Table of Contents

Understanding Your Hamster’s Needs For Your Enclosure

Hamsters in the wild

Hamsters are active and territorial creatures. In their natural habitat, wild hamsters cover extensive distances daily in search of food and resources. They build elaborate tunnels where they spend their time sleeping and keeping themselves and their hoard safe from predators and other opportunistic animals. This article aims to explain your hamster’s natural behavioral traits, and the steps we can do to protect their welfare in captivity.

Behavioral traits and requirements

Hamsters are solitary

Most species of hamsters are strictly solitary. That means they prefer to live alone. For example, Syrian hamsters will only ever make contact for mating purposes. When they construct their burrows, only one hamster will inhabit it. The only exception is a mother female hamster with babies(Gatterman et al 2001).

They live very far apart in the wild. In an area of 3 hectares, 15 burrows were found, and only 6 of them were occupied.To put this into perspective, this is about 5.5 football fields of space. The closest distance between two hamster neighbors was measured at 118 meters (Gatterman et al 2001).

Making hamsters live together will result in stress and injury. In a study conducted by Arnold and Estep in 1990, over 40% of male hamsters who lived together were injured. Many of them had open slashes or healing wounds. Keeping hamsters together can also lead to them becoming obese.

In a survey conducted by Joanna Hedley published in 2023, they found that over 70% of people who co-housed their dwarf hamsters separated them due to aggression. While there is evidence that certain species of dwarf hamsters, particularly the Campbell Dwarf and Roborovski Dwarf Hamster, have a high tolerance for groups in captivity (Ross 1995, Kolynchuk); they are still classified as solitary species. In the wild, these hamsters typically live alone. Hamster keepers should refrain from group-housing their hamsters due to the high risks of aggression and injury.

Ghost Hamsters

“Ghost hamster” is a term coined by DogsHamsters in 2020 to describe the phenomena of hamsters who come out late in the night when no one is around to see them. These hamsters are characterized by their aversion to human contact and many of their owners reportedly do not see them for extended periods of time spanning for months. This is not something to be concerned about as many hamsters just don’t appreciate human company.

In her video titled 'What is a Ghost Hamster?', Victoria Raechel gives suggestions on how to monitor a more elusive hamster. She recommends assessing your hamster's recent food consumption and purchasing a camera for remote monitoring when you're not present. For health checks, DogsHamsters suggests occasionally setting an alarm that coincides with your hamster's peak activity hours. This allows you to observe them and ensure their well-being.

However, if your hamster, who was previously quite sociable with human interaction, has suddenly become drastically more reclusive, there may be underlying reasons for this behavioral shift. It's essential to monitor their eating and drinking habits closely. Additionally, be vigilant for any signs of illness within the enclosure, such as diarrhea or the presence of blood. Given that prey animals often conceal signs of illness, it's crucial to consult a veterinarian if you suspect your hamster is unwell or have valid reasons to suspect their health is compromised.

Hamsters need to burrow

In the wild, hamsters have burrows that span deep underground, and these burrows have different chambers for different purposes. Syrian hamster mothers, for example, will construct burrows specifically for their nest and have separate chambers for urination and their food hoard. Syrian hamster burrows depths ranged from 36 - 106cm (that’s about 3ft and 5 inches deep into the ground) and the length of the tunnels could sometimes surpass 9m (about 30ft long).(Gatterman et al 2001)

Similarly, Campbell Dwarves and Winter White hamsters also have burrows that can go as deep as 1m into the ground (a little deeper then 3 ft), but most Campbell dwarf hamsters have burrows about 30cm into the ground (approx 12 inches) (Ross 1995, 1998). Chinese Dwarf Hamsters have had summer nests as deep as 40-60cm deep (16 - 24 inches), and winter nests as deep as 1m (3 feet) (Pallas).

Even Roborovski hamsters, the smallest hamsters, have burrows 90cm deep (almost 3ft) into the soil. They also have separate chambers for their nest and hoards, and a “dead-end tunnel” used for urination (Kolynchuk).

A study done by Hauzenberger et al shows that hamsters provided with bedding less with shallow bedding were more prone to bar biting, while hamsters given 40cm (15 inches) of bedding reduced this behavior significantly. Hamsters that were given 80cm of bedding did not barbite at all (31 inches).

As you can see, being able to construct burrows is part of a hamster’s natural behavior. Depriving them of this is bad for their welfare and will ultimately cause your hamster a great deal of stress. We also recommend giving your hamsters access to a multi-chamber hide.

Hamsters need to hoard

As mentioned above, hamsters are natural burrowers, and in their burrows, they create chambers that serve as storage for their hoards. Hamsters use their cheek pouches to take food and transport it back to their burrows. This is a natural behavior that has been observed in the wild.

In captivity, a study conducted by Buckley and Schneider in 2003 showed that food deprivation led to an increase in hoarding activity by hamsters. A similar study conducted by Lea and Tarpy shows that when hamsters experience a period of food deprivation, they hoard more food. However, the study also showed that hamsters maintain the amount of food they eat, regardless of hoarding behavior.

Bartness and Clein also conducted a study in 1994 using Winter White Hamsters, where they put the hamster in a situation where he had to travel 1.5 meters in order to get food. The result was the hamster traveled, pouched the food, and returned to his hoard. They also found that Winter White hamsters also did not increase their food intake when deprived of food for a period of time, but did increase hoarding behavior.

We recommend regularly scatter-feeding your hamster to stimulate their natural foraging and hoarding instincts. We do not recommend depriving them of food to force them to eat the food in their hoard. We do not recommend removing the hoard unless it is soiled or moist (risk of developing mold), as this could be very stressful for your hamster. Should you need to remove their hoard, we recommend replacing the food that was taken with clean, dry food.

Hamsters are crepuscular

Hamsters are crepuscular, meaning they are most active during the dawn and dusk hours. During the day, they are usually asleep in their burrows, conserving their energy and avoiding predators. In fact, Campbell Hamsters were observed foraging out of their nests for about 3-4 hours between dusk and dawn (Ross 1995).

Hamsters should not be disturbed during the day or when they’re asleep and need to be kept in an environment with predictable lighting conditions (RSPCA).If you find that your hamster is not coming out during these hours, we recommend dimming the lights and making sure the environment is quiet.

Hamsters need to keep themselves clean

Hamsters do not take baths like people do. They do not use water to clean themselves and instead need access to a sand bath. Sand baths clean your hamster’s fur by acting similarly to a comb. A hamster will roll on the sand, and the sand will comb out grime from your hamster’s fur (Wilde). In her video on hamster sand baths,Victoria Raechel explains that water can actually wreck your hamster’s coat by removing necessary oils.

In a study done by Fischer et al in 2007, most hamsters use their sand bath when given access to one. Besides cleaning, sand baths can also be used for claw care and stress relief (Wilde). Roborovskis may require a larger sand bath because of their natural habitat in the wild where they create burrows from sand dunes (Ross 1994).

Some hamsters will not use their sand bath if they feel exposed (Wilde). Because of this, we recommend having a sand bath big enough that you can put a hide on it or getting a sand bath that is partially covered.

Hamster sand should not be confused with “dust” or “powder” as these may be too fine for your hamster and could cause respiratory illnesses. Hamster sand that is scented should also be avoided.

Hamsters do NOT hibernate

Contrary to popular belief, hamsters do not hibernate. Hamsters go into a state that is often mistaken for hibernation called Torpor. Torpor, unlike hibernation, can happen at any time of the year and happens because a hamster needs to conserve energy. It can last from hours or days, and usually ends when the conditions your hamster is in improve (Manuca 2023).

Possible Factors for Triggers include being deprived of food and water, not having access to bedding to burrow into, or if temperatures fall below a hamster’s ideal temperature range. Dr. Manucy, a Veterinarian, explains that this range is from 18 - 24 ºC (65 - 75 º F), and if the environment gets colder than this for 24 hours, a hamster may fall into torpor.

Hamsters in torpor may look like they’re deceased. Check if your hamster is breathing (usually once every two minutes), or for a heartbeat (three beats per minute). Their nose and feet may also be discolored from a lack of blood circulation (Clarke 2020). To know what to do when your hamster is in torpor, we recommend checking out Ginger's Guide.

Is your hamster bored? An introduction to hamster stereotypies.

Stereotypies are repetitive, invariant behaviors that could be caused by an animal attempting to adapt to its environment (Manteca & Salas). These repetitive behaviors tend to occur when the animal is stressed from his environment, bored from a lack of stimulation, or is living in inadequate living conditions and isn’t having his needs met (Garner and Mason 2002). Stereotypies are usually used as an indicator of poor animal welfare in captive animals. Stereotypies may develop as your hamster's way of coping with stress, boredom, or frustration.

These stereotypies can develop over time; initially, they may appear infrequently and persist for only brief periods. However, without addressing the underlying issues, they can progressively become more frequent and endure for extended periods (Wurbel 2006). Oral stereotypies may be due to the inability to perform normal foraging behavior or because of limited access to a good and varied diet (Manteca & Salas). Mice and hamsters gnaw on the bars of their enclosure to try to escape (Sørensen 2005). Pacing is a stereotypie often associated with animals who are used to traveling long distances (Manteca & Salas).

If animals stay in environments devoid of proper enrichment, it may even lead to poor brain development which may predispose them to this stereotypic behavior (Wurbell 2006). Stereotypies can also be indicative of a dysfunction within the animal's central nervous system (Manteca & Salas). , making it crucial for owners to monitor and address these behaviors to ensure their hamster's mental and physical well-being.

Some examples of stereotypes are the following:

  1. Bar Chewing / Bar Biting - This is when a hamster is frequently chewing on the bars of the cage and could be a sign of hamsters trying to escape.
  2. Pacing - This is when a hamster is constantly running back and forth along the cage.
  3. Cage Aggression- Hostile behavior inside the cage or hissing or attacking their caretaker.
  4. Monkey Barring - This is when the hamster climbs up the bars of the cage. Remember that hamsters are by nature ground dwellers.
  5. Lethargy - This is often misinterpreted as laziness, as the hamster just sits around and does nothing. This may be because there is nothing to do.

Sadly, to some people, these behaviors are so common that they’ve already been accepted as healthy or normal behaviors. Some people may even assume that their hamsters are naturally aggressive or lazy, however, a happy, healthy, and enriched hamster would not be showing these boredom behaviors.


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