Hamsters are adorable. They're wee and fluffy, and have tiny paws and wiggly noses. And those little ears! But they have a bad reputation for being bitey little buggers.
Almost every pet you can get needs some time to adjust to a new home, and hamsters are no different. Not only that, but they're so small in comparison to us humans. And look at them. That cute little face clearly says "prey animal near the bottom of the food chain." When our giant, unfamiliar human hands grab them from behind in their cage, the poor little hamster might think those are raptor claws or something. And like any prey animal, they're going to try something to free themselves from becoming someone's snack. The one thing a hamster can do is bite.
So though hamsters are almost always biting out of fear, not aggression, they do tend to bite more than other small pets. Also, their jaws are stronger than those ridiculous, tiny front paws. Watch your hamster go about their business (they're nocturnal), and you'll see them use their teeth for everything: building a little house or bed, moving things around, and making scary things like your hands go away.
Diane Kipnis of Furball Critters has been breeding hamsters for more than 20 years. She notes that some hamsters can be territorial when they first arrive in your home. "Usually they work out of that," she says. They're typically more territorial toward other hamsters, but they can be that way toward humans they don't know too.
The goal here is help your hamster get used to you before you ever try to pick them up. When they know you, they won't be threatened by you. Make sure you plan your hamster time in the evening, when they're awake. No sense in reading "War and Peace"to a sleeping hamster. Besides, don't you want to bite someone when they wake you up from a deep sleep?
Begin Hamster Training Montage Here
Here are some tips that work with a new hamster or a hamster who's been around but maybe still takes the occasional surprised nip:
- For the first few days, sit near the cage and talk to your hamster. Sing to it. Read to it. Let it get used to your look, sound and smell. You can even leave your dirty laundry hamper nearby. (This also provides a convenient reason for putting off laundry day.)
- After a few days, put your hand on top of or just inside the cage. If your hamster gets curious and comes in for a closer look, let it check your hand out. No matter what, you're not grabbing at the hamster yet.
- When they're relaxed about your hand being in their space, offer some treats. Everybody likes treats. Maybe a fresh raspberry or a piece of plain popcorn?
- When the hamster seems interested, and dare we say excited, about your familiar, treat-feeding hand, try petting them gently. Remember, no sudden moves.
- When the petting is going great, try picking up the hamster. Start with a short hold inside the cage and work up to longer snuggle sessions away from the cage. You can try hanging out on your bed, which smells like you and offers a wide, flat place for it to explore. You can keep it from taking a header onto the floor by using the back of your hand as a wall when it goes too far.
- No matter which stage of training you're at, let the hamster see you coming and show them your hands.
Hamster Pick-up Game
When you pick up your hamster, you want them to feel safe. The best way to lift them out of their cage is to place your hands on either side of their little potato body then bring your hands together under that fuzzy, round belly. Very much not like the way a hawk would pick up a rodent.
When you have a happy enough hamster in your hands, let it sit in one palm while the other kinds of cups them behind that fuzzy butt. Make a little den out of your hands. Hamsters like dens.
It also helps to wash your hands before holding your hamster. If your hands smell like food, they may give a little trial nibble just in case that thing that smells like a carrot is actually a carrot and not a human finger. "I call that 'tasting,'" Kipnis said. You'll be able to tell the difference between a happy hamster tasting your finger and a scared hamster biting you.
A hamster's tiny, sharp teeth feel more like being pinched than being bitten. Do your best not to yell. Just lower it into its cage, and it'll let go. Their bite is not very damaging, and they're very unlikely to carry rabies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Washing your hands and sticking on a bandage typically are all you need post-bite.