Posted: June 19, 2013, 4 a.m. EDT
© Gina Cioli/I-5 Studio
Hamsters need a solid-surface running wheel that's big enough for them to run in with their back straight, not arched.
Q: I own a Russian Dwarf Hamster named Eva. I really like having a hamster, but I have a fear of her. If I touch her cage with my finger, and she sees me, she runs up to where I have my finger and claws (looks like digging) and tries to bite, almost as if she is trying to attack me through the cage. I am terrified to hold her, although I want to. I put a sock on my hand when I replace her food inside the cage because she will bite me. I’m not sure what causes this, or how to fix it. I’ve googled how to overcome such problems, but I can’t find anything about my exact situation. Also, all she does is bite the metal bars of her cage. She does it all the time, and if something is sitting in her reach outside of the cage, she attacks it. She very seldom runs on her wheel. I put her in the rolling ball for a bit to let her freely run around my house. I do not pick her up and place her in there. I put the opening of the ball on the opening in her cage and wait for her to climb in. Another thing, she snatches treats out of my hand, so I’ve gotten to the point where I just drop them in there and let her retrieve them on her own. Her cage has add-on tubes, a spiral ladder leading up to her wheel, a separate bedding area, and a treat zone. I also have a mineral block in there for her. I am not sure why she acts like she does. Please help. I don’t want to have a hamster for no reason, I would like to hold her and play with her, but I don’t understand her actions.
A: I understand your frustration and applaud your wanting to understand Eva. Dwarf hamsters that weren’t bred for good temperament and handled when young can be very territorial, and others will have a period of this behavior as they mature. It sounds like Eva’s an extreme case, but even extreme cases come around with a bit of care and creativity.
First, let’s look at the things that aren’t problems, so you can dispense with worrying about them. Somehamsters of all species like to bite their bars for exercise — even more than they like running in their wheel. It doesn’t mean they’re unhappy. If Eva’s wheel has a solid running surface and is big enough for her to keep a good, straight-backed posture while running (like a Wodent Wheel or Super Pet Comfort Wheel), this is not a concern.
Hamsters bite out of fear or discomfort. We can also unwittingly teach a hamster to bite to get what she wants — that biting will make us go away. Unless Eva is in distress, try not to let biting mean anything.
Now the best news: batting at your fingers is Eva’s way of warning you rather than biting you. When she bats at you, reward that by immediately leaving her alone for a bit. She’s not ready to play the way you’d like right now.
Make a space where Eva can be around you and watch you — maybe where you watch TV or use the computer. Set her cage as close to eye level as possible, with the distance she needs to be confident moving around her home while you’re there. Chat with her and make brief eye contact, but keep your hands away from her home. Move the cage a few inches closer every day she shows interest rather than fear.
For now, don’t put your hand on or in her home while she’s in it. Offer her another way out. She can walk out the door into her play ball, or climb into a mug or ladle. Eventually she’ll comfortably walk out of those onto your hand, but don’t rush her. Until then, let her hop out on another surface.
Take care of the food dish and other cage duties during ball time each day, and keep that time consistent. A predictable schedule is important to hamsters, especially nervous ones.
When you’re ready, lay a towel or blanket in a dry bath tub or other new and neutral territory to allow Eva to explore some tubes, boxes and tiny treats. Wash your hands with the same soap each time before you interact with her (one with no food scents). Keep your hands nearby in the new turf so she knows they belong there. Pet her lightly while she’s busy. Offer your hand for her to sniff at and walk over without moving it. The back of your hand is less scary than your palm, and keeping your fingers pressed together instead of spread apart is less scary too. You can even sit in the tub with her and let her climb and play on you.
A hamster will be less nervous when she’s handled with confidence. Take a deep breath and don’t let her feel your anxiety.
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