ‘Housing influences research results and animal welfare in golden hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus): : the influence of size and structure of shelters on the behaviour,’ in eds: Hammond, E. P. & and Noyes, A. D., Housing: Socioeconomic, Availability & Development Issues, Hauppauge, U.S., Nova Science Publishers, 1-15
Gibson, S. V. & Brady, A. G., (2000), “Syrian Hamsters: Care and Management,’ Laboratory Animal Medicine and Science, Series 11. Available at ehs.uc.edu/lams/data/pdfs/9029.pdf. Accessed July 7 2013.
Hauzenberger, A. R., Gebhardt-Henrich, S. G. & Steiger, A., (2006) ‘The influence of bedding depth on behaviour in golden hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus),’ Applied Animal Behaviour Science 100 (2006) 280–294
Kortz, V. & Gatterman, R., (1999) ‘Housing conditions affect susceptibility to mercury in the golden hamster,’ Laboratory Animals, 33, 228-233
Kuhnen, G., (1999), ‘The effect of cage size and enrichment on core temperature and febrile response of the golden hamster,’ Laboratory Animals, 33, 221-227
Normando, S. & Gelli, G., ‘Behavioral complaints and owners’ satisfaction in rabbits, mustelids, and rodents kept as pets,’ Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 6, 337-342.
RSPCA (2013), ‘Hamster Home Cages,’ RSPCA Hamster Care Advice. Available at www.rspca.org.uk. Accessed July 7 2013.
Russell, W. M.S., (2002), ‘The Ill-Effects of Uncomfortable Quarters,’ in eds. Reinhardt, V., & Reinhardt, A., Comfortable Quarters for Laboratory Animals, Animal Welfare Institute, 1-5s. Available at http://www.awionline.org/pubs/cq02/cqindex.html Accessed 14 July 2013.
Sherwin, C. M., (2007), ‘Validating refinements to laboratory housing: ask the animals,’ National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research, 1-13. Available at www.nc3rs.org.uk. Accessed: July 10 2013
Veillette, M. & Reebs, S. J. (2011), ‘Shelter choice by Syrian hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus) in the laboratory,’ Animal Welfare, 20, 603-611.