Posted: February 13, 2011, 5 a.m. EST
Q: I got a male, Syrian hamster called Peanut around three days ago. The pet shop told us to wait two days before we touch him or hold him to let him get used to the new surroundings. I have two things that worry me about my hamster. The first worry is that he is awake during the day, not night. Is this natural? It is nice to see him all day, but I worry that this is unnatural. The second worry is that I can’t pick him up. I went to pick him up yesterday, and he bit me hard enough to make me bleed. My sister also got a hamster, and it is nocturnal, so it won’t get handled a lot. Both hamsters are bedded on shredded paper because the sawdust was too much for the hamsters and my family. They are eating a hamster mix. My main concern is the biting, because I love him dearly, but I can’t give him a cuddle.
A: Every hamster is different when it comes to getting used to a new environment, but there’s one important thing to remember: hamsters are most definitely creatures of habit. Peanut has been living in the bustle of a busy, bright shop during the day. He’ll find his own rhythm soon.
You can help Peanut by keeping things consistent in “his” room when the lights are on, and when it’s quiet. Feed him as early in the evening as possible every day, and make a big show of it. Dump the old food and put in new. Provide some safe, fresh food morsels as well (to raise the excitement level, and also because a diet of only hamster mix isn’t really optimal). Those new smells will stir him and get him energized, and he’ll begin to gear his life around that event.
It’s frustrating to be bitten by a pet you love so much. Like any good friendship, building trust takes a little time. Getting a new hamster hand-friendly is a process that requires patience; but here again, once Peanut is used to getting picked up and held, he will likely never bite again. Hamsters are just like that. They learn what works and stick with it.
Another thing to keep in mind: hamsters’ weak eyesight means they will often try to identify new things with their teeth. If your fingers smell like food in any way, Peanut will probably think a snack is being offered. Remember to wash your hands every time before you handle him.
An approach you might take in getting to know Peanut involves your clean, dry bathtub. Close the drain and put a large towel on the bottom. Bring Peanut in his cage to the tub along with a lightweight mug or jar. Put the cage inside the tub and open the lid. Sit in the tub and place the mug inside the cage. When he climbs in the mug, slowly lift him out in the mug. If he’s really nervous, it may take a few days of trying before you can safely bring the mug all the way out of the cage without him jumping out. Gently place the mug in the tub and let him climb out when he’s ready. (If he’s not too jumpy or quick, you can try this on a couch or bed instead of the tub.)
Peanut will start to explore the tub and eventually have to crawl on you. Let him get used to your scent by exploring all around you. You don’t want to put your fingers in front of him. It’s grabbing and fingers that likely frighten your hamster.
After a few minutes, try nudging your hamster where you want him to go using the back of your hand or wrist. When that works well, slowly and unthreateningly, rub and stroke him a bit. Eventually, you can let him climb on your hands while you lay them flat on the tub floor. When he climbs on readily, lift your hand a few inches off the tub floor. If he jumps, he won’t get hurt while your hands are low.
You may have to do this several times until Peanut feels like it’s a routine and even interesting. It sounds like you’re already being patient and careful. Those are terrific qualities in a pet owner; ones that will help your hamster trust you and look forward to spending time with you very soon.
As you get to know Peanut, your sister’s hamster might surprise you. Once he realizes that people are fun, you might find him awake and hopping at the cage door waiting to play!
As for the litter, you might try a hamster-safe commercial litter. These aren’t too dusty, and they absorb far better than what you’re using now, which can be important. A damp or smelly cage isn’t good for anyone, especially Peanut.
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