How to prepare for a hamster – a beginners guide

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how to get ready for a hamster

I’ll be the first to admit that we were totally naive when it came to buying stuff for our hamster. We were conned into the pet store starter pack, which subsequently proved to be way too small and totally inadequate for our pet Syrian hamsters need.

Preparing for a hamster

When you get a pet hamster you need to think about how big they will grow and buy stuff accordingly. Even though they are tiny now, they will need a large cage, bedding, food, water and plenty of toys to stop them from getting bored.

Before buying a pet hamster, you should make sure that you have done your research so that you have selected the correct breed to suit you. You should also ensure that you have a cage set up to minimize any stress your hamster may have of adjusting to a new home. What’s exciting for you, can be truly terrifying for a small hamster.

Although hamsters are relatively low maintenance compared to many other pets, they do have a specific set of needs. They require exercise and mental stimulation, as well as a well-ventilated cage or tank plus a secure place in which to sleep and hide. You should make sure that you feed your hamster a varied diet, combining store-bought food with fresh fruit and vegetables. So that your new furry friend does not come to any harm, it is important that you also learn how to care for them properly.

What to buy when getting a hamster

There are so many products on the market that knowing which ones are best suited to your hamster can be difficult. As you don’t want to get coerced into buying the entire pet store, I would recommend purchasing the basics to begin with, and then by observing your hamster over time, adding any extras they may need.

Looking online and in-store you will see hundreds of different hamster cages, toys, tunnels and some of the best hamster accessories for sale. Hamsters are, however, relatively easy to look after and despite the clever advertising and pretty packaging, they don’t need a cage packed full of gizmos and gadgets. There are, however, a set of basic items that you will need to purchase prior to bringing your hamster home.

Below I have listed the start-up essentials that your hamster will need:

1. Cage

Depending on the species of hamster you pick, you need to have a cage large enough for it to grow in to, live and scamper around. Hamsters are incredibly energetic, so need plenty of space to play. Cages can range from $20-$100 and can come with metal bars or see-through glass. You must ensure that they are well-ventilated and easy to clean.

After spending money on 2 cages that still didn’t fulfil our hamster’s needs, we ended up building our own bin cage. This was made from 2 deep plastic boxes, that are fixed together with a metal tunnel and a wire mesh lid. With plenty of room to run around in, Oscar now has a castle for a home.

making a hamster bin cage
We made our Syrian hamster a bin cage which he loves and is easy to clean.

2. Bedding

Most hamsters (although not all!) are burrowers by nature, so you need to ensure that you have enough substrate for them to dig and hide. A typical Syrian hamster will need a layer of wood shavings between 4-7inches and plenty of cozy bedding for nesting.

A word of warning when purchasing materials though. Always try to use aspen wood shaving and paper-based bedding as both are safe and readily available. Steer well clear of cedar and pine-wood chips as the odor can be irritating to your hamster’s respiratory systems and can aggravate the eyes causing what is known as ‘pink eye’.

3. Food dish

A simple food dish is not expensive, generally costing around $5. Hamsters are notorious for stockpiling their food, however, so don’t be offended if they decide not to feed from their brand-new bowl, but instead place their wares in various piles around their cage. It’s a wild instinct that has been applied to captivity in which a hamster will sift through their bowl choosing the tastiest bits to eat first.

4. Food

A good diet can make a big difference to your hamster’s health. Hamsters tend to go for the most fattening foods first, so it is not unusual to see them chomping away on a handful of sunflower seeds whilst ignoring the rest of the mix. But just because they love them, does not mean they should binge on them! After all, most kids love candy, but we want them to eat their greens too.

We purchase a pellet and seed mix bag for Oscar which is sold at our local pet store, as this gives him plenty of variety and is very nutritious. These bags cost $18. For more advice on what hamsters should eat, click here.

5. Water bottle

Whether you choose a plastic or a glass bottle, these should be filled up daily. Inexpensive to purchase (costing around $6-$12) I would recommend investing in more than one. We have multiple water bottles in our house, just in case we ever go away overnight and one happens to get jammed, blocked up or drips dry. By attaching 2 to his cage, ensures that he always has a watering hole to quench his thirst.

6. Hideout

All hamsters will appreciate a place where they can retreat in order to feel safe and sleep. This can be anything from a cardboard box to a coconut shell and depending on their size and material can be priced anywhere between $5-$12.

No matter how hard we have tried to make Oscar a nice hideout, he still prefers to make his own bed in the corner of his cage or deep within his tunnel. So before shelling out yet more dollars on something fancy, observe your hamster and see for yourself where he likes to lay his head.

7. Chew toys

Hamsters teeth continually grow so in order to keep them in tip-top condition it is important that you purchase toys for them to gnaw. My personal preference is the wooden ones which generally cost around $2. To make life more challenging for Oscar, we hang it up high to encourage him to climb in order to reach it.

8. Toys

Hamsters need exercise, exploration and stimulation and are incredibly active (especially at night). Therefore tunnels, tubes and bridges are great for them to run around in and climbing frames and hammocks are great for scaling. Puzzle toys are also good as they require your hamster to use their brain in order to be rewarded with a treat.

Depending on the size of your cage, we would recommend purchasing 2-3 toys to keep your hamster amused. Hamster toys cost in the region of $5-$10 depending on the type of material they are made from. Try and avoid plastic if you can, not only because it is better for the environment but safer for your hamster should they chew it (and they will!). My kids love to make their own versions using toilet roll holders and empty boxes.

buying a hamster wheel

9. Wheels

A hamster wheel is a must for any cage as it allows your hamster the opportunity to exercise even though they don’t have a lot of room. In the wild, a hamster can run for several miles in just one night, but they obviously can’t do this when confined to a cage. The cost of a wheel will vary depending on the size required.

It is important that you choose the right size of wheel for your breed of hamster as if you get one that is too small, it can cause back problems in the future. Therefore, the cost of a wheel for a Russian Dwarf hamster is going to be cheaper than a wheel for a Syrian but in general, they should never cost more than $40.

Equipment such as exercise balls, burrowing boxes and hamster carriers are all nice to have but are not essential for keeping and caring for your hamster.

syrian hamster bin cage
Oscar’s home certainly has grown and he has plenty of space to explore now.

What to do when you first get a hamster

Take a moment to place yourself in your hamsters’ paws. Just imagine if you had suddenly been whisked away from the bright lights and familiar smells of the pet store, only to find yourself plunged into a new cage, with unfamiliar eyes staring at you. It would be pretty scary, wouldn’t it?

When you first bring your hamster home, you will need to be patient. Your house will be filled with lots of unusual smells so if you can add a familiar piece of bedding from the pet store, it will help your hamster to feel at ease.

Make sure that your hamster is kept indoors and not in a porch or garage, especially during the winter months. Remove them from window ledges or anywhere that there is likely to be cracks or drafts as you do not want any peeps of air creeping through. Alternatively, you don’t want them to be next to hot radiators or in direct sunlight. Finally, if you have other animals in the house, place them in separate rooms wherever possible, making sure that your hamsters’ cage is well out of harm’s way and out of sight from predator’s eyes.

Give it a few days and when your new hamster starts to become inquisitive; you can start the taming process. For our step by step guide on how to tame a hamster, click here.

How to care for your hamster

In the long-term hamsters need very little, relying on us daily for the basics of food, water and shelter. Obviously, we want to care for our hamsters as best we can, so playing and cuddling them helps to secure a bond and allows you to understand your hamster’s behaviors.

Look out for any changes in temperament as these can be signs that your hamster is unwell. We would recommend having a medical fund put aside for emergencies as it is amazing how a quick trip to the vets can soon add up.

Conclusion

A hamster is a great pet to have as they are friendly and full of fun. They are also incredibly interesting to watch playing, burrowing and scampering around. I would strongly recommend that you make sure that you are well prepared with both information and equipment before getting your hamster home, because although hamsters are relatively low maintenance, the better you care for them, the more they will give you back.

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