If you're thinking of adding a small pet to your household, consider the hamster. They became popular pets in the United States and Europe after World War II. Easy to care for, a single hamster makes a good first pet for a child, as long as an adult supervises care and handling. If you bring home a hamster, train the kids on handling their new friend very gently.
The Syrian hamster, also known as the teddy bear or golden hamster, is the type you'll most likely find in pet stores, but other breeds are available, such as the quick Roborovski and other dwarf varieties. While Syrian hamsters are about 6 inches long at maturity, dwarf varieties are about half that size or slightly more than half. Syrians probably make the best pets for kids, partially because they're larger and therefore easier to handle and keep up with. Hamster friendliness is relative -- don't expect a dog's devotion from your rodent.
One disadvantage -- or advantage, depending on your circumstance -- of hamsters is a brief life span. The Syrian hamster lives between two and three years, while dwarf varieties live only a year or two.
In the desert, hamsters have to search far and wide for food, so they're designed for movement. For little rodents, they store a lot of energy, needing a great deal of exercise. That's why your pet will spend a lot of time in his hamster wheel. Tunnels, toys and other hamster accessories are necessary for his physical and mental health.
With hamsters, more is not necessarily merrier. If you have two kids who both want hamsters, you'll probably have to buy two separate cages and other supplies. That's because female hamsters are aggressive with each other, male hamsters act likewise, and you know what happens when you house a male and female together. After they mate, they won't want anything to do with each other. Housing two Syrians together is essentially impossible. You can keep Chinese or Russian hamsters together in same-sex groups, or as dedicated male and female pairs if you intend to breed them. Don't mix different breeds of hamsters together in any living quarters.
Hamsters are nocturnal, so you might want to place their cage in a spot where their nightly activities won't wake you. The sound of that spinning hamster wheel isn't conducive to your sleep. Since they sleep during the day, clean out the cage or otherwise disturb them once the sun sets. A tired hamster gets cranky and might be more likely to bite kids who want to play during the day.
Caring for a Hamster
Hamsters must have food and water available 24/7. While you can feed commercial hamster food, it shouldn't be the only thing they eat. Give them fruit and vegetable treats, such as apples, lettuce, carrots, cauliflower or pears. If you don't use herbicides on your lawn, dandelion greens make a great treat. Like everything else, they do most of their munching at night. Hamsters are clean creatures, so don't put their food dish and water bottle near the area where they poop and pee. Clean out the cage thoroughly at least twice a week. Since hamsters are hoarders, make sure you confiscate their secret stash of food when cleaning. Give your hamster safe wooden toys to chew on and a shelter to hide in during the day. Include a special rodent protein block in his cage.
- hamster image by Vasiliy Koval from Fotolia.com