Hamsters can do so more than just run on a wheel and gather some food out of a bowl. They're really intelligent little animals, and they naturally like to keep busy. But a lot of the hamster toys out there haven't been made with natural hamster behaviours in mind, so our hammies don't find them very interesting. In this post we're going to look at some natural hamster behaviours, what hamsters actually like to do, and how we can help
In case you haven't noticed, hamsters love nothing more than a tasty snack. In the wild, hamsters spend a huge amount of their time foraging for food. They spend their time gathering up grains, seeds, insects and leaves, and our pet hamsters should be able to do the same thing. Rummaging around for their food keeps a hamster busy, which reduces stress-related behaviours, and gives them a lot of enrichment. It's also more natural for them to eat quite a wide range of different foods, instead of just collecting a few pellets out of a bowl.
Scatter feeding your hamster is a great way to encourage foraging and keep your hamster busy. Although it's easier for them to just collect food out of a bowl, and the easier option naturally appeals to us, that's not the way our hamsters see it. Like a lot of other animals, hamsters get a lot of enrichment out of having to find their food, and this much better simulates their natural environment.
Seed & forage mixes are a great food option for hamsters to encourage foraging, and keep what their eating more interesting. Although it can be a little trickier to make sure they're getting all the right nutrients than it would with a pellet feed, a good quality seed mix can still give your hamster a healthy diet, and let them have a bit more fun with their food at the same time. Again, it much more closely replicates what they would naturally be eating in the wild
To make foraging even more fun for your hamster, you can introduce some different substrates into their enclosure. Areas of different substrates can add an extra bit of a challenge to foraging for their food and make things even more interesting. Coir (dried coconut fibre) is a great hamster-friendly option, and so are coconut husk chips, soft dust-free hay, and some types of wood shavings.
And lastly, seed sprays and other dried plants (hamster-safe ones of course), are great for encouraging your hamster to forage. One of my syrians, Tallie, loves nothing more than to rummage around in a flax spray and pouch all the seeds she finds. Dried sunflower heads are usually pretty popular too! Seed sprays are also really good for giving your hamster some cover in more open areas of their enclosure, and helping them feel a bit safer.
When they're not foraging for their food, hamsters in the wild spend a lot of time burrowing. So this is another natural behaviour that we need to really encourage! There are a few things you can do to encourage your hamster burrow . . .
Really deep bedding is the most important part. For a hamster to feel it would be worth their while to burrow, the bedding usually needs to be at least 30cm deep, and this depth should cover an area of at least 30x30cm.
Layers of different substrates are really important as well, because this helps any tunnels your hamster digs to hold their shape. For your main bedding I tend to recommend Kaytee Clean & Cosy or something similar, and then you can have thin layers of other types such as hemp bedding, hamster-friendly wood shavings and dust free soft hay in between.
Tunnels can also help to start your hamster burrowing if you cover most of the tunnel in bedding but leave one end open to get them started
Some hamsters are more adventurous than others, but if you've ever had your hamster out of their enclosure for some free-roam time, you'll know how much a hamster can enjoy exploring. A play area can work well for your hamster if they tend to wake up at a time that suits for you to let them out to play, you're able to supervise them whilst they're out, and you have the space, but this doesn't work for everyone. If free-roam time doesn't really work for you, here are a couple of other ways you can help your hamster do a bit more exploring within their own enclosure. . .
Keeping things cluttered in your hamster's enclosure is a great way give them more things to explore. If there's lots of different things to go under, around, over and through, there's more different paths for your hamster to take, even just going from one part of their enclosure to another.
Regularly adding in new enrichment (whether that's sprays, forage, or other toys) to your hamster's enclosure gives them new things to investigate and explore, and keeps life a bit more interesting for them. Bear in mind here though that more nervous hamsters might be a bit unsure of new things, and it might take a little while before they decide to play with them.
And of course, the bigger the better when it comes to your hamster's cage. The minimum recommended cage size for a hamster is 80x50cm, but this really is just a minimum. Research has shown that pet hamsters really need at least 100 x 100cm in floor space, so as not be stressed by the size of their environment.
Thanks for reading, and I hope this post was helpful to you and your hamsters!
It all began one spring day back in 1930. Eight feet below a field of wheat in Aleppo, Syria, lived a wild hamster and her 11 newborn pups. Worn out from caring for her babies, she curled up in her burrow to go to sleep.
Unbeknown to the hamster, a group of men led by a biologist named Israel Aharhoni were on a mission to find and capture her young. They succeeded. After a lot of digging, much to the irritation of the farmer who owned the field, the team found her nest, took the mother and her eleven babies, and placed them in a box together.
As hamsters do when they get stressed or their nest is disturbed, the mother started to cannibalize her pups. Fearful that she might eat them all and spoil the success of their mission, a local hunter from the group took the mother and gassed her with cyanide.
When Aharoni returned home to Jerusalem with ten orphaned baby hamsters, he likely had no idea that the descendants of two of these baby wild animals he had captured would one day live in the homes of people around the world. His friend Saul Adler, a Professor of parasitology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, thought that the hamsters would make suitable models for studying human illnesses, and so the plan was to breed them for use in research experiments.
Aharoni’s captives apparently had a different idea. They all made a break for it. But their newfound freedom was short-lived. Nine of the ten were successfully found, at least for a while. Five of the hamsters later gnawed their way out of their cage and disappeared — never to be seen again.
Following that, the only-remaining male hamster attacked and ate one of his sisters, leaving the scientists with only three hamsters. Just when it was beginning to look as though the plan wasn’t working out, the male and one of his remaining sisters finally mated, and the world’s first-ever recorded captive-bred litter of Syrian hamsters was born.
As it turned out, Adler wasn’t the only scientist who thought that Syrian hamsters would be useful for experimenting on. By the late 1940s, the descendants of those first two captive hamster parents were being bred, experimented on, and dissected in research laboratories around the world. They are still widely used in animal research today.
In 1931, Adler brought two male and two female Syrian hamsters from the university in Jerusalem to the UK, where he gifted them to his close friend and fellow parasitologist Edward Hindle. From these four hamsters came most, if not all, companion Syrian hamsters in the UK today.
Over the next few years, as Hindle bred and distributed them to various institutions, including London Zoo and Glasgow University, the hamsters continued to multiply. By the mid-to-late 1930s, scientists seemingly had more hamsters than they could use and began to sell them off. Before the end of the decade, Syrian hamsters could be found in pet shops across the country.
While keeping hamsters as pets seems to many people like a harmless idea, the practice is deeply rooted in the cruel commodification of animal lives. Hamsters should arguably never have become pets, but now that they are, the least we can do is give them the best possible care.