All About Syrian and Dwarf Hamsters: A Guide to Your Pet's Habitat, Nutrition and Well-Being

All About Syrian and Dwarf Hamsters: A Guide to Your Pet's Habitat, Nutrition and Well-Being

Vanessa LeRoux

Experience Level: Suitable for beginners, especially children aged eight and above. However, adult supervision is recommended.
Size: Dwarf hamsters typically reach 8-10 cm, while Syrian hamsters can grow between 13-18 cm.
Lifespan: Hamsters generally have a lifespan of around two years.
Behaviour: These little creatures are night owls! Hamsters are nocturnal and fond of spinning on their wheels once the sun goes down. Read on to learn lots of fun facts about your new hamster.
Diet: Did you know? Hamsters are omnivores, which means they eat both plants and meat.
Social Habits: Syrian hamsters enjoy human company but prefer to live solo. On the other hand, dwarf hamsters are more sociable with their kind and can share a home with a same-gender buddy. If you're thinking of pairing them up, a spacious habitat is a must.

Shopping Checklist: What will I Need for my Hamster?

  • Habitat: Aim for a minimum space of at least 60 x 60 cm. Multi-level homes are a hit with these little guys! Considering a glass tank? Make sure it has a mesh top and offers ample ventilation. Travel cages are unacceptable as permanent homes.

  • Food: Stick to either pelleted plain hamster food or a mixed variety. See the hamster menu below.

  • Food Dish: Opt for deeper, wider dishes or dishes that can be securely attached to the cage to avoid any mealtime mishaps. Hamsters love to jump into their food bowls and are messy eaters!

  • Water Source: Bottles are great, but if you're using a bowl, ensure it is sturdy and straight-sided. Heads up: Bowls can get messy with bedding or food, so they'll need a daily clean. Place them on an easily accessible shelf or platform.

  • Bedding: Go for paper bedding, coco peat, sphagnum moss or sand (reptile department), hay, or wood pellets. The deeper the layer, the better. Create a burrowing section by piling the bedding high in a corner. Fun idea: Divide the cage floor into sections and put different substrates in each to add to your hamster's physical and mental stimulation.*

  • Fun Toys: Thinking of transport tubes and toys? Just double-check that they're the right size for your hamster. Cardboard tubes, a ladder, cardboard boxes, hay balls or a seesaw are also always fun for your hamster.

  • Exercise Wheel: Size matters. Ensure the wheel is spacious enough for your hamster to stretch out fully while running. A solid wheel, free of rungs and around 15 to 25 cm in diameter, is ideal.

  • Cosy Corners: Every hamster loves a snug home and a hammock to lounge in.

  • Nesting Material: Don't forget this! They adore curling up in it. Shredded paper and Snuggle Stuff are great; just be aware that Snuggle stuff can tangle around their feet, so keep an eye out for this. Single-ply toilet paper can also be used.

  • Treat Time: Spoil your hamster with a treat every so often. See the hamster menu below.

  • Dental Care: Keep in mind that hamsters' teeth never stop growing; gnaw stones and chewsticks, Sekelbos sticks, wooden blocks, or natural loofahs help keep them at the right length. Whimzees dog treats can also be used. Include a mineral block.

  • Litter Box: A great addition for a healthy hamster and a fresher-smelling cage. Place a layer of plain sand (Reptile Resort) or plain Bentonite fine-clumping cat litter to encourage usage.

  • Grooming Essentials: Consider a hamster bath, bathing sand, and a small animal brush to keep your furry friend looking fabulous.

  • Nail Care: Add a rough surface to their habitat, like a clean rock or piece of wood. It helps keep their nails in check. (But remember, if their nails need trimming, it's best left to a professional.)

How Do I Set up a Hamster Habitat?

  • Location Tips: Choose a spot with low humidity that maintains a cool temperature between 18-24 degrees. And remember, no direct sunlight! Choose a low-activity area inside your home.

  • Bedding: Lay out the bedding at least 5+ cm deep. Create a pile of bedding in one corner, giving your hamster ample space to dig and burrow. Keep an eye out for messes, spot clean when necessary, and change the bedding as per the product's guidelines.

  • Litter Box: Place where your hamster prefers to pee and poop,usually in the corner of the cage. Find a space for a clean rock or piece of wood for their nails.

  • A Quiet Retreat: Give your hamster a little house and a hammock. They make their perfect spots for some downtime, play, and maybe even a snack.

  • Dishes and Toys: Ensure your hamster's habitat includes accessible food and water dishes, placed so that they are easy to refill.  Add exercise wheel and toys to keep them well-fed with lots to do.

  • Dental Essentials: Incorporate the gnaw stones and chew sticks, wooden blocks or natural loofahs into their cage to ensure those teeth stay short and healthy. Add mineral block.

  • Cleaning Routine: Dedicate some time each week to thoroughly clean the cage. A dash of mild, unscented dishwashing liquid and cage cleaner or a disinfectant safe for small animals (for example, F10SC) will do the trick.

The Hamster's Menu: What, When, and How Much to Feed*

Everyday Meal (80% Pelleted Food): This forms the staple of your hamster's diet. Make it a habit to refresh it daily, ensuring the bowl remains about 3/4 full. They eat about one to two tablespoons per day. A hamster should never live on dry food mix alone.

Veggie Delight (15% Vegetables): Serve up fresh veggies like cauliflower, baby spinach, peppers, and peas every one to three days. Offer a variety of veggies throughout the week. Give them a large teaspoon per day. Just a heads up: steer clear of iceberg lettuce, and remember to remove any leftovers after a few hours.

Sweet Treats (5% Fruit & Treats): Twice a week, pamper your hamster with treats and fruits such as blueberries, strawberries, bananas and apples (without the core/seeds). Once a week, for a twist, throw in a raw or cooked, tri-coloured pasta spiral with a spinach or tomato flavour; they find it extra tasty or add a brussel sprout or Weetbix bits.

Variety is key to healthy eating. If they don't finish, remember to clear out the food after a few hours. Friendly Farm Lovelies make great treats for hamsters no more than twice a week.

Protein boost: Consider boiled/scrambled eggs, cooked chicken, and lean beef mince once a week. You can also feed them dried or live mealworms (adults for live ones only unless you remove the worms' heads) or, better yet, silkworms. Three to five worms of either kind at a time, two to three times per week. Protein is a supplement which they enjoy; most of their protein will be in their pelleted food.

Dwarf Hamsters: These hamsters eat about one tablespoon of dry food per day and a teaspoon of fruit and veggies twice a week.

Syrian Hamsters: These hamsters eat about two tablespoons of dry food per day and a teaspoon of fruit and veggies twice a week.

Fresh Grass: While hamsters can consume grass, it should be given in moderation since their digestive systems aren't primarily adapted for large amounts of grass. If you choose to feed them grass, it's best to cut fresh pieces using scissors. Another option is to cultivate cat grass in a container for them. Think of grass as a special treat for your hamster, not a staple. Always ensure that the grass is free from pesticides and chemicals.

Adequate Balance of Nutrients: If you're concerned your hamster may not be getting an adequate balance from his mix, try grinding the pellets or dampening them with a bit of water to make them more palatable.

Hydration Station (Water): Whether you opt for a bottle or a bowl, ensure your hamster has daily access to fresh, clean water. Wash the bowl daily, and a good scrub with an animal-safe disinfectant for the bottle once a week is required.

Hoarding: Some hamsters hoard more than others, so if you have a manic hoarder, you can check on that to avoid waste. Your hamster's body will tell her what and when she needs food. Don't allow your hamster to eat everything in her bowl before you fill it up again; this results in food deprivation anxiety, and then your hamster will most likely hoard all the more. Remember that hamsters don't generally overeat. Check the 'hoarding zone' regularly for stale food and remove it.

Switching Brands: When changing to a different food, it is essential to ‘wean’ the hamster onto it by mixing old with new and gradually decreasing the old brand to avoid upsetting the tummy with food he has not had before.

Food Storage: Store food in a tightly sealed container in your fridge or freezer to maintain freshness for a lot longer.

Everyday Meal (80% Pelleted Food) Refresh daily Keep bowl 3/4 full
Veggie Delight (15% Vegetables) Every 1 to 3 days 1 Large teaspoon, variety is key
Sweet Treats (5% Fruit & Treats) Twice a week 1 Slice for essential nutrients
Protein Boost 1 to 3 Times a week Egg, chicken, mince, worms
Water Refresh daily Check regularly, keep clean

Safety First for You and Your Hamster

To prevent germs, wash your hands thoroughly with warm, soapy water before and after spending time with your hamster or its cage. Make sure to dry your hands well, too.

When handling your furry friend, approach with gentleness and caution. Remember, hamsters might bite or scratch, especially if they're feeling a bit stressed. If you ever hear a high-pitched squeak from them, it's their unique way of saying that they'd prefer some personal space at that moment.

For those with wire-level cages, it's a thoughtful idea to lay down some cardboard. This not only provides a protective layer for their tiny paws but also doubles as a delightful chew toy, ensuring they stay entertained and their teeth remain healthy.

From First Touch to Daily Play: Tips for Hamster Handling

  • Acclimatization Period: Give your hamster a few days to settle in before trying to handle them.

  • Approach with care: Allow your hamster to sniff and hear you open the cage. They have poor eyesight, and as such, they startle easily.

  • Gentle Handling: Scoop them up gently from underneath rather than grabbing from above to reduce stress.

  • Safety First: Always handle your hamster over a low surface. This minimises the risk of falls.

  • Daily Adventures: Allow your hamster some out-of-cage time every day, but ensure it's supervised in a safe area.

Hamster Care Essentials: Health, Play and Bonding

Litter-Box Training: Hamsters often prefer to 'do their business' in the same spot. Routinely put their poop into the litter box. Take some toilet paper with their pee on it and place it in the litter box. This will further reinforce that they are supposed to relieve themselves there. Place the litter box in that place, and you can also add some sand or chinchilla dust to encourage your hamster to use it. Clean with white vinegar and animal-safe disinfectant.
Playtime Essentials: Keep your hamster entertained and healthy with a mix of toys, tunnels, hideouts, and chewable items. They love variety.
Bathing Basics: Hamsters groom themselves, so no water baths are needed. Instead, offer natural bathing sand for their cleaning routines. And if you're brushing them, always be gentle.
Treat Time: Want to bond and build trust? Offer treats (in moderation) and let your hamster take them from your hand. Treats are particularly helpful during the taming process.

Hamster Health Checklist: When to Call Your Vet

A good rule of thumb is to be aware of any changes in your hamster's condition or behaviour.  When you check your hamster and notice any of these signs, you should immediately take them to a small animal vet. It's best to find a hamster-savvy vet before anything goes wrong.

  • Cloudy, sunken or swollen eyes

  • Wheezing or sneezing: discharge from eyes, nose or mouth

  • Overgrown front teeth can be indicative of poor eating habits

  • Bare patches in the fur and sores on the feet

  • Lethargy

  • Weight loss: not eating or drinking normally

  • Diarrhoea or discoloured droppings

  • Ear infection: Causes loss of balance, head tilting, discharge and odour, redness or swelling and scratching of the ear. Lethargy and loss of appetite occur as well.

  • Permanently inflated cheek pouches

Hamster Adventures: A World Full of Surprises

Symbol of Luck: In some cultures, hamsters are considered symbols of luck, prosperity, and happiness. They will certainly bring love and light into your home.

Sensitive to Sound: Hamsters have an acute sense of hearing and can hear in the ultrasonic range, which is why they are sensitive to high-pitched noises. Place your hamster’s cage where they are still involved in the daily activities of your home but are in a quieter area.

Colour Vision: Hamsters have poor eyesight but can see in colour. They rely more on their sense of smell to perceive the world around them. Brighten up their cage with colourful toys!

Speedy Runners: Despite their small size, hamsters can run over 5 kilometres in a single night on their exercise wheel! This is why an exercise wheel is a non-negotiable part of your hamster’s life.

Escape Artists: Hamsters are known for their ability to escape from their cages, showcasing their agility and determination. They certainly can be adventurous; make sure your cage door is securely closed.

Nurturing Hamster Happiness: Balanced Care and Bonding

Caring for hamsters is a delightful responsibility that demands a keen understanding of their distinct needs. Every detail matters, from providing suitable housing to ensuring positive social interactions. One crucial aspect to remember is that a hamster's teeth grow continuously, making dental chews an essential part of their care to prevent overgrowth and ensure dental health.

Gentle handling is paramount, as it ensures their safety and strengthens the bond of trust between you and your furry friend. A balanced diet enriched with fruits and vegetables also contributes to their overall well-being, ensuring they remain active and content. By dedicating time, patience, and love, you can build a thriving relationship with your hamster, ensuring they lead a happy, healthy life.

* FOOD & TREATS (Dry & Fresh) | Hamsters SouthAfrica ACCESSORIES & ENRICHMENT | Hamsters SouthAfrica