By Laura Doering
Hamsters certainly exude all things cute; from their endearing napping poses (half hanging out of tunnels/boxes, lying one on top of another or curled up into a ball of utter adorability) to the enthusiastic and often rapid manner in which they eat (e.g. the “Tiny Hamsters Eating Tiny Burritos” YouTube sensation). Compared to other companion animals, hamsters seem almost toy-like in that they are small enough to fit in the palm of the hand and are quite animated when awake. But make no mistake — hamsters are living creatures who deserve the same care, love and respect afforded to other family pets.
Keeping this in mind, here are some things every family with children should consider before bringing a pet hamster into the home.
1. Whose Pet Is It?
Small animal companions like hamsters are all too often thought of as practice pets.
“I hate how hamsters are marketed as so- called ‘starter pets,’ said Claudie, who is known as “The Hamster Whisperer” of New York-based Westchester Rescued Hamster Haven. “As if they weren’t true pets worthy of the kind of care and supervision that a cat or dog would receive.”
Claudie related how she takes in a lot of hamsters who have come from situations in which the parent(s) relegated the animal’s care solely to the child.
“Usually within a few months, when the novelty has worn off and taking care of the hamster starts feeling like a chore, if the parents weren’t into it to begin with, the poor animal gets neglected or maybe dumped somewhere or returned to the pet store, or worse.”
If such a hamster is lucky, he or she ends up going to a shelter like hers, Claudie said. “But small animal rescues are very few and far between.”
Before she adopts out a hamster to a family with children, Claudie says that she needs assurance that the parents are on board with ultimately being responsible for the hamster’s health and well-being.
“They need to be there to help with and supervise all care and handling,” Claudie said, “with the exception of some older children, if they’ve got a proven track record of being a great ‘hamster parent.’”
2. Will Rules Be Followed?
Hamsters are prey animals, so gentle handling goes a long way in fostering the trust needed to have a pet who will enjoy being interacted with. Is the child mature enough not to throw the hamster if the hamster urinates or nibbles on the child’s hand? It might seem like a silly question but that is exactly how some children might react, and the result can be a hamster who is severely injured or even killed. Can you trust the child not to leave open the hamster’s enclosure? There’s a good chance you’ll have a hamster on the lam in your home if the cage/enclosure is left open, even for a brief moment, and getting the hamster back can prove to be a challenging endeavor.
Family rules in regard to handling and interaction are a must if there are small children in the home, even if the hamster is designated as a sibling’s pet. The same diligence that goes into making sure a toddler safely interacts with his or her newborn sibling is called for when it comes to the family “hammy.”
3. Is The Family Prepared?
Harkening back to the notion of hamsters being “practice pets” or “starter pets,” is the fact that a hamster is more likely to be brought home as an “impulse buy,” especially when compared to cat or dog companions. No matter the size (or the potential life span), adding any pet to the family dynamic should follow a well-thought-out plan for that pet’s care. This includes veterinary care, preferably with a veterinarian who has experience in treating exotic pets, as opposed to a general cat/dog veterinarian.
“Sadly, many people don’t consider hamsters worthy of the kind of humane care they’d afford other kinds of pets such as a cat or dog because of that ‘starter pet’ mentality,” Claudie said.
4. What Are Good Hamster House Rules?
Claudie recommends establishing the following house rules to ensure the health and happiness of the family’s hamster:
- Always sit on the floor, on a couch or chair or somewhere else low to the floor when handling a hamster. Hamsters have bad eyesight and therefore have a poor sense of height.
- “They can be calm one second and then take a flying leap out of your hands the next,” Claudie said. “If they do this when the person holding them is standing up, the poor hamster will get badly injured or even killed from such a big drop.”
- Never lift up the hideaway/box/igloo, etc. to get the hamster out.
- “They need a safe place to sleep where they know no big giant is ever going to startle them in that way,” Claudie said.
- Never allow visitors to handle the hamster without adult supervision.
“Kids often invite friends over who most likely won’t know the do’s and don’ts of hamster-handling,” Claudie said, “and may terrify or even hurt the hamster.”
5. What Behavior Can You Expect From A Hamster?
Hamsters behave like hamsters, and sometimes this can be puzzling or alarming for people if they don’t know what normal hamster behavior is like. Below are just a few of the most common hamster behaviors.
Hamsters are inclined to store food. They will stuff their cheeks with food (like a squirrel) and stash it in hiding spots throughout their cage/habitat. Be careful that your child isn’t sneaking extra snacks or potentially unhealthy food to your hammy. While it is said that hamsters don’t generally overeat, they, like us, will pick out the more fatty foods of the bunch.
Has Anyone Seen The Hamster?
Hamsters are also natural burrowers, so before sending out an in-home search party, check the hamster’s habitat to make sure he/she isn’t just snoozing in the privacy of his/her burrow.
Rumblings At Night
Before the family hamster becomes your older child’s roommate, keep in mind that hamsters can be quite active during the night. If your child is a light sleeper, consider creating a hamster haven separate from your household’s bedrooms.