If you’re looking to get a hamster, you’ll want to know how to choose your first hamster. Getting a hammy for the first time is exciting, and a big responsibility, even if he’s so small.
Even if you’re not headed out the door to find your furry friend right now, there’s a few things you should know before you get a 2-3 year commitment. I wish I knew some of these when I first got my Teddy (Syrian male hammy).
How to choose your first hamster
The best way to choose a hamster is to look both for a healthy one, but also a even-tempered hamster. Hamsters are skittish and jumpy by nature, but they should be relatively easy to tame, and not very afraid of you.
It’s easier to find a healthy hamster than a calmer, cooperative hamster. Most of the health checks are obvious and immediately noticeable, like scabs, missing teeth, bald spots, leaky nose, etc.
The temperament however is a bit trickier, and won’t show completely until the hamster becomes an adult – around 3 months old. Until then, you’ll have to look for some specific signs.
Let’s start with the health checklist, to see if your future hammy is healthy.
The hamster’s health
A healthy hamster is easy enough to find, although some signs of illness won’t be immediately obvious. Some depend on the sex and breed of hamster you’re looking for as well.
The hamster’s eyes
A hammy’s eyes are supposed to be bright, and clear. Now hamsters usually have black eyes, but they can also be dark red, red, or even pink, and some look like a very deep dark blue.
However the color should be clear, with no milky or whitish spots. They should not be hazy.
Bright, sparkly, bulging eyes are a trait that hammies are known for.
No missing teeth
It should be obvious, but a hamster should have all of its teeth. That means 2 pair of front incisors, that you should be able to see clearly. They are very long, especially the bottom pair.
Hamster teeth are yellow, sometimes even orange. That’s okay. You should only worry if you see white teeth, or whitish teeth, since those are signs of an illness or deficiency.
Broken, cracked, crossed, or even missing teeth are a bad sign. They can come about from poor handling by the caretakers, or it could be a hereditary problem.
Teeth are crucial to a hamster’s health, so they should be something you look at. You can find out more about hamster dental issues here, and what to look out for.
A hammy’s ears are the first thing he will use to make sense of his surroundings. Hamsters don’t see very well, so they rely a lot on smell and hearing.
A pair of clean, thin ears is ideal, with no bite marks or missing bits. Do take note that many hammies have harder ears than the rest of their body. So you’ll need to get a bit of a closer look into the hamster’s ear for an infection or any other issues.
No odd lumps
Hamsters are this small ball of fur. But they should have no lumps, since that usually means an odd growth, or tumor, or a possible impacted cheek or abscess.
None of those are good news. You might see your preferred hammy with a cheek full, or maybe both. That’s usually just food stored in his cheeks, though it’s not a common sight in pet stores.
A note to be mindful of Syrian hammies. I wish I knew this about Teddy, because I was afraid he was sick when I first saw this.
Syrian hamsters have two black mole-like spots on their hips, with barely any fur around them. Those are normal, and they are the scent glands. You will probably only notice them of the hamster is licking that spot.
Bald spots, and how the fur looks
The fur of a hamster should be fluffy, and clean looking. It should not be particularly shiny, unless the hamster was bred for that purpose.
That being said, no bald spots (aside from the scent gland or genital area) should be present on the hamster. Any bald spot could be an indication of a skin disease, some of which could be contagious.
However some bald spots can simply mean that he hamster somehow hurt himself, and managed to rip some fur off of himself. Be sure to check the habitat the hamster is in for other clues.
Are there other hamsters with bald spots ? Are they actually scars from fighting ? Is there a part of the habitat the hamster could have cut himself on ?
Discharge in the eyes or nose or ears
A healthy, happy hamster should be completely dry. No discharge or liquids from the ears, nose, tail area, or mouth.
Discharge can be a sign of infection, and it’s most probably contagious as well. SO it could be that your chosen hamster is sick, or is in the incubation phase.
Any sign of infection however should be immediately treated by the staff at the pet store, since that isn’t a humane way to keep hamsters.
Wet tail is noticeable if the tail is, well, wet or soiled. It’s a type or diarrhea and can be extremely dangerous for your hamster’s health.
You can find out more about wet tail here, and the chances your hamster has of getting it and surviving.
If one hamster does have wet tail, or any other disease, it’s very possible that the other hamsters in the habitat have got it too, or they’re in the incubation phase.
You’ll also notice signs of wet tail on the bedding, as it might be soiled and very smelly.
A baby hamster – between 4 and 12 weeks old – should be neither skinny nor fat. This is actually how you should keep him as an adult, as well.
An obese baby hamster will have a much shorter life span, and have several health issues, including and not stopping at diabetes and joint problems.
An underfed hamster will be noticeable if you hold the hamster and feel its spine and leg bones very clearly.
Since hamsters are so fluffy, it can be difficult to tell if they’re skinny or fat. The fur will cheat you there, but you should be able to tell if you look at the head and eyes, and how plump the skin is there.
You can find out more about how big a hamster can get, depending on his breed. And find out here what you can do if you hamster’s already overweight.
No weird smells
An odd smell coming from your hamster is not a good sign. Hamsters are actually incredibly clean animals, and they clean themselves regularly, several times a day, very thoroughly.
They have no scent that a human can detect, aside from female hamsters in heat.
So if your hamster smells odd, you should check it for any signs of infection as well. It could be that the hamster has an abscess in his mouth (possibly because if a bad tooth) and that could be the source.
Or a possible ear infection that isn’t obvious right away.
The hamster’s personality
Your hammy’s personality is probably something you won’t think of immediately, but you’ll notice it’s more important than anything.
This is what I wish I knew before I got Teddy. You see, I wanted an orange hammy, and that was it. I had no idea about hamster breeds, temperaments, calmness, and so on.
In time I saw that my Teddy is a bit of a despot, if you will. He must know, he must see, he will have his way, and he always has something to object. A bit annoying, but still a lovable ball of fur.
Just not what I had in mind when I decided I want a hamster. I wanted a cuddly, friendly hammy, who will sleep on my shoulder and want to play all the time. Basically the world’s tiniest puppy.
Again, I knew absolutely nothing about hamsters.
Baby hamsters are hard to read
When selecting your hamster, keep in mind that babies don’t have their personalities completely formed. You can’t look at a baby Syrian and know it’ll be friendly straight away, as you would a Lab puppy for example.
Still, you can look at a few things when selecting your new hamster:
- Is he afraid or just cautious ? He should want to come closer if you reach for him, but not too confidently.
- Does the hamster run away as soon as it sees anyone ? Hamsters are shy, yes, but an extra shy hamster who bolts into his hideout all the time is very hard to tame.
- Does he look mostly calm and curious ? Hamsters are notoriously hyper, and older hammies are calmer than babies. Syrians are calmer than Dwarf types. Depends on what kind of hammy you want.
- Does the hammy look like it’s angry or snappy ? Might be best to stay away from that one, he will be harder to tame.
- Is the hamster trying to attack you ? It might sound silly, but if your hamster of choice starts making himself look bigger and tries to intimidate you, you’ve got a difficult one. Best to leave him be and find a different one.
Keep in mind that previously owned hamsters might be a better choice, since they’ve been handled before and are most probably already tamed. They can be traumatised, however, so be gentle with them.
If you’re selecting a baby hamster, make sure it is curious, and can hold its attention for several seconds. Hamsters are always on the move and are curious about a million things at a time, but still, if you put your hand on the cage, he should notice it and try to come closer.
Your petshop should be able to let you handle the hammy before you walk out with him. Make sure you handle him beforehand, otherwise you’ll end up with not exactly what you were looking for.
I didn’t ask to handle Teddy when I got him, and I’m not sure that pet store lets you do that. But handling him would’ve shown us that he wasn’t the calmest hamster in the cage.
Male or female hamster
This is up to you, and your preference. Males are generally a bit calmer, and easier to handle than females.
That being said, if you’re getting a Dwarf type hammy, both genders are hyper and won’t sit still.
Females come into heat every few days, about once a week. They become very irritable and a bit smelly in that period.
You can recognize male hammies by the genital openings. In males the genital and anal opening are far apart, and do have fur between the two spots. Some hamster types may have a scent gland on the abdomen, so it will look like a third opening.
Female hamsters have the obligatory and noticeable rows on nipples, and the genital and anal openings very close together. It will look like a bit of a bald spot with two pink dots.
When picking a pair of hamsters, you’ll want to get them in same-sex pairs. This means no surprise, unplanned litters.
Also, if you select a female hamster keep in mind that they can become pregnant as soon as they’re weaned – aprox . 4 weeks old.
This means that if the caretakers didn’t separate the hamsters into same sex groups early enough, you might just bring home a pregnant female hamster without knowing.
If your hammy is a pregnant female and you only just found out, congratulations on your new litter ! And here’s how to make sure they survive.
Which hamster breed to get
When it comes to the hamster breed, this is again up to you and your preference.
There are two main types of hamsters available – Syrian and Dwarf hamsters. The Syrian is the most common one, it’s the largest, and easiest to tame.
The Dwarf types (4 of them) are much smaller, and faster and agile and, can be a bit harder to tame since they just won’t sit still. No hamster ever sits in one place for more than a few seconds, but Dwarves are terrible at it.
I have a Syrian male, and I sometimes have trouble keeping up with him. You can imagine how well I’d do with a Dwarf.
Actually, Dwarf types are harder to handle, and as such are best left as observational pets. A bit like fish, but cuddly and much faster.
Here’s how to identify each hamster type, and pick out the one you think you’d like the most.
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Bringing your new hamster friend home
Alright, you’ve picked out your new friend, he’s in his nice cardboard box and ready to go home.
I’ll urge you to bring your pet as fast as you can to his new home, so he can accommodate. Hamsters don’t like change too much, so they won’t like being taken away.
Make sure you get home and have his cage set up beforehand. You can read here about the recommended cage sizes for each hamster type, and how to pick one out for your hamster.
An in-depth look at the best hamster cages available will be helpful before you actually go and buy your hammy’s cage.
The bedding and hideout should be picked out beforehand too, so they’re already laid out in the cage and ready for your hamster friend.
You can find here a good roundup of safe hamster bedding/substrate options, and pick your favorite.
Toys and food bowl, should be available and already in place when your hammy comes home for the first time.
As well as a running wheel for your hamster, and browsing a nice selection according to hamster breed will be useful to pick out a good exercise wheel.
And finally, a bit of food and a treat in his cage will help your hamster settle in easier.
This means that the hamster himself will be the last thing you buy when you decide to get this cuddly pet.
This is because the moment you bring your hammy home and settle him in his new home, you won’t disturb him at all for at least a couple of days, if not 3-4.
The transition from being with his siblings, and then being put in a box, and then put in another box is very disorienting and stressful, and hamsters are very very bad at handling stress.
So when you get home, place the cardboard box in the hamster’s cage, with the hamster still in the box. Open a side of the box, and from then on leave the hammy alone.
Talk to him when you walk past his cage, and dedicate some minutes every day to just let him smell you.
Do not touch or try to handle him at all for a couple of days. Once he’s settled in, you can begin taming him, and you’ll become friends fairly quickly.
Is a hamster really the pet for you ?
This is a question you should ask yourself very seriously. I’ve seen a lot of people get a hamster without knowing what they’re getting themselves into. Me included.
A hamster is not a puppy, and won’t always be there as you want him to be. In this respect, a hamster is more like a cat, if you will. He has a lot of personality, for being so incredibly small.
And he can be aloof and hard to read sometimes. Hamsters don’t wag their tails, or purr to show affection or happiness.
They do have their own special charm, but they’re a different pet than the norm. And they are definitely not suited for small children, no matter what else you hear.
Hamsters don’t take well to being handled wrong, or too much, or loud noises, or sudden movements. These are all things a 6 year old can and will do, since they’re children.
A guinea pig would be more suited for a small child, since they’re incredibly calm and serene (compared to a hamster).
If you want to get a more in-depth view on what owning a hamster is like, and some pros and cons, you need to check this article. You’ll get much more info, and see if a hammy is really the one for you.
And if you’d like to know more about how to properly care for your hamster, you can check out these essential steps.
A word from Teddy
I hope you found what you were looking for here, and know how to pick out the best hammy. I know us hamsters can be the cutest things ever, but we have our own personalities.
So, make sure you check out the health and personality of your new friend before bringing him home.
If you want to know more about us hammies, you should check out the related articles below for more info.