Ask any hamster or gerbil owner what their biggest fear is and they will say, “My pet is escaping!” These furry, wriggly little rodents can be master escape artists and the average household presents a minefield of hazards as well as a host of hiding places. Even the plastic “hamster balls” designed to give them exercise without free run of the house are not fool-proof and many an owner has turned around to find the hamster ball neatly split open, with their hamster or gerbil nowhere to be seen!
But preventing escape is not the only thing to worry about when trying to keep hamsters and gerbils safe. Consideration has to be given to their bedding, the equipment and toys they have access to and even the food they are fed. And then there’s your own safety too – how do you prevent yourself getting bitten?
So, to keep yourself and your hamster or gerbil safe, here are a few things to consider:
- handle your pet gently on a regular basis – this will hand-tame it and get it used to being picked up, so it does not bite your hand out of fear.
- leave your hamster alone if it is sitting on its haunches and chattering its teeth – it is indicating that it is not in an amenable mood and may bite if handled.
- leave your hamster alone if it is sleeping (remember, these are nocturnal creatures)
- keep any other larger pets away when your hamster or gerbil is loose as accidents do happen and it can be hard for cats and dogs to suppress their predatory instinct in a moment of excitement, no matter how well they normally live together.
- take your hamster or gerbil to the vet immediately if it shows signs of wet fur around the anal region (not to be confused with diarrhoea, which nevertheless needs observation as well) – this could be the dreaded disease, “wet tail” which is nearly always fatal.
- take your pet regularly to the vet for an examination and possible trimming of the front teeth (incisors) which grow continuously and may not be wearing down enough, thereby causing problems in feeding.
- wash your hands thoroughly both before and after handling your pet. Not only will this prevent the transfer of disease (both human to pet, pet to human, pet to pet) it will also reduce your chances of being bitten as your hand will not carry any lingering and enticing food smells or flavours.
- check your pet’s accommodation and make sure all clasps and door mechanisms are secure. Similarly on the hamster ball before releasing it.
- use a wheel that has a solid surface and rear wall so that tiny feet/legs do not get caught, broken or amputated. Be sure that the wheel is the right size for your pet. Too large and your pet can’t spin it, too small and your pet won’t enjoy it as his back is arched and he can’t stretch his legs to run. Keep the wheel clean to prevent spread of germs and infection.
- be careful with plastic toys as these can be badly chewed, resulting in splinters and sharp edges which can hurt your pet.
- keep an eye on your pet even if it is exercising within a hamster ball
- be extra vigilant when you are moving house or transporting your pet at any other time – in the chaos and confusion, it is very easy for your pet to escape and then be trodden on or crushed under a large, heavy object, such as packing boxes.
- place your hamster/gerbil cage in the path of direct sunshine as these animals are nocturnal and will quickly suffer from heatstroke if exposed.
- expose the cage to a draft as these little rodents can become chilled quite easily. Also, if the ambient temperature drops below a certain figure, this can induce a semi-hibernation or torpid state.
- feed or give your hamster sharp food items or wood shavings as these can puncture the lining of a hamster’s mouth pouch and an abscess can develop.
- allow your pet free access to a room without great care being taken and keeping them under constant observation. The greatest danger comes from underestimating their climbing abilities – they love climbing upwards but can be very clumsy coming down: in most cases, they just let themselves drop, which can result in fatal spinal injuries.
- use cedar and pine bedding as these can be toxic to your pet.
- allow your pet to chew on cardboard as these can be harmful, impacting in their intestines.
- give your pet any wood which has not been bought in a pet store and is specially designed for pet rodents, as it can contain harmful chemicals that could kill your pet.
- have more than one Syrian hamster together in the same space at the same time after the age of 6 weeks except for breeding. These are solitary animals and will turn on one another quickly, resulting in injury or even death. This often happens at night when these pets are least likely to be monitored.
- leave males and females together after mating – the female may attack the male.
Like all small, quick-moving rodents, hamsters and gerbils can be quite a handful sometimes but by following some simple rules and taking a few precautions, you can ensure that you and your furry pet will enjoy a happy relationship.