Feeding Hamsters

It has rightly been said that hamsters will eat anything —well, almost anything. Most rodents are nibblers and the hamster is no exception. Leave a hamster on a table, say, with a mixed variety of food and watch its behaviour. It will pouch quite a lot but it is especially interesting to see the way it tastes or samples the various items. The little fellow will scurry from one bit of food to the next, testing this and tasting that. It will only occasionally settle down to steady munching.

Pouching is different. Finding something which it likes, a hamster will stuff its pouches to the full, run off to its nest, empty its pouches and return for a refill. In its nest, the hamster will eat steadily something it fancies but outside, there is the tendency to nibble. If you observe carefully, it will nibble many items which are not edible. In this way, the animal learns which things are eatable and which are not. It also ensures that a wide variety of different foods are consumed. This is beneficial because it helps to provide a balanced diet and because, if it should eat something which disagrees with it, insufficient will be consumed to cause serious illness. A “balanced diet” is simply a collection of foods which gives the hamster all it requires for rapid and healthy growth.

No skill is required in feeding hamsters if one keeps to the principle of feeding as varied a diet as possible. People who tend to treat the animal as a “scavenger”, feeding scraps and left-overs from the table, are on the right lines. They may have to guard against the possibility of overdoing it occasionally because they happen to have rather a lot of a certain waste food. Almost all human foods are suitable for hamsters and, because we like a varied diet, it is usually possible to see to it that the pet hamster is well provided. There is also the fact that feeding household scraps is inexpensive !

It is only necessary to feed hamsters once a day. This may be at any time but during the evening is the most convenient—both to the hamster and to its owner. If you make a practice of feeding about the same time, the hamster soon learns to know when grub is on the way and waits eagerly. Tit-bits are appreciated at any time and hamsters like to receive them just as much as you like to give. A particular tasty tit-bit may induce the hamster to eat it on the spot but do not be surprised if the greedy animal pouches it and continues to sit up for more.

Suitable food for hamsters (and most other rodents) falls naturally into two groups. Dry food : grains and cereals, either whole grains (wheat, oats, sunflower, mixed bird seeds, etc.); meals (bran, middling, etc.) and various made up diets. Green food : fresh leaves (lettuce, cabbage, etc.); fruit (apple) and vegetable roots (carrots, swede, etc.). The number of different foods and diets which may be given is large and the best one can do is to indicate those which are the most suitable.

There is quite a lot of faddism in feeding but the following rules will ensure that your pet will come to no harm. Firstly, feed a varied diet and, secondly, do not feed anything which you would not eat yourself. The second rule does not apply to specially formulated diets, of course, such as rabbit pellets. You may feel you would not like to eat these. They may taste “grassy” and “gritty” but they are wholesome and hamsters love ’em.

Grains and Cereals

The most convenient table scraps are those which are not messy. Waste bread in the form of end slices of loaves, crusts, odd left-overs and the like should never be tipped into the refuse bin if you have a hamster. Stale cake and biscuits are also enjoyed. It is a useful trick to bake fingers or cubes of bread in the oven. For one thing, these keep excellently in an airtight tin and, another, they are good for the hamster’s teeth. Dog biscuits serve the same purpose.

Hamsters are very fond of sunflower seeds and mixed grains of all descriptions : whole or crushed oats, wheat, shelled peanuts, etc. Many of these can be bought as mixed rabbit food or even as bird food. This does away with the bother of buying separate items. Packets of proprietary hamster food are sold by most pet stores, another means of buying a mixture in one go. Mention must be made of the handy rabbit pellet. Most rodents do well on this and the hamster is no exception. The pellet is a formulated diet, made up of cereals, concentrates and vitamins to give a balanced diet.

Mashes are favoured by some people for hamsters. The contents of these can vary greatly, from mixtures of bran, middlings and maize with water added, to boiled potatoes and cabbage, dried off with bran or dried bread crumbs. All mashes should be slightly on the dry side, a crumbly consistency is the best, never wet or sloppy. Once mixed, mashes do not keep, hence only small amounts can be made up at one time. On balance, it is doubtful if mashes are worth the bother for adult hamsters. However, youngsters enjoy mashes, particularly when newly weaned.

Green Foods and Roots

Green food should form part of a hamster’s diet. In the main, this should consist of green leaves. Outside leaves and trimmings from vegetables are ideal. Cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, curly kale, lettuce, watercress, celery, spinach and carrot tops may be fed. Greengrocers often have trimmings which may be had for the asking (politely) if you do not wish to buy. The green leaves of cabbage are better than the white (heart) leaves, although the latter are better than nothing.

Vegetable roots, such as beetroot, carrot, swede and turnip may be fed. These should be cut into small slices or cubes. Many can be obtained all year and will be especially useful for winter feeding when green leaves are less easy to obtain or may be damaged by frost. Never feed frosty green food or roots —not even those which have thawed. These can be usually recognised by a dark colour and a “pulpy” feel. Frosted food is definitely harmful.

Weeds from the garden should not be overlooked. Common weeds such as dandelion, chickweed, groundsel, sow thistle, dead nettle, yarrow, plaintain and Shepherd’s purse are relished. Lawn mowings are a valuable food, so long as these are from a regularly mowed lawn, so that the hamster receives succulent young shoots, not coarse old grass. It is fun making up “salads” of mixed leaves and roots on a tin lid, and your pet will enjoy sorting through the mixture.

There are a number of weeds which are poisonous and these must be avoided at all costs. Bindweed, blue-bells, buttercups, hemlock, nightshade, ragwort, scarlet pimpernel and speedwell are those most likely to be encountered. If you are unsure of any weed, err on the safe side and do not feed it.

Hamsters love ripe apples and pears. These should be sliced or cubed, as with roots, so that small pieces can be fed. Large pieces of food will only decay in the cage and may in fact become soiled by the hamsters droppings and urine. A good plan is to put aside pieces of vegetable when preparing the dinner or pieces from an apple or pear you may be eating yourself.

Food which can be given as tit-bits, need not consist solely of vegetables or fruit. Most rodents are fond of dried foods, such as currants, figs, prunes, raisins and sultanas. Nuts of all types may be given. Those with hard shells should be cracked open and the kernel extracted. Unshelled nuts will be easily accepted but you are likely to find them stowed away uneaten. Most hamsters are cunning enough not to spend time laboriously gnawing at a hard shell, with plenty of other food waiting to be eaten.

Be careful not to overdo the feeding of green food. Green leaves are essentially a bulk food and, as such, would not be sufficiently nutritious for quickly growing young hamsters. For adults, green food is useful for preventing over-fatness (excess fat is not harmful in itself but can interfere with breeding). Never feed very wet green food. This appears to be a cause of stomach upsets as the hamster consumes more water than it would normally. If the green food is wet it should be allowed to dry by being spread out on paper.

At all times, only fresh green food should be fed. Never use green food which has turned yellow with age; particularly the yellowed leaves of cabbage, cauliflower or lettuce, for example. Dirty or mud-splashed green food should not be considered. Also, in these days, no green food should be used which is known to have been recently sprayed with pesticide.

Hoarding

The hamster is well known for its pronounced hoarding instinct. Most rodents hoard but the hamster is equipped with two special cheek pouches into which the little animal will pack the most amazing items. The purpose of the pouch is to gather food which is then carried back to the nest. This instinct is so strong that the hamster will quickly pouch its food, race over to or into its nest and disgorge. It will do this even if the distance between the food and the nest is merely a few inches.

Rodents differ in their feeding instinct. Mice and rats, for example, will seize a piece of food and run back to the nest and sit there eating it. A rabbit will approach the offered food and stay there eating its fill. A hamster may eat a little of the food it has taken to its nest but it is just as likely to come back and refill its pouch, only settling down to its meal when there is no more food to be had. The usual place for hoarding is at the back of the nest but other sites may be, and often are, chosen.

The habit of hoarding has its advantages but also some drawbacks. A hamster will draw upon its food store until all is eaten. This is all right if the store consists of non-perishable food. However, since everything is hoarded, the perishable items will become bad. This means that a watchful eye has to be kept on the store and the perishable items removed before they have decayed too much. This may be done as often as one wishes but certainly at the weekly cage cleaning. The hamster store should be replaced but only with sound food.

Water

Hamsters have .need for water and a supply should always be on hand. Fortunately, water bottles can now be bought which are fixed on the outside of the cage. Some cages have small holes to take the drinking spout and, in other cases, the spout is simply inserted through the wire. The nozzle of the spout should not be so low that it makes contact with the sawdust (the water will be drained out by capillary action) nor too high so that the hamster cannot find it. Always keep the bottle well-filled, since it is inclined to dribble at the slightest movement when almost empty, and regularly washed to prevent the growth of green slime. These water bottles are greatly superior to the old- fashioned water-pot which is so often filled with sawdust or over-turned by the industrious hamster.

Holidays

When the whole family goes on holiday, the tending of pets becomes a problem. With cats and dogs, one solution is to have these boarded with a reputable cattery or kennel. This cannot be so easily arranged for a hamster. Some pet shops are willing to care for pets over holidays but most are not. It will be realised that it is not only the labour involved but also the responsibility which deters many shops. The vogue of going on holiday in the family car raises the advantage of taking your pet with you. The average hamster cage is not large and it should be possible to squeeze it in.

A friendly neighbour may be persuaded to tend your pet, either looking in from time to time or the cage could be taken to him for safe-keeping. If you have a school chum who has pets of his (or her) own, what could be better? At least, you will know that the hamster will be in the care of someone who is used to looking after pets. You could offer to feed your friend’s pets when he is on holiday. Since he could be in the same predicament as yourself, the offer may be received with enthusiasm.

If the worst comes to the worst, a hamster can usually be left unattended for about a week. The provision of food should not be a difficulty since whatever is given will promptly be hoarded and the little fellow will draw upon this whenever he feels hungry.

It is clear that no perishables should be given but the more solid, hard food, such as seeds, rabbit pellets or baked bread. Not even pieces of carrot or apple should be given since it is doubtful if these would last a week in wholesome condition.

The question of water should be considered. Since the hamster will not be receiving any green food, more than the normal amount of water will be drunk. The number of days should be counted which elapse before the water bottle requires a refill. If this is less than the number of days which you will be away, a second bottle should be obtained. Even if the bottle did last just a week, this is unlikely to be sufficient because of the probability that extra water will be consumed. It is better to err on the safe side and fix another bottle temporarily.

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