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). The way to handle a hamster is to let it climb on your hand and then cup it with both hands. Never grab it with your hand and wave it around: small furries are terrified of being up in the air and unsupported (Stuart & Robinson 2015)
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 meal worm or a piece of fresh veg/fruit) and bedding are rewarding (Guerra & Ades, 2002) so use one of these as a reward.
Make use of the fact that hamsters like exploring. Use a plastic plumber’s pipe blocked at one end, a kitchen paper towel tube (or a lavatory roll tube if your hamster is small enough) blocked at one end, 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.
A 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.
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., (1995), ‘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
Stuart, S. A. & Robinson, E. S. J., (2015), ‘Reducing the stress of drug administration: implications for the 3Rs,’ Scientific Reports, 5, 14288; doi: 10.1038/srep14288
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.