Hardy little fur balls are easy to care for and a great addition to the family

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 November, 2010, 12:00am

Hamsters are lovable little creatures, but you had better keep an eye on them, because they like to escape to dark places and might settle somewhere out of sight in your flat. Veterinarian Gerry Pahl, of Victoria Veterinary Clinics in Tuen Mun, recalls a Hong Kong household's frantic search for their missing hamster. The family looked everywhere and eventually assumed the rodent had run away, he says. Six months later, however, the owners were moving their sofa when they discovered that their pesky little fur ball had burrowed a space and was living quite happily in their prized piece of furniture.

The most common breeds of hamster in Hong Kong are the Syrian and Chinese Dwarf varieties. The larger Syrian or Golden Hamsters are territorial and can get uppity if they are disturbed, Pahl says.

'They can be aggressive like rats,' he says. 'They love being by themselves, so they should be kept in separate cages [if you have more than one] because they can fight.'

The Chinese Dwarf hamsters have a black stripe down their backs and are a lot more sociable, particularly if they have been brought up together from a young age.

Hamsters usually live for two to three years and are easy to look after, Pahl says. But the health of elderly rodents can deteriorate from the age of about two. 'Older hamsters can get lumps and bumps, so feel around their bodies since they can occur anywhere,' he advises. Other diseases include wet tail (or proliferative ileitis), a gastro-intestinal disease that can be fatal and difficult to treat, the veterinarian says.

'You don't see this frequently, but [hamsters] tend to become unwell very quickly and stop eating and [seem] lethargic, and their tails will be wet,' he says.

Hamsters can also develop parasites, so owners should check their pet's fur. If you notice that your rodent is chewing its coat, look out for hair loss, which is caused by a skin parasite, he says.

'It's treatable and there's a special drug to kill the parasite. But there is usually an underlying problem that affects the immune system, especially for hamsters with a weak immune system. You will want to check if something else is going on as well.'

Owners also need to watch their hamster's food intake, particularly if their pet is starting to look chunky, he says.

'A lot of people leave food out for their hamster all the time. You need to be careful because they can get really fat. Seed-based food like sunflowers have a very high fat content and you can get problems in obesity. Hamsters can selectively eat seeds high in oils.'

Fat hamsters can be put on a diet, Pahl says. He recommends owners pick out the oily seeds in a seed mix, or only provide their pets with food for several hours, and then take away the food dish, so they aren't snacking all day long. Access to fresh water is a must, with water drippers a convenient way to quench a hamster's thirst.

Hamsters may like to sleep all day, but they need to exercise, he says. So owners should buy a cage with an exercise wheel to help their pets keep fit and add tunnels and different levels to keep the rodents happy in their habitat. You can also let your hamster run around your flat, and burn calories, in a clear plastic ball.

'It sounds cruel, but hamsters really love running around inside them,' the vet says. 'It's another way to give them exercise and let them get out of the cage. But make sure they don't roll around unattended, or someone might step on them.'

Owners should clean their hamster's cage and change their pet's bedding about twice a week.

Avoid giving hamsters wood shavings or wood chips to sleep on, as they can get stuck in the rodents' digestive systems. Instead, give them bedding made of wood pulp, which hamsters won't eat, he advises.

You don't need to take your hamster to the vet unless it is sick. Hamsters don't need vaccinations, so they only need one health check when they are first acquired, he says, adding the rodents make fine family pets.

'Hamsters are really popular for kids, and one of the most common first pets. [Hamsters] don't live a long time, but having one teaches [children] the responsibility of pet ownership.'