Posted: November 19, 2014, 1:40 p.m. EST
Q: I have two teddy bear hamsters, both female. The pet store said that there was a male hamster in the cage for a short time with the five females, and any of them could be pregnant. I was wondering what the signs were and when it would show. I was also wondering how long they are pregnant for. I do not want to keep hamster babies, because I know the mother could kill them. I still want to keep my hamster though, if possible. The pet store said we could bring the babies there and they might have a hamster mother available to take care of the babies. Is that possible? I am very confused about the whole pregnancy, so any information would be very much appreciated.
A: Let me answer your main question right away. "Teddy bear” is a nickname for longhaired Syrian hamsters, and Syrians just don’t have the kind of social structure and behavior that would allow babies to be fostered by another mother. So that’s out of the question, I’m afraid.
But there’s a bigger question here that I’d like to address, because I hear it a lot. A hamster can safely and successfully give birth while in your care if you take the right steps. Then, shortly after the pups are born, you can safely adopt them out and perhaps give other people the happiness you’ve enjoyed taking care of them!
First, let me say that veteran hamster folks strongly discourage breeding hamsters. Unless it’s done with great and meticulous care, the results can be harmful at best and tragic at worst. And from my vantage I see so many hamsters in need of adoption that it just doesn’t make sense.
But, of course, in your case if there’s pregnancy, it was accidental, and I receive lots of letters just like yours. Amazingly, Syrian hamsters are fully capable of producing offspring in as little as a month after birth! They must be separated by sex, therefore, after 3 weeks of age.
Now, you say you have two Syrian females, and I want to make sure that you know that adult Syrians must be kept in separate dwellings. There are no exceptions to this. I hope no harm has come to either of them from fighting at this point, but it will inevitably happen, so if you haven’t, please do separate them as soon as possible. (Some Syrians can live with others of the same sex for as long as eight weeks without incident, but that’s pushing the limit.)
It’s hard to tell when a female hamster is pregnant until about the tenth day of gestation, which lasts a total of about 17 days. After the tenth day the hamster’s hips will widen very noticeably. Before that the only noticeable signs of pregnancy are an increased fussiness about food and bedding, which may be hard to distinguish, and one other thing — the nipples along two rows that line the hamster’s torso will become larger and redder. This will happen quite early on, and it’s rather easy to see.
If you’re sure the hamster is pregnant and you’ve given her her own dwelling, go one step further and give her a nice birthing box lined with torn, unscented white toilet paper. Nothing fancy, the cheaper brands are actually better because they shed less dust. The box can be a half-gallon milk container with the end cut off, or a cookie box, or any clean, disposable cardboard box. She’ll want her peace and privacy, as well as something she can walk away from when nursing fatigues her. You should start enhancing her diet by feeding her good, protein-rich foods with a bit of fat as soon as possible. I recommend plain, steamed chicken or turkey. These foods have not only the protein she needs, but a bit of fat, and lots of good amino acids and other nutrients. Other good protein foods are tofu, spinach, oatmeal and cooked pasta (unseasoned). She can even have a little cheese, such as cream or cottage cheese, or yogurt. She’ll need lots of fluids, so keep her supplied with fresh, skinned apple, carrot or cucumber. (If you need a refresher on the basic diet you’re enhancing, please have a look at the article "What To Feed A Hamster.”)
© Courtesy Martha Boden
Hamster moms can give birth to 10 or more babies in a single litter.
If possible, set her dwelling off in an area that is quiet, the lights aren’t too bright, and there are no drafts. Give her as much peace as possible, and try to time the cleaning of the dwelling to a few days before she gives birth. Afterward, you’re not going to touch the dwelling for about two weeks, so be very careful about keeping it clean beforehand.
When the babies emerge (you’ll hear their faint, sweet chirping and suckling) you won’t go near them for two weeks. Everything that enters the dwelling at that point should be as clean and free of human (and, of course, other animal) scent as possible. But do keep the food coming, and supplement it with a nice, big lettuce leaf for fluid. Make sure the food is accessible to her, without her having to get up. It’s possible for a Syrian to give birth to 10 or more babies at once, and they’re all nursing constantly, so she’ll need to get to food without dislodging her little ones. She’ll be grateful for this, and if all goes well, all the babies will grow into independent toddlers within three weeks.
During that first, two-week "hands off” period, the hamster mom may walk away from her young from time to time, but after this period you’ll sense that she’s probably had enough and she’s a bit exhausted. She’ll start to spend increasing amounts of time away from the litter, and they’ll begin exploring on their own. Only at this point should you begin to take the liberty of handling the babies directly (I know it’s a temptation to pick them up sooner, but this could stress the mom). This is the beginning of a separate road of life for each and every one of them. It fulfills their deepest instinct to be separated out and live by themselves from four to five weeks onward.
People frequently assume that it’s a given that hamsters destroy their offspring. The truth is complicated. Syrian hamsters in the wild are solitary dwellers in an inhospitable environment. They’ve only been viewed as domestic pets for around 75 years, so the hamsters we love still have "one foot in the wild,” in a manner of speaking. Because life in the desert is hard and food is scarce, a hamster’s diet during gestation will determine whether her instincts tell her that giving birth will be successful, or she’s better off trying again some other time. At the time the hamster gives birth her body undergoes chemical changes, including a sharp drop in protein and fat, which are just the things she needs to nurse infants to health. If her body sends signals that her diet is inadequate, she might give up on the litter. The same is true if she brings them to birth in a noisy or threatening environment, or if she’s dreadfully thirsty, or experiencing anything at all that might cause stress.
My best advice to those who find themselves having adopted a pregnant hamster is to see it through, with confidence that it will all work out with proper preparation and diligent and loving care. The reward of watching so much mothering in such a tiny package is well worth the effort. Good luck!
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