Your hamster needs exercise for its mind and body. Just sitting in its cage with nothing to do is stressful. For instance animals often prefer to search for their food rather than just have it given to them (Inglis et al., 1997). Things to do are good for your hamster’s immune system (Workman et al., 2010). It also makes hamsters feel emotionally more positive (Bethell & Koyama 2015)
So you have to find out things that will keep it happy and busy. The proper name for this is environmental enrichment.
1. Food. Scatter his food round the cage rather than put it in a bowl. This way he has to dig around in the litter to find it. If you are feeding a pellet food (and you should be so read How Should I Feed My Hamster). Keep an eye on how much you are feeding so that there isn’t too much food lying about! If you have lost track, put the same amount in a bowl for a day or two to see how much he eats, check how much he is storing not eating, then measure out the right amount to scatter.
2. Wheel. Give her a hamster wheel that is securely fixed, large enough for her as it grows bigger, and has a solid base (Reebs & St-Onge 2005). Wire wheels sometimes give hamster food injuries (Vielette et al., 2010) or long haired hamsters get their hair caught in it (Goodman 2002). Wheels are good fun for golden hamsters: if they have a wheel they don’t spend so much time gnawing the bars of their cage (Gebhardt-Henrich et al., 2005). And just like humans enjoy going to the gym, hamsters enjoy running in their wheel (Eikelboom, 1999).
3. Chewing. Make sure your hamster has things to gnaw – a wooden clothes peg attached inside the bars, plain chew sticks bought from pet shops, small branches from fruit trees like apple and pear (never cedar, pine, yew, or oleander), coconut shells attached to to the side of the cage with wing nuts, a nut in its shell like a walnut or a cob nut. Don’t open the nuts: let the hamster do that. Chewing is vital for healthy teeth, because a hamster’s teeth keep growing and chewing keeps them from getting too long or out of shape.
4. Bedding. Don’t make up the bed for your hamster. Give her a paper towel or hay stuffed into a lavatory roll so that she can make her own bed. You can place some of the hay (without the roll) on the top of the cage so she has to climb up there to pull bits down. Hamsters will also make bedding out of sizal (never nylon) ropes, cardboard and straw.
5. Digging. In the wild hamsters would dig little tunnels. If possible put litter about 40 cms deep in your cage. Better still put 80 cms. If this is not possible and you have a really large cage, you can give him a digging box filled with half children’s sandpit sand and half sterilised soil (sterilised in the microwave). Put a little ramp on to it and out of it so he can get in and out. Or make your hamster a large playground digging box separate from his cage, for him to dig in. Make sure it has enough air, a secure lid as hamsters are escape artists and he is there for short periods only under supervision.
6. Cardboard. Small cardboard boxes and lavatory rolls allow your hamster to climb into them and to chew them. Some hamsters even climb ropes so try a natural sisal rope (never nylon in case it gets chewed) strung across the cage!
7. Pipes. Plastic plumber pipes, specially those with a bend, sold by hardware shops can be useful for hamsters, particularly if they have no chance to dig their own tunnels.
8. Training. Clicker train your hamster to do little tricks. Rewards could include a rice crispy, a very small piece of fruit or veg, a dried mealworm, a sunflower seed. Read Training your hamster.
9. A small tray of sand for a sand bath twice a week. Use chinchilla sand. Hamsters enjoy a roll in sand.
10. Hamster balls. The RSPCA are worried about hamster balls – here. Once hamsters are inside the ball, they have little choice. Some hamsters love them but timid hamsters may not enjoy them. If your hamster climbs in the ball of her own accord, then she probably enjoys being inside. If not, not. Even if the hamster does enjoy being inside the ball, there is the danger of the ball falling down stairs or being kicked or be pursued by the family dog or cat (Albright & de Matos 2010). So a hamster ball must only be used under continuous supervision.
Thanks to Jenny Newman for ideas.
Albright, J. & de Matos, R., (2010), ‘Hamsters’, in ed Tynes, V. V., Behavior of Exotic Pets, Chichester, UK, Blackwell-Wiley, 127-137.
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
Eikelboom, R., (1997), ‘Human parallel to voluntary wheel running: exercise,’ Animal Behaviour, 57, 11-12
Gebhardt-Henrich, S. G., Vonlanthen, E. M. & Steigher, A., (2005), ‘How does the running wheel affect the behaviour and reproduction of golden hamsters kept as pets?’ Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 95, 199-203
Goodman, G., (2002), ‘Hamsters,’ eds: Meredith, A. & Redrobe, S., BSAVA Manual of Exotic Pets, Fourth Edition, Quedgeley, UK, BSAVA, 26-33.
Inglis, I. R., Forkman, B. & Lazarus, J., (1997), ‘Free food or earned food? A review and fuzzy model of contrafreeloading,’ Animal Behaviour, 53, 1171-1191.
McBride, A., (2010) Hamsters: understanding and caring for your pet, Llandow, United Kingdom, Magnet and Steele.
Reebs, S. G. & St-Onge, P., (2005), ‘Running wheel choice by Syrian hamsters,’ Laboratory Animals, 39, 442–451.
Vielette, M. M., Guitard, J. & Reebs, S. G., (2010), ‘Cause and Possible Treatments of Foot Lesions in Captive Sytian Hamsters (Mescocricetus auratus),’ Veterinary Medicine International, 2010, Article ID 951708,1-5
Workman, J. L., DeWitt, S. J., Fonken, L. K. & Nelson, R. J., (2010), ‘Environmental Enrichment enhances delayed-type sensitivity in both short- and long-day Syrian hamsters,‘ Physiology & Behavior 99, 638–643