With small pets comes big responsibility

The name “hamster” comes from the German word “hamstern,” which means “to hoard.” This is a very apt way to describe how hamsters eat. They have pouches in their cheeks that they stuff with food. Then, they carry their hoard back to their colony so they can eat it later. Pet hamsters will often store food under their cage bedding.

The name “hamster” comes from the German word “hamstern,” which means “to hoard.” This is a very apt way to describe how hamsters eat. They have pouches in their cheeks that they stuff with food. Then, they carry their hoard back to their colony so they can eat it later. Pet hamsters will often store food under their cage bedding.

By Terri Perrin

They are small enough to put in the palm of your hand, but big enough to steal your heart! Hamsters and gerbils are often a parent’s first choice for their child’s first pet. Unfortunately, according to veterinarians who specialize in the care of small mammals, not a lot of forethought often goes into buying them.

Dr. Louis Kwantes, from Park Veterinary Centre in Sherwood Park, AB, says when people phone his clinic to ask about getting a hamster or gerbil for their children, their intention is often to teach the kids to be responsible for something. “It doesn’t matter whether it a tiny hamster or a dog, the parents are ultimately responsible for animal care,” says Dr. Kwantes.

“Unfortunately, many hamsters and gerbils are bought on impulse,” he adds. “The animal may only cost about $20, but a visit to the vet clinic can be $75 or more. Just because it was inexpensive to purchase doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy of veterinary care when it is sick. People need to think about this before they make a purchase, and budget $100 to $200 a year for veterinary care.”

Dr. Eva Hadzima, from Dewinton Pet Hospital, located just south of Calgary, agrees. “The gastrointestinal problem called ‘wet tail,’ for example, is common in hamsters,” she says. “They get loose stools, often as a result of too much moist food being offered or due to unclean housing.

“A hamster with wet tail is actually gravely ill and needs to be taken to a clinic that is familiar with small mammals within the first three or four hours of the onset of symptoms. Most people wait too long,” explains Dr. Hadzima. “Treatment can mean the difference between life, death, pain and suffering. Just because they are small, doesn’t mean they should be considered replaceable.”

Gerbils are mammals that are native to northern China. Gerbils first arrived in the United States in the 1950s. They were to be used in research, but they quickly won the hearts of lab workers, who began taking them home as pets.

Gerbils are mammals that are native to northern China. Gerbils first arrived in the United States in the 1950s. They were to be used in research, but they quickly won the hearts of lab workers, who began taking them home as pets.

Purchase considerations

Hamsters and gerbils are easy to hold in tiny hands but also easily dropped. Both animals will bite if mishandled or scared. If they manage to escape, they are difficult to find. If you want a pet that your child can interact with more and enjoy watching, Dr. Kwantes says that guinea pigs are often a better option for smaller kids.

Dr. Kwantes also reminds potential pet guardians to remember that these animals may carry zoonotic diseases such as salmonella, ringworm and fungal diseases. And don’t forget that the cross-species contamination works both ways! YOU can make little “Hammie” sick, too. For their protection (and yours) be sure to sanitize your hands before and after handling your small mammal.

Housing for Hammie

Some websites recommend using aquariums to house hamsters and gerbils but according to both vets we spoke with, this is not a good option. Aquariums do not provide adequate ventilation, and the high humidity can result in illnesses and infections. A rabbit cage with a plastic bottom and a wire top is your best bet, however, be aware that the wire spacing may be too wide and you may need to modify it, or choose a cage with smaller bar spacing.

Best bets for bedding

Dr. Hadzima says that proper bedding is vital to your hamster or gerbil’s health. Wood shavings are not recommended, due to their potential toxicity and likelihood of causing life-threatening intestinal compactions, kidney/liver failure, as well as trauma to the eyes.

Contrary to what you might read on the Internet, shredded newspapers are ideal. The ink on newspaper is now soy or plant-based and no longer contains lead. Colourful flyers are also great, as they have water-based ink. You can save yourself time (and money) by purchasing a cross-cut shredder to make your own bedding.

Enrichment and exercise

Both hamsters and gerbils are busy little creatures that need lots of exercise, so a hamster wheel is a must. When they are not scurrying around, they are chewing. Avoid items made of plastic. Obviously, ingested plastic is not good for your pet. Dr. Hadzima warns that the rough surface of chewed plastic can result in scratches and bacterial infections. Small cardboard boxes, toilet paper tubes and hay-based toys are also great.

What’s on the menu?

Commercial hamster and gerbils foods that provide a complete and balanced diet are available in most pet supply stores. Further vitamin and mineral supplements are not required.  Hamsters and gerbils also enjoy munching on hay. Babies under three months of age should be fed alfalfa while Timothy hay is best for adults. Dr. Hadzima highly recommends any products manufactured by Oxbow because this company is willing to share its product research and feedback.

“I am strongly against hamster or gerbil food with any seeds,” warns Dr. Hadzima. “With seeds we see many impactions in the mouth and bowels, and they are very high in carbohydrates. And be aware that they can get giardia (also known as ‘Beaver Fever’) from tap water. I recommend using bottled spring water or 5-stage osmosis water, to eliminate heavy metals, fluoride, chloride, and giardia.”

What’s right for you?

Whether you choose a hamster or gerbil is a matter of personal preference. Whatever you do, make selecting the pet a family affair … and treat your new furry friend as a member of the family.