Why Hamsters Are Good Starter Pets for Your Child
Dogs, cats, birds, reptiles, fish…the list of animals to choose from as your child’s first pet is endless. Some animals require more care than others, while others are better suited for children of certain ages. Nevertheless, I feel there is a pet out there that is easy to care for and is suitable for both children and adults: the hamster. Hamsters are loving creatures and can be bought at prices as low as $6. Cages and accessories can total less than $40, (if your intentions are not to let the hamster live better than your children). Hamsters are in the rodent family and are “cousins” of the gerbil, mouse, and rat. However, the differences between these rodents may help you better understand why hamsters are a popular choice. Although gerbils tend to have fluffier coats than hamsters, hamster fur is still very soft and silky. Also, hamsters are less timid than gerbils and require less time in getting to know your child. Appearance wise, hamsters may be a little more attractive than rats and mice. They have shorter snouts, very short tails, perky ears, button eyes, and come in a large variety of colors and 2 coat consistencies.
The most commonly sold hamsters are short haired. Long haired and “teddy bear” hamsters require a little more grooming. Hamsters are a little less explorative than mice and rats. (Have you ever gone to the pet store and noticed the rats and mice climbing the water bottles in search of freedom while the hamsters were either lounging around or exercising)? In the end, you should still bear in mind that hamsters are curious creatures and still harbor a tendency to try and escape their cages; but if you properly furnish the cage and your child gives the rodent ample attention, the odds of feeling the need to escape are lessened. Hamsters love human interaction. At the same time, if your child is not the touchy feely type, a hamster can still be a good pet as it has everything it needs in its cage. Just remember, the more your child interacts with the hamster, the fewer occurrences of nipping or biting.
Hamsters love to exercise! A wheel is the number 1 cage accommodation I recommend to you. Balls are also terrific for exercise. Witness your child fill with glee as the hamster runs in place or around the house in the ball. Hamsters live just fine off of store hamster feed, but it is extremely beneficial to give them treats of fresh fruit and vegetables often. A morsel of the apple your child is snacking on will warm its belly and make it very happy. Always be sure to never give hamsters large treats of fresh food. Hamsters hoard about half of their food and treats, meaning they tuck it away in their mouths or store it in their cages until they are ready to eat it. If you happen to give little Choo Choo a morsel of spinach and he tucks it away for a few days, it may rot and become a toxic treat. Therefore, have your child check the hamster’s cage everyday for leftover treats and dispose of them. *Never give hamsters Iceberg lettuce, the additives can harm their digestive tracts.*
As far as living arrangements, I have found that the best environment for hamsters, including my own, is an aquarium. Unlike plastic hamster cages, glass aquariums prevent hamsters from climbing and are very easy to clean. Most come with screen tops that can keep Jellybean from running away or safe from Fox, the family cat. Like any mammal, hamsters need a water supply. Water bottles are very inexpensive and fit securely on the sides of glass aquariums. Young hamsters have a habit of engaging in over eating, thus leading to weight gain and possible early death. My best tip is to monitor the hamster’s eating upon purchase and see if it can maintain on its own or if your child needs to fill the food bowl daily. Try not to give Spike morsels of unhealthy foods. Hamsters will eat just about anything you put in front of their nose, so try not to give them pieces of things like candy or burgers on an everyday basis. You may get a good laugh every once in awhile watching the hamster spit junk food out. They are comically picky with their appetites.
Store bought hamster bedding works great for aquariums and is easy to dispose of. Be advised: some brands have a perfume odor that can cause sneezing, irritate the nose, and make Peanut one miserable fellow. To avoid this problem and save some money, use newspaper. Pad the cage floor with 2 or 3 sections of the paper. The odorless and easy to acquire material is easy for hamsters to shred and soaks up bathroom waste very well. Unlike humans, hamster urine carries more of an odor than feces. I recommend cleaning the cage every 5 days or at least once a week. Simply remove the wheel, water bottle, and food bowl then dispose of the used newspaper. Wipe the cage out with disinfectant wipes or use a couple squirts of general household cleanser. Cleaning time is a good time to put the hamster in the ball. Allow the cage to dry before returning the hamster. Be advised: some hamsters keep their bathrooms tidy, and some definitely do not. If your hamster is tidy and keeps its waste pellets in one corner, dispose of the pile daily.
Hamsters clean themselves. Because of which, there are relatively no hamster body washes or soaps on the market. Baths are both good and bad for them. Their coats do not dry properly when wet, but allowing them to trample near their wet spots and not be properly bathed can spread germs to your child. My suggestion is once a week, have your child place the hamster in a sink. Fill it thinly, approximately a quarter inch high, with cool-lukewarm water. The water should be no higher than the hamster’s genitalia when it stands on its back paws. Stroke the hamster’s belly and genitals with a soft toothbrush or simply let the areas be exposed to water. This way the hamster is not completely submerged and any possible bacteria may be partially or completely washed away. Blot the hamster dry of excess water with a towel, place it back in the cage, and allow it to finish the job. Be patient with new hamsters as exposure to water may be a new and frightening experience. But do not be fearful of accidental drowning, hamsters know how to swim if the occasion calls for it.
Sleeping arrangements are almost always decided by the hamster. Toilet paper makes a great “bed” for the hamster. Roll a few sheets over your hand and toss it into the cage, then watch your child’s hamster fluff it like a pillow and choose the warmest cage corner as the “bedroom.” Moving the bedroom to another corner may agitate the hamster, and most times the hamster will move the toilet paper back. Here is one major negative aspect I have encountered often as a hamster owner: Hamsters do not show signs of sickness until it is too late. The majority of veterinarians do not see small animals such as hamsters for various reasons; one being because they only live 2-3 years and it would not be very practical to perform costly procedures on an animal so small. In essence, you must teach your child that their hamster’s health is in their hands. Vitamin supplements are a great addition to your hamster’s diet, in the same sense that vitamins are good for humans. Hamsters have sharp teeth that grow fast, so my advice is to purchase chew sticks or blocks twice a month. (I failed to do this with my first hamster and she lost a tooth because it grew too long and broke off; another grew in rapidly though). If a hamster is sick it will refrain from eating or drinking and will sleep until it dies. For diarrhea, feed it dry oatmeal flakes. For constipation, fill the water bottle halfway with generic baby Pedialyte. Divert back to regular water immediately once the hamsters bowels become normal again. A hamster’s feces looks like pellets of black rice. If waste takes on the appearance of chocolate fudge and/or surrounds the tail, consult a vet as it may have developed “wet tail.” Hamsters are nocturnal and are very active, lively creatures. If a hamster appears to be slow moving and listless at the pet store, do not purchase it.
Tip 1: Keep the environment stable. Do not place the cage near an air vent or heat source. Hamsters live comfortably at room temperature, but extreme changes in temperature can lead to sickness or death. If your hamster has been alone awhile, keep it that way. Hamsters are very territorial, so unless you intend on breeding them, do not thrust a new hamster into the cage. It could lead to dire consequences. I recommend not purchasing a pregnant hamster as your child’s first pet. Similar to human women, motherhood changes many things in a hamster. There will be less focus on developing a relationship with your child, moodiness, and hostility towards your child coming near the cage or meddling in it. I also recommend not buying Black Bear hamsters. Their temperament explains their name.
Tip 2: TLC goes a long way. As mentioned before, hamsters love human interaction. However from personal experience, extra attention can go a long way. Hamsters live 2-3 years partly because their hearts beat very fast and they compound this by being very active. Of the dozen or so I’ve had, 90% of them lived to be 4 years old. I talk to my hamsters and sing to them on occasion. When I handle them I often snuggle them under my chin where it is warm, or put their heads to my cheek and rock from side to side. One hamster I had became accustomed to back rubs while lying in my lap. This is where the last tip falls into place.
Tip 3: Do not forget the hamster is a hamster. Although my hamsters have enjoyed long, happy lives, there were a few who met untimely deaths on my part. As a little girl I had a hamster that liked to watch television on my pillow. I snuggled him by my face almost every night afterwards, eventually rolling over on him one day. Another hamster I had I allowed to explore outside. (I highly discourage this as hamsters are domestic animals, not field mice). Although I was supervising her, Sugar still managed to disappear amongst the woods. Hamsters can have big personalities, but they are still small in nature. Allow interaction with other family pets at your own risk. I have heard horror stories about the nicest family dogs and cats. All in all, that is my spiel on hamsters. For additional information on topics such as hamster history and breeding, purchase a hamster book.