Hamsters are fairly easy to care for, however, caring for them and making them happy is a bit more complicated than we would like to think.
For a happy hamster, you need to provide the best possible care and stimulate them mentally. A happy hamster has a healthy and varied diet, entertainment, exercise, and a large cage to explore, forage and burrow in.
7 Ways to Keep Your Hamster Happy
1. A Large Enclosure
To give your hamster room to perform natural behaviors and not become stressed, you need to have an enclosure with at least 450 square inches (2903 square cm) of floor space. However, the bigger the enclosure is, the better. This gives you plenty of room for all the supplies and objects they need to be healthy and happy.
In addition to providing your hamster with an appropriately sized enclosure, you can also keep them entertained by changing the setup on occasion. Of course, you don’t have to change everything in their enclosure, but to mentally stimulate your hamster, you can:
- Switch out different toys
- Change layout of items
Changing their enclosure on occasion will keep them busy as they explore the new setup. However, the enrichment your hamster gets out of the change will depend on your hamster. Some hamsters enjoy exploring a slightly changed setup, while others won’t like things being changed.
Additionally, separate your adult hamsters into different cages to avoid aggressive behavior, injuries, and stress. Most hamsters should live on their own as they are solitary animals. Hamsters like to be on their own and won’t get lonely.
2. Outfit your hamster enclosure with the necessary trappings
Your hamster’s enclosure should contain various objects and supplies to encourage them to perform natural behaviors that they would do in the wild (source). Tubes and branches provide natural coverage and clutter as well as another texture for them to touch. Some popular options safe for hamsters include cork logs, branches, bamboo roots, birch logs, and terracotta tubes. Hamsters are a prey species, so a cage that is too open may make them feel vulnerable. Therefore, add some things to provide places for them to hide in. You can often find these natural items in the reptile section of the pet store or online.
Platforms give you a safe place to put heavy items if you’re worried about your hamster burrowing under heavy items and getting crushed. The platform should be no higher than 3 inches (7.6cm) for dwarf hamsters and no higher than 6 inches (15cm) for Syrian hamsters. You should limit the height of the platform because hamsters have terrible depth perception and may walk off of the platform. Therefore, you don’t want the platform too high otherwise, they may get hurt.
3. Provide a Hamster Hideout
You should include a hamster hideout in their enclosure as they provide protection and clutter. This is important because hamsters don’t like to be in the open space very much. Clutter makes them safe and less vulnerable. Additionally, a hamster will often start their burrow in a hideout. It is also good to provide multiple hideouts around the enclosure for them to choose from. When choosing a hideout, avoid softwood hideouts or ones with nails in them. The hideout should be at least a 3-inch diameter for Syrian hamsters and a 2-inch diameter for dwarf hamsters. If the hideout is too small, they may injure themselves, especially if they try to squeeze into the hideout while their cheeks are full of seeds. The sharp edges of the seeds may cut the inside of their mouth when squeezing through a too-small space. Multi-chamber hideouts are recommended if you can get one, as they mimic what hamsters would do in the wild with their burrows.
4. Ability to forage and burrow
Your hamster’s enclosure needs a proper amount of bedding so that they can burrow in. The bedding should be at least 10 inches deep, but provide more if you can (preferably at least 16 inches deep) (source). This is because hamsters are naturally burrowing animals and will create multi-chamber burrows. Most hamsters won’t even try to burrow unless they are given at least 10 inches of bedding.
There are several other reasons why your hamster may not be burrowing. The bedding material may not be holding its shape enough to allow the hamster to form burrows. Bedding material such as hemp or aspen often does not hold its shape well for forming burrows. It would help to compact bedding down when you add it to the hamster cage – non-compacted bedding won’t hold burrows. Another reason why your hamster is not burrowing may be because the bedding is in a too-small area. The bedding should cover a large area of the hamster cage so that they can form large multi-chamber burrows. To encourage burrowing, you could also add a burrow starter. These can be purchased from pet stores. Some hamster species tend to take over other animal burrows in the wild, so a burrow starter helps them mimic this natural behavior. If you have tried out all of these tips and your hamster still isn’t burrowing, wait. Some hamsters take time to start burrowing.
To encourage foraging behavior, you can provide your hamster with herbs, oat sprays, or wheat sprays, available online and from pet stores. They are nutritious and fun for your hamster to eat. They get your hamster to forage as they have to pick the seeds directly off the plant. Keep in mind that some sprays have many calories (e.g., flax seeds) and should be given sparingly.
5. Give your hamster enrichment
Hamsters require items to stimulate their brains and keep them busy, so they don’t get bored. This can include providing them with a variety of different toys and tubes, as well as a hamster wheel. For more information on toys and exercise wheels for your hamster, see this article on Essential Hamster Supplies.
However, hamsters are not a social species, so they will not get as much enrichment from interacting with other hamsters or humans. Some hamsters will even avoid human interaction. This is ok. There are many other ways you can provide enrichment to your hamster. For example, you can sprinkle food around their cage and hide it in toys so that they have to look for their food. This taps into their natural behavior to look for food and bring it back to their nest.
Herbs, leaves, and flowers are another way to enrich your hamster as they stimulate the sense of smell. They are fiber-filled snacks that you can replenish once a week.
You can also provide your hamster with different substrates for digging and burrowing in to stimulate the senses. Some safe substrates you can provide for your hamster include corn cob bedding (make sure they don’t eat it – remove it if they do), cork granules, and moss.
6. Provide your hamster with a sand bath
A sand bath provides your hamster with a way to keep clean, helps wear down their claws, and gives them a different substrate to dig in. You should not wash hamsters in water as this can remove the oils from their coat. Therefore, a sand bath is a good way for your hamster to remove excess oils while having fun. Many hamsters love to roll around and play in sand baths.
The sand bath should be a decent-sized container for them to walk and dig in. You can use an acrylic tray or a glass baking tray.
The sand bath should contain actual sand and not dust. This is because dust can cause respiratory problems in your hamster. You can use safe sand such as chinchilla sand, lizard sand without any dyes or added calcium, or play sand, as long as it is dust-free. Play sand can be used because it has been previously washed and dried. Avoid sand from $1 stores or craft stores as you don’t know what it contains.
A sand bath does not have to be cleaned unless it has been soiled.
For more information on sand baths, read my article Hamster Sand Baths: Everything You Wanted To Know
7. High variety diet
Hamsters should have a high variety diet to keep them happy as well as healthy. The ideal diet for your hamster includes:
- The majority of your hamster’s diet should be commercial hamster pellets (not a seed or muesli style mix)
- Small amounts of fresh fruit, vegetables, or herbs
- Occasional treats such as unsalted nuts, Timothy hay, sunflower seeds, or mealworms
- Your hamster will also need constant access to fresh, clean, and chlorine-free water. You should provide it in a water bottle, with a metal spout, or a water dish that is changed daily.
You can also provide your hamster with cooked, unseasoned meat as a treat.
For more information on what you can feed your hamster, I wrote an article called What Do Hamsters Eat?
Boredom Breakers for your Hamster
Without mental stimulation, your hamster can get bored. For example, a bored hamster may display behavior such as:
- Chewing bars constantly
- Constantly climbing the bars of their cage. Also known as ‘monkey barring’
- Pacing up and down the cage
- Wall climbing – climbing and bounching of the walls of their cage
As well as being an indication of boredom, these behaviors can indicate that your hamster does not have enough space. A hamster cage or aquarium should have at least 450 square inches (2903 square cm) of floor space.
Hamsters mainly get enrichment from food, and some good boredom busters include (source):
- Stuff willow balls with a few treats and/or seeds. Your hamster will have to shake it or chew through it to get to the treats.
- Stuff a cardboard tube (toilet paper tube) that has a few holes cut in it with some willow hay, then some seeds, then more willow hay, and repeat until the cardboard tube is full. They have to rip at the tube to get to the food.
- String fruits and vegetables onto a kabob and hang it in the cage. They have to work at it to get the food off. You can buy a kabob from pets stores.
For a happy hamster, you need to provide the best possible care and stimulate them mentally. A happy hamster has a healthy and varied diet, entertainment in the form of toys and tubes, exercise from a hamster wheel, a sand bath, and a large cage to explore, forage and burrow in. To further enrich your hamster, you can switch out their toys, change the layout of their enclosure on occasion, make them search for their food by scattering it around their enclosure or hiding it in toys, and provide them with herbs, leaves, flowers, or sprays to eat.