By Martha Boden
My hamster seems to shake when I am holding him but otherwise seems content. Is this just nervousness?
This is an extremely interesting question, but it is also very difficult to answer without more information. The two most important factors that come to mind are the age of the hamster and whether this is something new or something he’s always done.
Shaking and trembling are never a good sign, but in some cases it’s nothing to worry about. It’s rare, but some hamsters are born with nervous system defects that cause them to have unusual physical movements. You may have heard of the “fainting goat,” a breed that falls down when its nervous system is overstimulated. It is not a matter of the goat being frightened, but if you clap your hands near it, it will fall. Hamsters have been known to have similar defects that cause them to flip suddenly or exhibit other odd physical tics. If that is the case here, then there’s nothing you can do but treat the hamster as gently as possible, and otherwise completely normally.
Hamsters of any age or variety, but particularly elderly Syrian hamsters, may tremble from heart conditions, such as congestive heart failure, which is a progressive disease but potentially treatable. In such cases the hamster generally trembles when at rest, though trembling will not be visible when it is moving about. If this describes the hamster in question, he may be trembling in the hand because he is relaxed. A checkup with a veterinarian specializing in small pets may be warranted.
Looking from the opposite view, he may indeed be somewhat fearful of being held, but otherwise entirely healthy! If he’s a new member of your family, it’s possible he’s just timid, particularly if this is something he’s done since you got him. If this is a sudden change in his behavior it could indicate illness, but it may also mean you’re going to need to work it out through conditioning, as it would suggest he’s become increasingly jittery around you.
Some basic techniques you can try should begin to ease your hamster into being held. One is to pick him up with a plastic or metal scoop rather than your hand. But in order to introduce your presence, so he becomes more comfortable with you over time, a soda bottle scoop may work best.
To make a soda bottle scoop, use an empty, clear plastic, 1-liter bottle, such as those for club soda. Remove any labels. With strong scissors or a blade, remove the base of the bottle to about a third of the way up. Now trim the top half of the remaining 2/3 lengthwise, so that the shape resembles a scoop, like the kind you’d scoop coffee or nuts out of a barrel with. Be careful, the edges of the plastic can be sharp.
When you want to pick the hamster up, lay the “scoop” in the palm of your hand. It will warm slightly from your body temperature, and your skin will be visible. It will look more or less like your hand to the hamster, but there will be a thin wall of “protection” for your hamster, because there will be no scent from your hand. Hamsters are most stimulated by scents. Most hamsters become accustomed to the bare hand rather soon with the use of this device.
Speaking of scents, it’s a good idea to wash your hands with the same mild, scent-neutral hand soap every time you touch your hamster.
Routine plays a tremendous part in a hamster’s life. By reserving the same time and location for play every day, and making sure that everything about the experience resembles the previous time, the hamster can come to anticipate this interaction and be less nervous about it.
Another tip is to constantly impress upon the hamster that your hands will not harm him. Start to do this very simply by letting him walk on a safe surface (like the seat of a chair with sides) where you’ve placed your hands, unmoving, palms down, fingers gently together. If he should make a gesture to indicate he wants to nibble curiously on you, blow very slowly and gently toward his face and he’ll stop. Let him explore. On a larger surface, gently nudge him away from the edges with the back of your closed hand or your wrist. Hamsters fear being grasped more than being touched. You can even sit in a sealed, dry bathtub and just let the hamster walk all around upon you. There are few better ways to inform a hamster that you may be big, but you’re no brute. Good luck!