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Understanding Your Hamster

By: Talia Starkey

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Hamsters get a bad rap for being grumpy and quick to bite. For the inexperienced, it's often true. Many first-time hamster owners suffer a nip on the finger for relatively minor infractions. But once you understand the basic tenets of your hamster's character – including his solitary nature and his off-hours schedule – you can begin to see why your hamster acts the way he does. Most important, you'll figure out what you need to do to accommodate his needs.

Hamsters Are Nocturnal

Hamsters sleep most of the day so that they can be up all night. Hamsters are naturally active during the night, and it is impossible to get them to switch their schedule to match yours. Anyone who tries to make his hamster play while he is resting is bound to encounter resistance. If you nudge your hamster while he's sleeping in his nest, he's likely to wake with a start. He probably will turn on his back with his teeth bared and tiny paws curled into combative fists even before he gets his squinty eyes open. Press the issue and he's likely to bite – and no wonder, your hamster needs up to 14 hours of undisturbed sleep a day. His hostile reaction may be the only way to tell you he needs his rest.

Hamsters Are Territorial

Wild hamsters are native to the harsh deserts of the Middle East, where they fend for themselves in solitary burrows. The individual survival instinct is still very strong for hamsters. Your pet will treat any other hamster in his enclosure as a competitor, even though the resources necessary for survival – food, water and shelter – are plentiful in his domestic world. He will attack the intruder hamster, hissing and growling, and you will have to separate the two to save the intruder's life. Hamsters almost never make sounds unless they are attacking or being attacked. If you hear your hamster make a noise, he is angry or frightened.

Never get another hamster because you think your pet is lonely. Instead, make sure your hamster always has new toys to play with. Your hamster is likely to be very active, and a running wheel should not be his only outlet for excess energy. Like a child, a hamster loves new toys; and if you cycle your hamster's toys through his cage a few at a time, he will delight in them anew when you bring them back for a second or third run.

Hamsters Respond to Smell

A hamster's sense of smell and hearing are his two most developed senses. You may see your hamster rear up on his back legs like a bear and sniff the air. That's one of his ways of figuring out what's going on around him. Your hamster will come to know you by your scent, especially if you handle him daily. If you are having trouble picking up your new hamster, you may want to rub your hands on the bedding in his cage so that you disguise your scent with the familiar smell of his bedding. Likewise, if you want your hamster to be comfortable in a new cage, try putting some of the bedding from his old cage in the new enclosure. The familiar smell will help ease his transition.

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