By Martha Boden
I’m very new to hamsters. I have a friend who works for an animal rescue, and she was always telling me how bad she felt for the hamsters and other rodents, because people don’t realize that those pets are abandoned as frequently as larger pets, and so they don’t think to go to the rescue to adopt one, opting instead for the pet shop. She showed me some pictures, and it was all over — I had to have one… or two. Now my 8-year-old son and I have two Syrian hamsters, a male and a female, and they’re just delightful. The problem is that they’re young and energetic, and they won’t sit still. We want to show them affection and attention, but they just seem to want to wander around. One day my son turned his head away for a moment while sitting on the couch with the girl, and she was gone! We searched frantically for a half hour, and found her almost out the door. Ever since, we’ve been wary of even taking them out of their cages for cleaning (they’re in separate cages not only because we know that both male and female Syrian hamsters must be housed alone, but because of the possibility they’ll mate). We seem to be missing something, because we can’t figure out how to get more “quality time” with our hamsters, or if they even want that. Can you offer any advice?
Congratulations on your adoption and your great choice of pet! Did you know that the word hamster comes from an old German word for “hoarder”? You might wonder why I’d bring that up.
Hamster veterans all know an eternal truism about their favorite pets: hamsters don’t play with you, they play ON you. Some hamsters may be content to sit in your lap for a few minutes and enjoy a petting session, but most hamsters are constant ramblers, wandering from place to place with focused attention, as if they were prisoners fleeing their jailer. It can feel really discouraging to owners who want quality time with their pet.
Roaming Is What Hamsters Do
But the hamster urge to ramble, that restlessness, is perfectly normal, and in fact it’s their “comfort zone.” Hamsters are very driven by their instincts, and their instincts tell them to go places and gather more provisions. They’re terribly industrious, and this instinct serves them well in nature by allowing them to survive alone and hidden from predators for long periods, and to give birth to healthy new hamster life with confidence that they’ll be able to nourish their young.
So when your hamsters seem to be wandering around determinedly, remember that since the beginning of time they’ve got this idea that what they ought to be doing is exploring for nourishment and gathering it in. It’s why we give them wheels to run in. When they’re running endlessly, they’re fulfilling the purpose of life as they see it.
You asked if they even want to play with you, and there I can answer with a resounding “yes!” As you’ve pointed out, Syrian hamsters are solitary. The only time they’re ever going to meet another living creature in the wild is to mate or fight. When you bonded with those Syrian hamsters you changed their perspective on everything. Now they had one living being they could sidle up to safely. You’re truly their only friend and ally, so of course they want to be with you. You’ll find the boy a little more genial and the girl a little more wary, but that’s superficial, and varies according to the hamster’s personality. Yes, they want to be with you, and yes, they’ve got a “job” to do. The good news is that there’s a way you can fulfill both those goals pretty easily.
If You Build It, Your Hamster Will Enjoy It
Some people build large, elaborate homes for their hamsters, with lots of slides, tubes and chambers. These are surely fun for the pet, because you (and your hamster) can hide bits of treats around the quarters, and they can wander from place to place in imitation of their life outdoors. That can be good for people who don’t need or don’t have the time to interact with their hamster. But a hamster can live happily in a small fish tank if you have just a little space elsewhere to build a “Hamster Amusement Park” — which many of us just call a playpen — and give each Syrian 20 minutes a day alone in it.
The playpen can be any large, non-porous, smooth-walled container from about 3.5 feet square (it can be circular). It should have walls high enough that the hamster cannot jump over them, and no edges for the hamster to chew on and create holes to escape. In a pinch, you could even use your bathtub, as long as you’re super-careful about cleaning out any soap residue and whatnot, and sealing the drains carefully so that there are no holes of any kind to get into. But better to use inexpensive, hard plastic kiddie pools, which can be excellent, as long as the walls are high enough. If you’re handy with wood, building a big open box out of scrap pine or plywood is very easy. In fact, though it’s not feasible in all cases, one of my favorite rescues in New York, the Westchester Rescued Hamster Haven, has perfectly flat, smooth floors, so they only needed to build the four standing walls from wood or aluminum.
What should you put in your hamster amusement park? Here’s the best news of all: hamsters are VERY easily amused! Clean cookie and cereal boxes work beautifully. Just pile them up randomly, and let your pets climb, or organize them into paths, and connect them with paper towel tubes. You can fill an entire playpen with climbing stations and hideouts for no cost at all. And when the boxes get soiled and chewed, as they inevitably will, just toss them and start again. An extra wheel is also a good idea. Though they have one in their cage or tank, whenever they run they feel like they’re going somewhere new, so it’s all good (it’s like having dinner at a local restaurant, even though you can make it at home, just for the change of atmosphere). Remember to clean the pen up often, for your benefit and theirs. Hamsters will hold it in if they can, so you don’t need a layer of substrate, necessarily, as long as they’re not left at the “amusement park” for too long.
You can toss a few raisins or other safe treats into the playpen to give your pet some “treasure” to discover, and make the experience even more like foraging in the wild. The most fun part is if you can make your playpen large enough and sturdy enough for you to get entirely inside yourself, and even become a part of it. Then your hamsters can truly “play on you” safely, and trust me, they will! You can sit in there with a book or tablet, your son can do his homework, and your hamster will delightedly play on and about you. Every now and then they’ll climb delightedly to the top of a box, or your knee, and look back at you for acknowledgment, as if to say, “Hey Mom and Dad, look at me!” You can create your own hamster amusement wonderland, and you’ll be one of the amusements. So if you’re looking for a great way to have quality time with your hamster, consider a visit to HAMSTERLAND!