Hamsters are cute, furry, and (if we’re to believe the popular cartoon, Wonder Pets) absolutely harmless. No wonder parents think that they’re one of the best pets for kids. ‘Hamsters are small, and they’re in a cage. How much trouble can they cause?’
Well, hamsters are naturally docile, but like all animals they can get skittish in loud and unfamiliar environments, and may bite if they’re suddenly poked or picked up. Unfortunately that’s what kids like to do! To protect your child, it’s important to train pet hamsters not to bite. Here are some tips.
1. Hold your hamster frequently.
As a general rule, you should give your hamster some ‘quiet, private’ time when you first bring it home from the pet store. It may be anxious about its new surroundings, and needs to settle down—alone, in a room—for at least 24 hours.
After that, though, you should pick up your hamster at least once a day. This trains your hamster to get used to being handled or petted. It will become used to your smell, and the feeling of being cupped inside a hand.
Your children shouldn’t hold it just yet, but they can hold out their fingers for the hamster to smell, or speak to it. (For their safety and your peace of mind, don’t let kids handle a hamster alone, until you know your pet doesn’t bite or squirm.)
2. Pick up the hamster the right way.
Like any scared animal, a new hamster will wriggle and try to run away when you pick it up. It doesn’t realize that you’re not a predator, and its instinct is to get away as fast as possible! So, the safest way to remove it from its cage is to hold it by the scruff of the neck. The skin is very loose and will stretch, so you can rest assured that it’s not hurt. You probably won’t be able to cup it in your open palm for quite a while—unless you’re willing to look around the whole house for it if it escapes! Until then support the hamster with a very tightly flexed hand, and then pet it—with gentle strokes—from above.
3. Start with short visits.
Hold your hamster frequently, but keep the visits short—at least until it gets used to you. Eventually your pet will realize that you won’t hurt it and will relax, and you can hold it for longer and longer periods of time. Until then, stroke it and then give it a small treat before it decides to bite, and put it back in the cage before it gets upset.
4. Watch for signs of fear or aggression.
Hamsters don’t just bite out of nowhere. The animal may have shown signs of agitation and anxiety. The trick is to observe your pet for particular, unique behavior. When it does bite you (it will happen at the start) try to remember what it was doing right. In hamster language, that meant ‘put me down right now!’
5. Avoid triggering your hamster’s fear or anxiety.
Hamsters will bite if they are afraid, or because its poor eyesight makes it think that you’re holding food in your hand. So don’t ‘invite a bite.’ When it’s still new, hold it frequently but for brief periods. Wash your hands before handling it so you don’t smell like food, and keep your voice low and soft.
6. Give your hamster large treats.
You give a hamster a treat and then he nips your finger. Obviously, it hasn’t heard of the motto ‘don’t bite the hand that feeds you.’ To avoid this, offer larger treats like popcorn, saving smaller treats (like sunflower seeds) when it’s learned to control its bite.
Now, here’s the secret: give your hamster his favorite treats each time you hold it. Like all animals it will learn to associate food with you, and with certain behavior. ‘If I’m petted, and I don’t bite, I get popcorn.’ (Or whatever treat that your pet likes—hamsters are unique, so observe what type of food it gets most excited about.)
So you don’t confuse the animal, don’t just leave the treat in the cage or give it for no reason at all. And if it bites, it goes back into the cage without a ‘reward.’
7. Observe hamster body language.
Even trained hamsters have ‘good’ days and ‘bad’ days. Teach your kids to check your pet’s mood before picking it up. If it hisses and rapidly thumps or whirls its feet, you need to leave it alone. If it runs to the side of the cage to ‘meet’ you and paws at the sides, it wants to play. It may even sit up, its eyes wide and alert, and ‘beg’ for a treat.
I have had several hamsters over the years, and they are very good pets! Sometimes they just need to be given time to adjust to their new owner. Be patient and gentle with them, and they'll soon love you.