Posted: July 8, 2013, 8 p.m. EDT
©Gina Cioli/I-5 Studio
Dwarf hamster species, such as this Winter White, may not be as nocturnal as the Syrian species.
Q: I have a 9-month-old, dwarf female hamster, and she is the light of my life. My fiancé has a 7-year-old cat that has been with his parents for the past three years. With a new dog in their house, the cat is not adjusting well, and she may have to move in with us. Will my sweet little hammy be too stressed and is it fair to her to change her location for a new kitty? My hamster lives in the living room and loves to come out for treats and to play in her playpen. I feel bad for his cat, but my hamster has never met another animal. Will she be too stressed if we move her? I love his cat, she grew up with us, but this is my hammy’s house first. This is stressing us out a lot, and we would like input from someone who knows more about hamsters.
Q: My daughter has a hamster (not sure of the variety; he`s light brown and white) who has become increasingly active at night, chewing the bars of the cage and desperate to find a way out. He also seems to have become much more aggressive. I’m just wondering if there might be a health reason or mental reason for his recent aggressive and overactive behavior. My daughter keeps him in her bedroom because we have two cats, but she finds it difficult to sleep when he gets so active that he becomes quite loud. He is housed in a typical wire-style cage. Any insight or advice you might have would be greatly appreciated.
A: These two questions actually have much in common. Although different species of hamster respond differently to stimuli, and have different waking and activity patterns, some general principles apply to all types of hamsters, and these may shed light on both of these situations.
One principle is that hamsters of all types live by their noses. Their hearing is quite good, but their other senses are limited, especially the visual. The hamster relies more on his sense of smell, by far, than any other sense to defend and sustain his life.
Another principle is that hamsters live by regular patterns. This is true of all nature’s species (including humans), but for hamsters, because they are small and have very few defenses, patterns take on much greater importance. In nature, patterns of light and darkness, temperature, and source locations of food will determine the quality of a hamster’s life. Instinct drives them to observe and adhere to these very closely and with little variation.
First we’ll address the question of having cats and hamsters in the same household. This has to be approached on a case-by-case basis, because cats are capable of many more different and complex actions than other pets. But as a general rule, the experience of most hamster owners is that cats are clever enough to observe their caretakers’ relationships to the things around them, and follow their caretakers’ regard for those things. This includes hamsters.
Cats can gracefully navigate the objects on a shelf, rather than clumsily knocking them all onto the floor. At the same time, what cat owner hasn’t sat down preparing to read a book or work on their computer, only to have their cat sprawl lazily across the keyboard, seemingly unaware of her caretaker’s plans? (You can bet the cat knows exactly what she’s doing).
The point is that cats have a sense of what’s meaningful to their owners and seem, somehow, to be able to distinguish between "pet” and "prey.” A bird in the yard had better steer clear of the family cat. But a bird in a cage on the patio will probably be an object of curiosity to her. In the experience of most long-time hamster caretakers, hamsters can be surprisingly nonchalant about the presence of cats. They actually find the presence of dogs quite a lot more jarring in many instances.
Nevertheless, a few precautions can put everyone a bit more at ease. The writer didn’t say what kind of dwelling the hamster lives in. If it’s a wire cage, there’s maximal air flow in and out of it. This can be limited, without deteriorating the hamster’s quality of life, by switching to a 10-gallon, glass aquarium with a wire-grid cover. This leaves plenty of air surface for proper ventilation, and pet stores sell small but secure clips for locking the cover in place (a brick or heavy weight of any sort can also be used).
A more enclosed glass dwelling limits the volume of air shared between hamster and cat, and for the hamster this enhances the sense of security and privacy. Because the hamster in this scenario already has a playpen for outside exercise and activity, a simple, solid-floor wheel and a little box "house” or wooden "bridge” within the tank will create an uneven surface for playing and walking, and sufficient variation in terrain to keep her occupied while confined to home.
When a hamster’s in the playpen, the cat’s access must be very strictly monitored. Curiosity is one of a cat’s most charming, but also perilous, traits. But though the caveats are many, the experience of most long-term hamster folks is that hamsters very quickly acclimate, and cats figure out their role in the scheme of things. Just, please, be vigilant!
Another bit of planning that will help smooth things out in the environment — and this leads to the second question — is to account for air flow from room to room. Drafts tell a hamster what’s in the environment. In the wild the hamster gauges the fragrances that waft on the breeze to know where to look for food, for a mate and where to avoid predation. In the same way, if Ms. Hamster’s territory is the living room, it’s best to put Ms. Kitty’s litter box and food dishes well downwind of there.
Although hamsters adjust to environmental stimuli, it makes sense not to force the issue all day long. Place your hamster strategically out of the way of drafts of all sorts to alleviate the stress associated with unaccustomed smells, and to make the hamster less susceptible to changes in temperature and other environmental factors that can affect her health.
This leads to the second question: What to do about a hamster that gets crazy busy when the sun goes down. The writer doesn’t know what kind of hamster it is, but the two typical species we see in the United States are Syrian and Campbell’s dwarf. There is some difference of opinion as to whether both species are crepuscular, meaning that they begin to become active at twilight, but experience shows that Syrians, the larger, solitary-type, tend more toward nocturnal behavior, while dwarves typically break up their days and nights with more frequent and shorter periods of sleep.
It’s unclear what kind of activity the hamster is engaging in that’s causing such a ruckus. It’s also not clear what is meant by increased agitation or aggressiveness. Hamsters tend to become more passive over time, not less so. Females can become more rambunctious when in season, but this question deals with a male.
Certain neurological difficulties are suffered by some hamsters, but the symptoms are more dramatic than simply increased edginess. There may also be other physical or environmental causes of hyperactivity, but it’s likely they would have shown up sooner. So what’s behind this?
The agitation may have something to do with the cats. Not that the hamster is feeling either aggressive toward or cowed by them, but he is simply stimulated by their presence. This stimulation may fill the hamster with fussy energy, which he dispels by gnawing on the bars of the cage. There’s absolutely nothing unusual about gnawing, in fact it’s necessary. If a hamster doesn’t gnaw, there’s danger of the incisors overgrowing and cutting into the gums, causing infection and illness, and preventing the pet from eating properly. So hamsters have to have something to chew on, whether it’s metal bars, nuts and seeds, or toilet paper and paper towel rolls.
Try throwing some cardboard rolls into the cage. They cost nothing and many hamsters delight in chewing them to bits. It’s certainly quieter than chattering teeth on metal bars.
Another thing you can do relates to the answer above — switch to a glass aquarium. Obviously there are no more bars to chew. The hamster still needs to chew for proper dental hygiene, but if you put paper rolls and other chewy things in the tank, the thick glass muffles the sound. (Incidentally, if your hamster’s tastes are too exalted for toilet paper rolls, pet stores do sell proper chew blocks for them. Please be careful to buy the best-looking grade of these that you can find.) And of course if the increased stimulation of the cats’ scent is causing this aggressiveness, the aquarium tank will limit the air flow to the hamster enough to quell that considerably. So glass tanks are a solution to several problems at once.
And to bring this all back around to where we started, let’s remember again that hamsters are creatures of habit, to a fault. This noisy hamster has, perhaps, fallen into a pattern of waking at a certain hour, and without anything to interfere with that pattern, he’ll follow it without fail every day. But although it takes some work and discipline on the part of the caretaker, hamster patterns can be altered.
Waking and eating habits are inextricably tied together. It isn’t known what the writer’s feeding practices are, but hamsters should really be given fresh food daily, with the old, leftover food discarded. There are many reasons for this. Fresh foods go bad and can cause diarrhea. Mixed foods get picked for the tastiest bits and the rest of the seeds and grains, which are slightly oily, can turn rancid.
But the big advantage to filling a clean bowl with fresh and dried food daily is that when the commotion occurs, and then the scent fills the hamster’s dwelling, it’s a major stimulant. It essentially resets the clock. So if the hamster gets up habitually at, say, 9:30 p.m. and makes noise until 2 a.m., you can see the advantage of getting him up at 7:30 and having him tuckered-out by midnight.
To do this, the caretaker need only regularize the feeding ritual. Start by making it a half-hour or so before the hamster typically rises — every day, religiously, to the minute. After a few days move it up by fifteen minutes. Strict adherence to the clock is paramount. Your model is nature, which doesn’t do things haphazardly! After a few more days, go fifteen minutes earlier. A few days later, move the schedule up by fifteen minutes again, and so on. You can probably get a hamster to rise regularly at least an hour and a half earlier than it habitually did previously, if you’re patient and precise. The hamster will soon be rising eagerly earlier in the evening, and becoming tired (or more tired, in any case) when you are. The change may not last forever, but if you’re diligent about the regimen, this is known to work.
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