Posted: March 21, 2014, 8:35 p.m. EDT
© Courtesy Mika Yoshida
Baby hamsters should be separated out by sex at 5 weeks of age to avoid new pregnancies.
Q: My hamster gave birth about 10 days ago. The babies are all in one nest, except for one. For two days I’ve noticed it’s been away from the nest, and I have moved it with a tissue, without touching it, back to the nest. Now what will happen? Also, when can I touch the hamsters? Approximately what age? Also, do you know what age the mother hamster stops sleeping with her babies? Because the mother has been away from the babies for a long time, other than for giving them milk.
A: Watching a hamster mom deliver a litter is one of the most life-affirming experiences imaginable, because when we close down our focus so that we forget how small she is, we see in the mother hamster all the same traits we’ve shared with mammals since the beginning of history. The nurturing and grooming, the doting and tenderness that this tiniest and least complex of creatures displays is a mirror of the experience we recognize as human, and it is every bit as moving.
Sometimes, as it may have been with your "blessed event,” the birth comes as a complete surprise, and the situation can be a bit scary. But relax, because in most cases things work out beautifully.
Still, there are mysteries, and we receive tragic stories from pet owners who did their very best, followed all the rules, and yet wonder what went wrong. To ensure a safe and joyful delivery you’re doing exactly the right thing by asking questions like these.
The main tragedy we’re talking about, and it needs to be mentioned despite being terribly unpleasant, is that the mother will destroy her own litter. (The next most common concerns are about mastitis and other issues related to lactation. These are covered in detail extensively elsewhere, and often have practical and successful solutions.) You asked first about the mother’s ignoring one of her offspring to the extent of not feeding it, and thus endangering its life. Your second question is about a well-known worry, touching the babies. We know that stories of new mothers destroying young that bear the human scent abound.
By the way, we’ll assume, for the sake of this post that the mother in your question is a Syrian hamster.
It can be helpful to think about the hamster’s place in the natural order. The Syrian is solitary. The only times more than one Syrian inhabit the same location are when they mate, when they deliver, and for up to eight weeks after birth. After this time (which is an approximate time — calendars are for people), Syrian hamsters become strangers to one another. Difficult as it can be to accept, the loving mother who nursed the child is now its enemy, sister will destroy sister without a thought in a battle over territory. This is built into the genetics, and there is simply no getting away from it – none. So when people ask about housing more than one Syrian together, they are talking about violating impulses that exist at the very core of the hamster. It is never the wrong time to remind readers of this.
Because Syrians are solitary, the mother delivers alone. She gets no help in raising her young, and after a delivery of maybe a dozen or more babies, she’s in no condition to forage for food. Is she prepared? Nature builds a test right into her body. At the time of birth there’s a huge drop in the level of protein and other essential nutrients, along with other hormonal changes, which all together trigger a stress response. If after this drop she’s still got plenty of protein and other nutrients left in her bloodstream, it’s likely there’s a good food source nearby, and nature gives a green light to new life.
What if she doesn’t pass the test? Remember that nature’s view is wide, it wants to protect not the individual, but the species. So if the mother’s body tells her she doesn’t have the nutrition to keep these babies alive, nature allows her to save herself and her energy for another time. If nature tells her she can keep some babies alive, she spots the one that won’t survive on its own, and casts it off. It’s cold and unkind, but without this instinct we would not have any hamsters at all. If a mother in the natural desert environment hasn’t had sufficient nutrition, in order to carry on she’s likely going to ingest the nearest protein at hand — even if that is her offspring (it’s also part of nature’s plan to absorb and repurpose organic material). This lets her live, and give birth another day.
Of course, our homes are nothing like the conditions of the desert, and we do our best to feed a nutritious diet, but the dreadful call of instinct sometimes takes over. This is a stress reaction. There’s no "thinking,” as we know it, involved; so it can’t be trained out. And stress at this level is just a powerful, indefinable feeling, not having only to do with nutrition. The sense of danger in the environment, in the form of a predator that will attack when the mother is too vulnerable to defend herself, will also cause her to cull her young. Better to pick up and move to somewhere safe while she can, better to deliver another brood, another time. That’s why we can’t get our scent on the babies. The mother doesn’t think, "oh, that’s the animal that feeds me all the time.” Nature is telling her only, "that’s an animal that feeds.”
That explains the perplexing, sometimes horrifying things that can occur after the birth of a litter. And it bears repeating that hamsters are not innately domestic, so when we bring them into our home, all bets are off. They’re dealing with stimuli that nature doesn’t equip them for, and so signals get crossed. Even the most advanced, very best of hamster caregivers will lose a litter in the very worst of ways, and there’s no human answer as to why. We just do our best.
So how can we best support a mother in rearing a successful litter?
Give the expectant and nursing mother lots of protein. And she can sustain a lot more fat than is normally advisable as well. Plain, steamed chicken is full of protein, fat and amino acids. It’s not for no reason that chicken soup is often thought of as "Mom’s medicine.” Other good foods are spinach, tofu, boiled egg white, nuts and grains like quinoa and wheat berries. After the litter is born the mother may be mostly immobile, with many babies suckling, and be in a generally weakened, dehydrated condition. So put fluid nearby in the form of lettuce leaves or other watery greens. Put them near enough so she can reach them without having to get up.
2. Don’t Touch
There is no way to answer your question about this with complete certainty. If the pup is young, and out in the open for a long time with little fur to keep it warm, moving it back to the nest before long can be a lifesaver. A tissue may work to keep scent off, but something like a clean spoon or similar wooden or plastic implement might be better. Experience tells that it is often the case that the mom, in her frenzied state, merely displaced the pup or that it’s particularly precocious and wandered off on its own. If mom is well-fed and hydrated, and other environmental conditions are properly met, it will more than likely be OK. There is a lesser risk that the pup that’s set aside was culled by the mother, and if you return it, it may be seen as an invader. The best you can do to assess that risk is to try to gauge the mom’s general condition and demeanor. Does she seem overwhelmed and fidgety, or is she just lying back and letting the babies nurse and nuzzle?
As to how soon one can touch the babies safely, the rule of thumb "when you can see more fur than skin” doesn’t always apply. Better to err on the side of caution. Wait until they have plenty of fur, their eyes are open, they’re eating solids, and going about well on their own. At this point even a stressed mom will let them be. This usually comes at around 12 or 14 days, sometimes a bit later, but rarely much earlier. During this late period the mother begins spending more time on her own, which is completely understandable, especially if it’s a large litter. Those babies get pretty loud and rambunctious!
Note: The main difference between Syrian hamsters and dwarf hamsters is that adult male dwarf hamsters should be segregated out right away. Dwarf varieties thrive in small groups, but a male present might attempt to procreate almost immediately. An adult male and female dwarf hamster can produce a new litter every three weeks! So that’s a consideration for everyone planning to adopt and care for them.
3. Peace and Quiet
The mother’s stressed, and can’t deal with too many outside stimuli. A little before delivery, if possible, and certainly afterward, make sure the cage is in a quiet place, away from bright lights, and from any crosswinds or drafts. Anything that might make the mother think she is liable to have to act suddenly may cause her to postpone the nurturing of offspring until she can find a more suitable environment.
4. Five Weeks
A Syrian hamster can become fertile as early as 5 weeks old; therefore it’s necessary to separate them by sex at this point, lest you risk another pregnancy. Same-sex hamsters can remain together for about another three weeks beyond that, but no longer. And if you can separate them out into individual cages before then, you should. After eight weeks, all Syrians are territorial strangers and will fight to the point of grievous injury or death.
Best of luck to you and your little ones, and we hope this helps everyone feel easier about what can be a very confusing and challenging moment. The rewards are well worth it!
See more hamster questions and answers, click here>>
See hamster health questions and answers, click here>>
See Martha Boden's author bio, click here>>