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Are hamsters good pets?

Are hamsters good pets? They can be rewarding little friends for the right people.

Give a hamster a safe, clean home, plenty of exercise, food and clean water, and companionship, and he’ll be grateful every day.

Are hamsters good pets?

By Mary Van Doren on May 08, 2018

Mostly it’s parents asking, ‘Are hamsters good pets for children?’ But they can be great for other people, too!

Hamsters, gerbils, mice and rats are often referred to as “pocket pets” or “starter pets.” And yes, they can be carried in a pocket, though it’s pretty tricky to keep a tiny, active, agile animal in your pocket for long. So, are hamsters good pets as a starter pet? Yes and no.

If your child is begging for a hamster, or you’re considering a hamster as a starter pet because they seem to require less commitment for a young child, think carefully. First, keep in mind that pet experts object to the idea of any animal as a “starter pet.”

“I hate how hamsters are marketed as so-called ‘starter pets,’ says the “Hamster Whisperer,” who operates a hamster rescue operation just north of New York City. “As if they weren’t true pets worthy of the kind of care and supervision that a cat or dog would receive.”

The Hamster Whisperer, who goes by the name of Claudie, adds, “Small animals often don’t get the same kind of consideration and humane treatment as larger pets. They sometimes seem to be considered ‘disposable,’ as if they weren’t also sentient, feeling mammals — which they are!

“I think anyone who’s gotten to know hamsters will learn quickly that they are little individuals, with their own personalities, likes and dislikes, and are able to feel emotions. They express those emotions, and people can learn to discern them and get great satisfaction making them happy.” 

Are hamsters good pets? The upside

Claudie pretty much sums up a big advantage of hamsters: personality. Not only that, but they’re smaller and less expensive to keep than cats or dogs, and they’re darn cute little balls of fur. They take up less space than many pets, can be quite social, and are a lot of fun to watch. All of these things make them great pets for children, especially in parents want to keep costs and commitment minimal.

The Humane Society strongly urges would-be hamster owners to adopt, not shop. “Small animals like hamsters are often mistreated and forced into deplorable conditions when they're bred for pet stores to sell — look for a local rescue first when you're considering adopting a hamster, and skip the pet stores.”

But if you can’t find one of the rare small animal rescue operations like Claudie’s, you’ll still only spend $15-$20 for the hamster.

Then there are the extras: habitat, which can be a simple wire cage or aquarium, or a even a fancy “McMansion” habitat; bedding and nesting materials, exercise wheel; food dish; water bottle; food and treats; and toys.

are hamsters good pets - hamster in exercise ball

Hamsters get a kick out of an exercise ball – and so do children watching them.

As for figuring out the cost, if you can’t trust a financial magazine like Kiplinger’s, who can you trust? Their handy summary of the cost of owning a hamster estimates the first-year cost at $345, annual costs at $260 and total lifetime cost at around $605-$865 – considerably less than the cost of owning a cat or dog.

Hamsters do need to exercise, and while you don’t have to walk this pet, you do have to make sure there’s a running wheel in the cage, and even better, allow your hamster to run in an exercise ball round a room.  

You also have to make sure the hamster has plenty of things to chew on, as their teeth grow continuously, and if they get too long, you’ll be contacting a vet looking for help.

That said, veterinary care should be minimal for a hamster, especially as the life expectancy, depending on breed, is two to three years. That brief lifespan is also considered a plus in terms of making a commitment to an animal. However, it can also be considered a disadvantage.

Are hamsters good pets? The downside

For children, becoming attached to an animal for which they’ll go through a death and grieving process while still young might be considered a disadvantage.

Another characteristic of hamsters that’s both pro and con is that they’re largely nocturnal: Some children find them a comfort to have around at night, and adults who live a night owl life also enjoy this trait. But light sleepers may find the constant activity and the squeak of the hamster wheel disturbing.

Other things to consider when deciding on whether to adopt a hamster are their tendency to nip when they’re startled, or when they’re still getting to know you – allow a couple of weeks of daily handling to get them comfortable with you – and the inevitable pee and poop on the person handling them.

They can escape quite readily because of their size and speed, especially from young children, and once gone, they’re really hard to find! If you have other pets in the home that might hurt a hamster, this is can be a tragedy waiting to happen.

Also, if a hamster fell from your hand or pocket, it could easily be seriously hurt, so young children should always be monitored when handling these little escape artists, especially early on when the hamster might bite and a child’s immediate reaction is to drop it.

are hamsters good pets - hamster escaping

This little guy is irresistibly cute, but he’s also an escape artist, so be
prepared to take precautions by getting the right cage and handling properly.

Also, while hamsters are relatively low-maintenance compared to larger pets, they still need regular attention, including changing the water every day and monitoring the food supply.

Keeping the cage clean is also important, because hamsters lick and chew everything. You’ll need to remove poop and soiled bedding every day, and the cage should be thoroughly cleaned out every week. These requirements may be beyond many children, so parents should be prepared to take them on permanently – as parents have been doing pretty much since the dawn of time.

In short, while some experts say children age 6 and up can handle hamsters, most others advise that children younger than 8 won’t have the dexterity or understanding to handle hamsters gently and safely, on top of the above concerns about regular hamster care. 

But if you’re an adult who wants companionship but has little space to spare, a hamster can be a great pet for all of the upsides listed above. 

What kind of hamster to get?

Unlike dogs and cats with their hundreds of breeds, hamsters are available in three types. Most hamsters don’t like other hamsters, however, so if you want more than one, keep them in separate habitats.

Here are the hamsters you can choose from:

  • Syrian hamsters: The most popular pet hamsters are Syrians, which are sold as Golden or Teddy Bear hamsters, because they’re easy to handle. Multiples will definitely fight each other if kept in a cage together! They grow to 6-7 inches long, and live two to three years.
  • Dwarf hamsters: These include Campbell’s, winter white and Roborovski hamsters, which are more social with other hamsters as long as they’re kept together from a young age. They’re harder to handle than Syrians because of their agility, live for 18 months to two years and are two to four inches long.
  • Chinese hamsters: These little guys are smaller than Syrians, like dwarf breeds. The might get along together, but often are not. Again, they’re friendly, but hard to hang onto. They live just over two years to three years, and grow to four inches. Unlike other hamsters, they have a noticeable tail.

Be sure to choose a cage of the right size to accommodate your hamster. An aquarium is best for dwarf hamsters because they can escape from most metal cages. Because of their larger size, don’t skimp on cage size for Syrians. 

And as always, if you want to ask an expert, “Are hamsters good pets?”, or if you have other questions about a hamster’s health and wellbeing, you can get authoritative answers from the Experts at JustAnswer, even when the vet’s office is closed, and all without an appointment.

Have you ever owned a hamster? Was it a good or bad experience? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below.