By Martha Boden
What is a good diet for my teddy bear hamster?
One great thing about caring for hamsters is that you can feed them a very wholesome, life-sustaining diet for very little. “Teddy Bear” is a marketing term for a longhaired Syrian hamster, and so I’ll address my answer to that species specifically, and also mention a few variables that apply to dwarf diets. It’s always best to consult a veterinarian with hamster experience if you’re concerned about the diet you’re feeding your pet.
Fresh foods are very beneficial for hamsters. They can certainly exist entirely on packaged foods and there are some excellent ones available. There is also a sort of biscuit known as a “lab block.” You can find these online and in some of the better stores catering to small pets. As the name suggests, these blocks comprise a complete and balanced diet in processed form. The advantage for laboratories is that researchers need to know precisely what foods and nutrients the animals have ingested, to eliminate those variables when analyzing test results. But note that laboratory animals aren’t kept alive to be companions for people but to help science progress. So while hamsters can theoretically live entirely on lab blocks, it may not be much of a life. As a supplement to a proper diet, and because they’re hard and provide a necessary chew to aid in keeping your hamster’s teeth healthy, they may be a good addition.
Packaged mixes are far more common, but they’re not a complete answer either. For one thing there’s tremendous variation in their contents and nutritional value. Read the label and you’ll see that protein content, one of the most important factors in formulating a diet for a hamster, can vary from as low as 11 percent to as high as 17 percent. Bagged foods (and lab blocks as well) will also deteriorate over time. Moisture and oxidation rob them of nutrients, and oils contained in some of the seeds and grains can become rancid. Freshness dating helps, but it’s never certain how a shop stores its hamster food, and the food could be nothing but empty calories by the time it gets to you. Finally, with mixes, hamsters pick the things they like and ignore what they don’t, so a hamster whose bowl is full every day may still suffer from malnutrition!
Fresh, whole foods are greatly beneficial to hamsters because nutrition from whole food products is assimilated into the system more efficiently than from processed products. They’re also inexpensive. A single carrot or apple will provide part of a hamster’s diet for a week, and cost just a few cents. So I tend to recommend a tablespoon full of high-quality mix per day, just to be sure you’re touching all nutritional bases, and suggest this should be supplemented with “freshies.”
Below I’ve compiled a long list of good fresh foods to form your hamster’s diet. One point I want to make clear from the outset is that you should be changing your hamster’s food (and washing out the dish) every day. This is important for the reason above – the hamster will take what he wants and leave behind what he doesn’t, so better to feed a bit less each day and toss the leftovers the next. Also, fresh foods will go bad and possibly attract insects, so not only should you throw away leftover fresh foods in the bowl each day, but you should track them down where the hamster may have stored them around his dwelling and discard those as well.
© Gina Cioli/I-5 Studio
Lab blocks are a good supplement to a diet because they are hard and help wear down a hamster’s constantly growing teeth.
Hamsters take great delight in fresh foods, and feeding can be one of the most effective tools in positive behavioral conditioning. There are so many good reasons to share your hamster-safe “people food” with your hamster every day, not the least of which is that it becomes a happy bond you share. Following is a list of foods to consider, offered in small portions and just one or two from the list per day.
- Dried beans and legumes: Most that you’ll find in the whole grain section of the market are fine in moderation. The best include split peas, garbanzos, pinto beans, lima beans, black beans and lentils.
- Dry, unflavored popcorn (they only eat the sweet, white part and toss the rest). Limit this to a kernel or so a day. Many packaged foods contain this as well. Note: if the hamster is a dwarf, or there’s any suspicion it may be diabetic, corn carries too high of a glycemic load and should be avoided.
- A few buckwheat groats and/or whole-wheat grains, as well as wheat germ.
- Quinoa, both raw and cooked
- A small piece of raw or steamed, peeled carrot, pumpkin, sweet potato.
- Spinach, kale, celery (including leaves).
- A small piece of lettuce/cabbage or other green, leafy vegetable, as well as a small chunk of fresh string bean, snow pea or snap pea. Also, carrots and their tops, parsley, red or green cabbage, bok choy, arugula, radicchio or cauliflower.
- A chunk of tofu. Tofu is a remarkable food, and they tend to prefer the kind called “silken.” It’s full of vitamins and minerals while being very low in fat. It also provides needed hydration. All around, it’s something of a “wonder food.” Just be careful to refrigerate it, change the water it’s stored in daily, and discard or use tofu that’s more than 8 or 9 days old. Also, feed only a small chunk, perhaps a teaspoonful, and remove the leftover before it goes bad. (Most hamsters go for it right away – it’s like healthy pudding!)
- Dried rolled oats
- Pearl barley grains
- Millet grains
- Broccoli (they love the leaves too, which you would normally throw away)
- A few brown rice grains
- Unsalted, roasted nuts (typically a peanut or two, a cashew, almond, and pine or soy nuts)
- A raisin or small piece of unsweetened, unsulfured dried berry, fig or other fruit
- A few sunflower seeds and a few pumpkin seeds. In the fall when the family prepares squash, pumpkin, zucchini and other harvest vegetables, save those seeds that you’d normally throw away and surprise your hamster with them. They love seeds from vegetables, the fresher and the moister, the better. They also love melon seeds.
- Sesame, safflower and flax seeds
- Fresh pear or apple slice, often a piece of peach, a grape or cherry (pitted). In the case of apples it’s advisable to remove the skin and necessary to remove seeds. Apple seeds and most stone fruit seeds are toxic, and any toxins in the environment may reside in the skin. Many hamsters actually avoid fruit skins instinctively. Other favored fruits include blueberries, strawberries, pear, peach, any melon and papaya.
- Occasionally, plain, steamed chicken or turkey, poached tuna, scrambled egg, the white of a hard-boiled egg.
- When you’re having pasta, always share (plain) – it’s a favorite!
Dwarf Hamsters And Sweets
Fruits and vegetables must be washed very carefully, and peeling is advisable where appropriate, simply to avoid the possibility of the pet ingesting soil or anything unhealthy on the surface.
Processed sweets aren’t any better for hamsters than they are for most of us! While a bit of a plain biscuit or cake isn’t a terrible danger, too many sweets can have unwanted results, so please be cautious about feeding them and always read food labels.
However, feeding fruit in moderation to Syrian hamsters of any age is generally recommended. But dwarf Campbell’s and Winter White hamsters are particularly vulnerable to diabetes. If your hamster is one of these species, avoid feeding fruit or other high-sugar foods altogether before 1 year of age. After then, even if the hamster shows no indication of being diabetic, because of the frequency with which diabetes appears in these species, it’s best to limit all foods with high-sugar content very strictly.
What Not To Feed Hamsters
Naturally, your mixture will vary from time to time, depending upon what’s available, what you’re eating, their own preferences and whatnot. Now, this is a long list, but believe it or not, it’s not complete. You can safely improvise, bearing in mind the dangerous foods below. The important points are to discard leftovers, and to feed everything in moderation. A hamster can eat up to 10 percent of its body weight each day. So the total mix of foods should be as little as three tablespoons worth in the bowl (which is also why hamsters are such inexpensive pets to care for).
With all of this flexibility, you should be aware that there are certain foods that must never be fed. Main among these are: sticky foods, foods with sharp edges, carbonated drinks, caffeine, chocolate, onions, garlic, leeks, chives, scallions, avocado, eggplant, hot peppers, red kidney beans, raw potato or any sprouts or green parts of a potato, raw rhubarb or any rhubarb greens, tomato greens, sprouts from mung beans/lentils/chickpeas or other legumes, pits or seeds from cherries/apples/peaches/avocados, raw peanuts (boiled, they’re OK in moderation), acorns, bitter almonds, buckeyes, citrus fruits or other acidic foods, and foods prepared with salt, vinegar, sulfites or spices.
Your hamster may live a longer life with fresh foods than with dried and processed foods, although I don’t want to make any promises. What I can guarantee is that they’ll enjoy fuller, happier lives with a varied diet, partly because you’ll be enjoying your time with them while actively participating in their everyday experience in a way that simply pouring a store-bought mix into a bowl can’t offer.