Q: I just recently bought a hamster for the first time. I’ve had friends and family members who have had them in the past, and I am familiar with them. I’ve had my Syrian hamster, named Rufus, for about two and a half weeks. He seems to be adjusting well and enjoying his environment. He did bite once, enough to draw blood, but I did wake him up from his sleep. Since then I’ve been very careful to only pick him up when he’s moving around. For the first week or so, I spent a lot of time just talking to him and petting him in his cage. He was very jumpy, but for the most part now, I can hold him in my hands and let him crawl around without him jumping away. Do you have any suggestions for me to further build a relationship with him? Also, I haven’t seen him develop a sleeping schedule yet. Most days he doesn’t get up until after 7 p.m. and goes to sleep by 7 in the morning. I don’t notice him during the day, which is understandable. However, there are some days when he’s still in bed until 9 or 10 p.m. and asleep again by 7 a.m. Should I be concerned that he is not as active on certain days? Does he need more time to adjust to his new environment?
A: Let’s start with your last thought, first. By the time you read this you may already have your answer. Two weeks is not an unusual amount of time for a Syrian hamster to take to become acclimated to a new environment. If he’s a youngster his schedule may become even more erratic before it becomes regular, because very young hamsters tend to burn a ton of energy then fall fast asleep. As hamsters get older they work out how to pace themselves.
Syrian hamsters are used to extreme regularity, so in a short while his eating, playing, sleeping, etc. will take on regular patterns. If you then wish to modify those patterns it’s actually easier, because all of the normal functions of his day will tend to be connected. So feeding him earlier every day, without fail, will cause him to rise a little earlier. As long as you very consistently change some pattern of activity that affects him, everything else will follow in its course.
Aspects of your own local environment may also affect his adjustment. Do you have other pets present in your home? Is his cage downwind from where you cook? Does he have a small box or other sort of hideaway within the cage so that he can avoid outside commotion? That latter feature is something Syrian hamsters really get a lot out of, because being away from the gaze of other animals is an extremely important factor in their adaptation as a species.
It sounds like you’ve already established a good relationship with Rufus. When Syrian hamsters become accustomed to a human’s touch they really never give up the trust that they establish, it just gets better. From here out there really shouldn’t be any more biting except under very specific conditions. Yes, if you startle him he might react, but even that will wear off over time when he gets more used to that “clumsy, intrusive, giant” outside his house. Once he knows it’s you, he’ll likely welcome the company. Just be sure that you always wash your hands before touching him.
Hamsters don’t see well, but their sense of smell is simply amazing. So if you’ve been touching another hamster, for instance, before he can hear or see you reaching toward him he’ll sense another hamster “flying” in his direction! You would forgive his shock and bewilderment, I’m sure! So washing hands every time, and just as importantly, holding your hands in front of him for a moment before picking him up are always important procedures. The only other time a Syrian will bite its known human is when it’s sick or in pain. So we hope you’ll never have to experience that. For more general information, a great resource is the California Hamster Association site; check out their index page for helpful newsletter articles.
The things that will bring you closer together are things like a “play pen” or a hamster-safe room, where you can just sit on the floor and let Rufus crawl all over you. Remember the common phrase “hamsters don’t play with you, they play on you.” And so all you really have to do is sit with him. Hamsters get a kick out of this, and will often do funny things just to make sure they have your attention, which they crave. If you haven’t the time or space to build a secure play pen or play space for him (that’s big enough for you to join him), just sit in a dry bath tub and read a book while Rufus climbs and plays around you. Remember to seal drains or other places a hamster might get stuck.
As I’m sure you know, Syrian hamsters are solitary creatures, but they do learn to have affection for their human host. You’re going to be Rufus’ only friend in the world from now on, in a manner of speaking. Don’t worry, he knows it. And if you’re thinking of ways to make his life better every day, he’ll know that, too; and believe me, he’ll show you his thanks in many subtle, hamster-y ways.