This caresheet was written by Demi Louise Blackburn and published by Reptile Cymru to help raise awareness of Syrian hamster care. As Reptile Cymru doesn’t sell many small animal care products, the majority of the links in this article are to Amazon and are affiliate links, where Reptile Cymru may earn a small percentage in affiliate income from Amazon, without increasing your cost at all.
Syrian hamsters, often fondly referred to as ‘golden hamsters’ or ‘teddy bear hamsters’, are arguably the most common type of hamster kept as a pet in the UK today. With their endearing looks and quirky personalities, it’s not difficult to see why.
This guide should provide you with some insight into the care requirements of Syrian hamsters, and help you discover if they are the right pet for you.
About Syrian Hamsters
Syrian hamsters are the largest hamster available to own. They grow to around 15-20cms in length and can weigh anywhere between 100-200g. Their life expectancy runs between 2 to 3 years, but have been known to live slightly longer.
They are crepuscular, meaning you will be more likely to see your hamster active during the twilight hours. And, like all hamsters, Syrians have cheek pouches used for collecting nesting materials and food.
Syrians come in a variety of different colours and coat types. They can have long or short hair, satin or non-satin coats, or even curly coats. Their eyes can be black or red.
Coat patterns include: banded, dominant spot, tortoise shell, and roan.
Colours can range from: golden, white, cream, cinnamon, sable, mink, black, silver, and grey.
Syrian hamsters, on average, run the equivalent of 5 miles every night, therefore it is imperative to have a large enclosure that is well ventilated and very secure. Hamsters are notorious escape artists!
The bare minimum dimensions of your habitat should be 80 x 50cms of unbroken floor space. Ideally, I would recommend 100 x 50cm where possible.
Some cages available:
100 x 53cm: Kerbl Small Animal Cage
101 x 51cm: Zoozone Habitat, Large (May require mesh modifications to lid to prevent escape.)
99 x 51xm: Ferplast Large Cage (May require mesh modifications to lid to prevent escape.)
82 x 48cm: Prevue Small Animal Home
However, it’s entirely possible to make your own cage from aquariums, storage bins, or even a Detolf display case! So long as they have the suggested minimum floor space, are a suitable material, and can be adapted to provide good ventilation.
It is important to note that hamsters will not benefit from multiple levels in their habitats. Syrian hamsters are short-sighted and not natural climbers. Multiple levels could result in injuries if they fall.
Syrians are natural burrowers, so I would recommend that you provide a minimum of 4-5” of substrate for your hamster to create tunnels. Alternatively fill the base of your cage as much as possible.
You will want to look for an absorbent, paper-based bedding that is dust free. My personal favorites include:
If you are going to use wood shavings, please ensure you choose aspen specifically, such as:
- Aspen, 13kg Bulk£29.99
Other types of wood, like cedar and pine, are not suitable. They are rough, splinter easily, and can react to your hamster’s urine. Scented substrate should be avoided.
You can also include bedding material for your hamster to help them build nests. Whatever bedding you use, it needs to be: soft, easily broken down, and non-fibrous.
The safest nesting material around is as simple as toilet paper cut into strips. But if you don’t fancy spending your weekend cutting up loo roll, you can find suitable bedding here:
Note: Stay away from ‘fluffy’ bedding, any bedding marketed as ‘silk fibers’, or fleece-like material. It can get stuck in a hamster’s pouch, wrap around their teeth, or be swallowed and cause a blockage.
Decorations and Enrichment
Whilst a hamster won’t particularly play with toys, it’s important that you provide plenty of things for your hamster to chew on to keep their teeth at a suitable length. Apple wood sticks, rosewood boredom breakers, deer antlers, and wicker balls are all suitable, as well as some household items like empty toilet rolls that can be shredded. You can also give your hamster Whimzees Dog Chews to help keep their teeth down. Hamsters seem to love them, but just make sure they don’t overeat it and ignore their normal food!
In terms of decoration, cork bark and driftwood are great ways to give obstacles for your hamster, whilst also sprucing up the enclosure. Hamsters also feel more comfortable with lots of hides, or with premade tunnels out of wicker or straw. Just try to make sure any hide openings, tubes, or tunnels are at least 3” in diameter so the hamster doesn’t get stuck when pouching food.
You will need to spot clean your hamsters cage daily by removing soiled substrate and old food. Remember to replenish food and water daily.
If housing a Syrian in a suitably sized habitat, you should only fully clean the cage once a month to avoid the hamster becoming stressed. I recommend always keeping 1/3rd of the old substrate.
If you’d like to help with your hamsters hygiene you can consider putting some chinchilla sand or reptile sand in their enclosure, so long as it isn’t dusty.
Your hamster’s cage should be kept in a quiet, low traffic area, away from direct sunlight and draughts, keeping the temperature between 18 – 23C. Preferably keep hamsters outside of bedroom spaces, they can be very loud during the night!
You should provide your hamster with a wheel that is 28cm in diameter. The hamster’s spine should not bend whilst running and the wheel should not be made from wire mesh or have holes in the track to avoid trapped limbs or bumblefoot.
I’d recommend Trixie’s wheels, which come in both wood and plastic forms. Any wooden wheels will need treating in a child-safe, non-toxic coating, as your hamster will likely urinate on them.
Consider utilizing your bathtub, if you have one, as a makeshift playpen for your hamster to provide extra exercise.
Note: I wouldn’t recommend using exercise balls for hamsters. They aren’t very well ventilated, can be disorientating, and have been known to cause injuries due to them colliding with hard surfaces.
Whilst some rodents are social and require interaction both with you, and their own species, Syrian hamsters do not require either. They are solitary animals and very territorial.
By 8-10 weeks old, Syrians must be separated. They will fight and very often kill each other over territory, so it goes without saying you should never let your hamster near any other hamster and must they be housed alone.
Hamsters require a varied diet that contains grains, seeds, vegetables, insects/protein, herbs, and nuts.
I would suggest combining a muesli style food mix, a pellet mix, mealworms, and herbs. You can also scatter feed to keep your hamster active and encourage their foraging instincts. Below are some options of feed that you can mix together to provide a varied diet:
It is also important to give your hamster small amounts of fresh vegetables.
You can occasionally give them small amounts of fruit, unseasoned well-cooked chicken breast, unseasoned hard boiled or scrambled eggs, certain nuts, millet spray, raw and cooked pasta, and even certain baby food as a treat.
Avoid: fruit seeds/pits, apple skins, garlic, onions, leeks, bitter almonds, eggplant, raw beans and potatoes, citrus fruits, and rhubarb.
Note: When bringing your hamster home, it is recommended you continue feeding them whatever diet they were on at the time. Gradually mix your new hamster feed in with the old, as sudden changes in diet can cause serious digestion issues for Syrians. All food/treats should be introduced in small amounts whilst monitoring changes in stools.
It is useful to understand some hamster behavior before you begin handling:
A threatened hamster that is ready to bite, might: aggressively chatter their teeth, rear up on their back legs with their arms up, bare their teeth, hiss, or scream.
A nervous hamster might: freeze in place, move about the cage slowly, empty their pouches quickly, have their ears laid back, or lay flat to the ground.
Your hamster might be ill, if: they are unresponsive to your presence, are lethargic, or constantly vocalise.
A stressed hamster may: chew at bars, chew the corners of their cage, hang from the tops of bars, climb wired cages, or pace the enclosure.
A comfortable hamster will: stretch their limbs or watch you with their ears completely up and open.
Other behaviors come in the form of grooming, pouching, burrowing, and scent marking, which are all normal. People often become worried when they see their hamster rubbing their back end up against their enclosure, but this is just your hamster’s way of marking their territory. (You can often see your hamsters scent glands. They look like two black dots on either side of their hips.)
Before training/handling, ensure your hamster wakes up naturally and is fully alert. You don’t want to wake your hamster forcibly as not only is it stressful, but your hamster will be very grumpy about it.
Whenever approaching your hamster, give them ample space to run away to avoid defensive behavior. Try not to interact with them near their nests or they’ll feel threatened/hemmed in.
Finally, hands should be cleaned beforehand, preferably using the same soap each time. Hamsters are short-sighted, but their sense of smell is very keen. They can and will bite if you smell unfamiliar or like food.
Let your hamster adjust.
After letting your hamster adapt to their new home, I would recommend an adjustment period wherein you talk in a calm voice around your hamster and get them used to your presence. After this, you can start the process of learning to interact with your hamster.
Offer them food.
Begin placing treats in the enclosure. Your hamster will begin to associate your hand with food and, after a while, might begin to investigate your fingers. At this point, begin offering them a treat by hand. If they ever grab your fingers and try to nibble at your hands, gently push your finger towards them to discourage this.
Let them come to you.
Then, place treats on your open palm and encourage your hamster to stand on your hand to get the treat. Once they seem comfortable and settle fully on your hand, slowly lift a short way up from the ground. Your hamster will most likely jump off, but again, this will get them used to the action.
Once they appear comfortable with this, you can begin trying to pick them up by cupping both hands under them. Never try picking a hamster up from above as they may think you are a predator, and never grab them by the scruff of the neck. Hamsters can also wriggle out of your hands very easily, so don’t hold or carry them from a height.
Remember that handling can take anywhere from a few weeks, to months, or even longer – so be patient and consistent!
Note: Unfortunately, not every hamster will be comfortable being held, no matter the amount of time you put into handling practice, which is why you must be prepared for the possibility your hamster could end up being an observation-only pet. If this is the case, and you desperately need to get your hamster out of their cage, use a box or a mug to get them out, and use a small pet carrier for transport.
Syrian hamsters are prone to a few health issues. Before deciding on whether to get a hamster, please check if vets in your area have the facilities to help if your hamster falls ill.
Some common health concerns with hamsters are:
Keep a very close eye out for this, especially with young hamsters or when introducing a hamster to a new enclosure. Essentially, this is a form of diarrhea, of which the main trigger for developing it seems to be stress.
If you notice soft stools in the enclosure (stools should always be hard/pellet like) and your hamster appears lethargic, unkempt, is hunched over, and their bottom appears wet/brown – take your hamster to the vet immediately. Wet tail can rapidly become fatal.
As with most rodents, Syrian hamsters have large incisors that grow constantly. It is important you keep an eye on your hamster’s teeth to make sure they aren’t overgrown and causing injury/difficulty eating. Teeth should be yellow/orange in colour.
Hamsters can contract mites or suffer from fungal infections. If your hamster is itching, losing hair, and has red skin, you’ll need to head to the vets for treatment.
Hamsters are prone to respiratory infections. If your hamster has discharge from their eyes or nose, or are wheezing/breathing heavily, you’ll need to head to the vets.
General warning signs
Prey animals hide injuries and illness very well, so make sure to perform health checks regularly. Always keep an eye out for general signs of illness, such as: weight loss, scabs, discharge, loose stools, and changes in eating/sleep habits.
The pros to owning a Syrian hamster:
- With the right set-up, Syrian hamsters are relatively low maintenance and self-sufficient. All you need to provide is food, water, an enclosure, enrichment, and access to a vet. Even ‘big cleans’ are only required once a month if kept in the correct habitat.
- Hamsters themselves are very clean animals. They are likely to pick one part of their enclosure as a toilet, and if cared for properly, produce very little smell. You can even litter train hamsters.
- Once initial purchases, such as: a suitably sized cage, a wheel, and decorations are made – they’re fairly cheap to look after. Similarly, vet bills are a lot cheaper as opposed to larger domesticated animals.
- Syrian hamsters thrive living alone which means less costs for supplies, such as food, as opposed to communal-based pets.
- They can also happily live without interacting with their owner, and whilst some find this a downside, it’s great for those who want a low maintenance/observational pet!
- On the flip side, if you put in the time and effort to tame a hamster and they respond well, they’re relatively good natured for life.
- They’re great fun to watch and full of character. Once a hamster is comfortable in their space, they’re very active and can be quite curious.
- A little-known benefit is that if you’re into DIY and craft projects, it’s easy to create your own accessories, whether chew toys or décor, for your hamster.
- As superficial as it seems, it must be said…hamsters really are adorable.
The cons of owning a Syrian hamster:
- Hamsters are not suitable for children. They are fragile and need to be handled carefully. Even with close supervision, I would advise a lot of caution.
- Also remember that hamsters are usually awake late evening/early morning and shouldn’t be forcibly woken up. Therefore, it can often be a challenge catching your hamster when it is naturally awake.
- It is not guaranteed that your Syrian hamster will ever get used to human interaction. They may become an observation-only pet without your say in the matter, which might not be what you’re looking for.
- You may have to go out of your way to find adequate medical care for small pets, and since hamsters are prone to a lot of stress related illnesses and infections, this can be an issue.
- They are very noisy on a night and therefore can’t be kept in bedroom spaces. If you have other pets, such as a dog or a cat, they’ll need to be kept in a room away from your other animals.
- An ideal enclosure can take up quite a lot of space.
- They have relatively short lifespans.
So, is a Syrian hamster right for you?
If you’re fine with your Syrian hamster potentially not acclimating to human interaction and becoming an observation-only pet, then absolutely! With the right set-up, hamster upkeep is quite low maintenance to boot. I personally still find them as much of a joy to look after now as I did 8 years ago. They’re incredibly endearing, fun to watch, and full of character.
Hopefully this guide gave you some insight into the nature and needs of Syrian hamster care, and helped you decide whether they might be the right pet for you.