Posted: September 28, 2013, 4 a.m. EDT
© Gina Ciolo/I-5 Studio
Hamsters are territorial and need time to adjust to new environments.
Q: I have a question concerning the hamster I bought a few days ago. I went to a pet shop and saw hamsters. The attendant at the pet store told me that it was OK to buy baby hamsters (10 weeks old). It sounded weird to me, because I didn't think it be OK to be taken from their mom. My hamster was with his mom before I purchased him. I was assured it was OK. I’m not a hamster expert, so I believed this. I held the hamster once at the shop. I came home and put the hamster in the new setting I also purchased at the shop. When I tried to grab the hamster, he went into a defenselike mode and put up his paws and opened his mouth like he wanted to attack me. So, I just put the box he came in from the store into the new setting so he could step out on his own. I’m currently working. It’s been a few days now, and my wife texted me saying she was trying to pick him up so she can clean up, and once again he put up his paws and opened his mouth like he was going to attack. Is this normal or do I have to worry about it attacking? My daughters love the new addition to the family, but I don't want a hamster that could be a danger to the family. Please give me your insight on this.
A: Let’s look at the separate parts of this question. I’m going to guess the hamster is a Syrian. It’s possible that a dwarf hamster might exhibit this behavior, but while dwarves generally thrive in small groups, Syrians are solitary by nature, and that has a good deal to do with what you’re seeing.
First, 10 weeks isn’t too soon to separate a hamster from its cagemates, in fact separating at five to six weeks is advisable, because most hamsters are completely capable of reproduction by that age, and one doesn’t want any accidental litters.
The lives of Syrian hamsters revolve around territorial behavior, because in the wild they live amidst wide expanses where they’re prey to many larger creatures. So they must identify their space through their extraordinary sense of smell, and memorize that "address.”
Imagine that you’re a hamster alone in the desert. Every night you go out looking for food. On your way you keep checking the ground for identifying aromas. You find your food, and you follow those aromas, like stepping stones across a creek, back to your home. Now let’s say that while you were out there was a sudden squall that washed away some of those identifying smells, some of your "stepping stones,” and you find yourself lost. Suddenly, everything around you smells different from the place you know as home. You’re not sure what you’re smelling, but it’s not "your stuff.” It’s probably some other creature’s, maybe some big, dangerous creature. You went out for food, but now you have to worry that you are the food. You hear a sound, see some movement. Your life may be on the line, so you stand up and make yourself look and sound as scary as possible.
That’s your new hamster. The sounds and smells in the store might have been strange and chaotic, but because your hamster was born into them, they became familiar. When you held him in the store he was still breathing that same, reassuring air. Now you’ve brought him home and everything’s different. He’s lost "in the desert” without a scent-track to find his way. You bought him a lovely dwelling, but to him it’s not his, it’s some sort of remote outpost where he may be surrounded by predators for all he knows. Then you put your hand in the cage, and perhaps you’ve been touching your hair, which you recently shampooed. Your hamster suddenly smells something that doesn’t seem like anything in nature, and a weird, big wiggly set of "claws” is barreling toward him. All he can do to defend himself is try to scare you away! And he succeeds. So he’ll do it again. Hamsters are decidedly bound to repetitive behavior, because repetition is stability, and stability is survival.
You may not have fully realized at the moment you did it how right it was to put that box back in with your new pet. You offered something to restore his peace and equilibrium, and it was exactly the right choice to transport him again while he was unsettled.
How to respond best next? This is, as they say, a "teachable moment.” Though a panicked pull-back is the reflexive action we all take at first, your ferocious but largely defenseless pet is as disinclined to attack as you are to be attacked. So anyone who’s facing this scenario or think they may, try to remember to resist the urge to act instantly. Pull back slowly, and speak to your hamster softly. Next to smell, hearing is the hamster’s sharpest sense, and soon he’ll identify that soft voice with the hand that meant no harm. It takes hamsters a while to come around, but they do, and it’s for good.
Now, as you’ve probably already figured out, this behavior subsides in time, as your hamster starts to extend his "safety zone” with his own scent, and when the general environment continues to be calm and unthreatening. If you can keep the lights dim near the hamster, keep the dwelling away from drafts, temperature and noise extremes, it will accelerate the acclimation process.
For others who may be experiencing the same sort of issues there are things you can do to make the transition easier. It’s best to use a very neutral, paper-based litter. Anything that has its own scent will inhibit the hamster from being able to make the place his own. If you have other pets in the house, prepare for your hamster by making sure the other pets aren’t upwind of him or her for a while. The distraction will just delay your hamster’s acclimation.
Note that some hamsters are born with neurological disorders that cause them to engage in unusual, frenetic or aggressive postures involuntarily. Sometimes these conditions improve over time. These cases are rare. The situation you describe sounds like a more commonplace unease.
Two simple, behavioral conditioning techniques can help accustom any hamster to new surroundings and new human friends. The first is simply to place your washed hand inside the cage, closed (without fingers showing — fingers look like talons — and birds are natural rodent predators) and still. Not near the hamster, but introduce the hand very slowly in a manner that keeps it always in his or her sight. In fact it is fair to state as a rule that when approaching a hamster, never move quickly and never approach the hamster from behind or anywhere he can’t see you coming. Once your hand is in his sight, settle in for five or 10 minutes with your closed hand motionless in the cage to let your hamster see that the big hand isn’t the enemy.
That’s it. Simple, but effective. If the hamster comes near or looks like he’s about to nibble, blow very gently into his face to rebuff him, but do not blow hard enough to frighten him.
When you feel comfortable taking him out without the aid of a box or other protection, try the strategy we might call "total immersion”: Clean and dry your bathtub. Carefully block any holes or spaces where your hamster might become lodged. Remove anything that a hamster might nibble on and ingest. Get in, and bring your hamster in with you. Let the hamster wander, and don’t try to grab or hold it. If the hamster nibbles on your buttons, a little blowing on his face will discourage it. This is your hamster’s opportunity to turn the tables and take command of you. Once a hamster establishes your identity and extends that to its sense of home, there’s no turning back. You’re friends now, and your presence will be met with welcome, not wariness.
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