Wednesday, 5 October 2011

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Hamsters and the Five Freedoms

Hamsters make wonderful pets for people of all ages, although they are often a child’s first pet as they are small and charming little creatures. There are various breeds and colouration's, from a golden banded Syrian to a pearl Winter White. I have a love for Syrians myself and have a lovely tortoiseshell and white girl called Luna (see her intro here).

Sadly, hamsters are often the most neglected of animals, people either forgetting or never realising that they are highly complex creatures that need just as much, if not more, care and attention as a dog or cat. Pet owners, under the Animal Welfare Act, are required to meet the "Five Freedoms" and not doing so will result in legal action.

The Five Freedoms, which apply to all pets including hamsters, are as follows -
  • Freedom of hunger and thirst
  • Freedom of discomfort
  • Freedom from pain, injury and disease
  • Freedom to act normally
  • Freedom from fear and distress

Freedom of Hunger and Thirst

Hamsters have a special nutritional needs and require the right food to account for that - a good quality, hamster specific, dried food mix is a must. Harry Hamster is a popular brand, I use JR Farm Hamster Feast myself. Dwarf hamsters are prone to diabetes so ensuring that the mix you buy is free/low in sugars is important, you can get specialist dwarf hamster food that is perfect for them but normal hamster mix is fine if you remove things such as the corn.

Fruit, vegetables, herbs, seeds, nuts, mealworms etc can be given as treats, as well as specific hamster treats from pet stores, all treats should only be given in small amounts and some should be avoided completely. More on suitable treats and amounts soon.

Water can be given either via water bottle or water bowl. I personally prefer a bottle as there is no risk of it tipping over and the hamster going thirsty. They also cant kick substrate, food or poo into it either! Whatever you choose, the water must be changed once a day, tap water is fine - the reason I say this is because some places try to sell people bottled water for animals, its a con, don’t buy it. Water bottles can leak - Classic water bottles seem to be the best out there and are cheap too.

Freedom of Discomfort

Hamsters need a good sized cage, a place to nest and suitable substrate and nesting materials. The RSPCA minimum cage size is 75cm (L) by 40cm (W), although Syrians are best in 80cm by 50cm cages and single Dwarf hamsters can be housed in slightly smaller cages. Compartment cages are unsuitable for hamsters as no single compartment will provide the floor space needed - a group of smaller compartments joined to provide the 75cm by 40cm floor space is not the same as one single cage. Levels in a cage do not count towards the required size either. Remember these measurements are minimums, the bigger the better!

Substrate is often a controversial topic - many believe that pine wood shavings are the devils bedding and shouldn’t ever go near a hamster. Many moons ago someone said that the phenols in pine wood shavings will cause health problems, this spread like wildfire throughout the online and offline community. The thing is, pet safe pine wood shavings are safe - as long as they are dust extracted and kiln dried (this destroys the dangerous phenols). If you still don’t trust pine wood shavings there are alternatives, such as Megazorb (virgin wood pulp) and Carefresh. All have their own pro's and con's, I'll do a post on substrate soon.

Nesting material - one of the most popular and cheap types of bedding is loo roll. Yup, toilet roll - shred a few sheets (roughly a handful or so) or put the whole sheets in the cage so the hamster can shred it. Cotton wool/"fluffy" bedding should never, ever, ever be given to a hamster - it can wrap around feet, cutting of blood supply, get stuck in pouches and cause intestinal problems if ingested. It's just not worth the risk.

Freedom from Pain, Injury and Disease

It always surprises me when people admit that they didn’t realise a vet would treat a hamster - just like any other animal, hamsters sometimes need to see a vet and the Animal Welfare Act requires that prompt veterinary treatment be given to all animals, including hamsters when needed. A vet that specialises in small animals and/or exotic animals is the best, as not all vets are very good with hamsters.

Prevention of injury or disease is also a must - make sure there is nothing in the cage that can injure the hamster, from sticking out wires to high drops. Providing the correct diet etc is also relevant here - the wrong diet can and will cause health problems.

Freedom to Act Normally

This includes providing the correct environment, from the cage to the toys. It also includes keeping Syrians a lone (this is highly important, they are solitary animals). Dwarves can be kept in pairs or groups but I have to be honest, I've rarely seen a pair or group that haven’t eventually ended up having to be separated because of fighting.

Freedom from Fear and Distress 

In other words, don't torment a hamster, or any animal. Don't shout at them, don't poke them, don't hit them, don't scare them in any way. It's cruel, plain and simple.

This has just been a quick overview of the Five Freedoms and Hamsters, I will be going into a lot more detail on certain topics in future posts but I thought it would be better to cover the basics first!


  1. What a great list of information , I give my dwarf hampsters Andives each day , i wonder if that is to much veg ? plus a bowl of grains and peanuts if they want and sunflower seeds

  2. Great article! You can also browse myperkypet which is all about small pets, whether you're figuring out if a hamster is right for you or you are looking for guinea pig tricks, we've got you covered.