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Diet and Feeding

Author: Andrew Overton

From Issue 34 Jul 2000

Very little was known about the Syrian hamster until it became domesticated in this country in the 1940s. From the early 1940s no specific diet was fed to hamsters and with World War II in this country, people had difficulties feeding themselves never mind hamsters.

When Syrians first became domestic pets they were fed a basic diet, usually vegetarian and scraps. Unfortunately, the diet was lacking protein and during the war period, protein-rich foods such as meat, fish, cheese and eggs were all in short supply for humans, let alone our precious little hammies.

Until 1947, the only Syrians available were the golden form and very few people were breeding or studying them. It became apparent that to improve bone structure and body proportion, a well-balanced diet was a necessity. Protein had not been fed, so poor quality animals were born leaving scope for improvement.

Over the years, various statistics and figures have been calculated and listed and we should know whether these are correct. My advice is - common sense plays an important part in relation to diet and feeding. Give amounts that are suitable for the body size and give a balanced mixture. There are a vast number of manufacturers that make and supply hamster mixes. These mixes are supposed to be well balanced and calculated by nutritionists to the last percentage. Unfortunately, these nutritionists are not hamster fanciers or breeders and are not striving to breed quality animals, so what does it matter to them if their mixes are right or wrong?

Extruded wheat extract is a common weak and unpalatable component of a mixture. Rodents usually collect and store it and rarely eat it. It sometimes forms a cloudy grey mould on its surface. You may have experienced this, clearing out the food store and consigning the aforementioned to the rubbish bin. What should we really aim to feed our hamsters and how much?

Hamsters will usually feed once a day. The time at which the food is administered depends on peoples' lifestyles. As a rule, hamsters are active in the evening and can be fed at this time. If daytime feeding is more practical for you then hamsters will happily become accustomed to it. They have a good sense of smell and will usually waken when food is around, quickly accepting tasty offerings. With a balanced diet in mind, the mixture should consist ideally of protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamin and minerals. The bulk should be protein and vitamins found in green foods. Excessive amounts of fat or carbohydrate should be avoided as should acidic fruits. Sweet apples that have been washed are a good choice, Royal Gala apples are sweet and safe.

Over the past 40 years or so the general diet of a hamster has remained the same apart from the continual changes of dry hamster food mixes. Complicated grain mixes are not required - a very basic grain mix is sufficient supplemented with fresh food.

Be careful in summer or in hot weather not to feed oats in quantity. Porridge oat-type milky mixes are not beneficial in the mild April to September months. Some use these stodgy mixes to bring on young but it's a filler food more suited to the winter months for maintaining body warmth. Youngsters 9 days or older would be better fed on scrambled egg with the addition of a dry milk powder and plenty of chopped parsley. This is a healthier combination and beneficial to hamster growth especially when dry grains of various types and sizes are added. Locus beans are best avoided.

Green stuff is very important and some people are scared of giving too much. Don't be frightened of feeding fresh vegetables as they are essential for health and vigour. Darker greens are good for fertility with vitamins A and E present in cabbage, broccoli, curly kale and spinach to name a few. Pregnant females, mothers with young and males of breeding age need green foods for normal reproductive function. They should be given up to a tablespoon of chopped greens per hamster per day. You will know if you are giving too much as their droppings will become soft, not loose. From 9 days old, a mixture of chopped parsley and cabbage can be given in increasing amounts. Glucose powder is also good for mothers and young and can be added to the drinking bottle.

In winter, fresh produce can become expensive so don't rule out root vegetables as they are a good source of vitamins. Carrots are ideal, containing vitamins A and C and are excellent for growth and digestion. Swedes and parsnips tend not to be popular with hamsters but if a mixture of swede, carrot, parsnip and apple is chopped up they will often eat it quite happily.

If you don't have a great deal of time to feed fresh food daily, then 3 times per week should be your target minimum. Failing to provide fresh food as a supplement will reduce your animals' vigour. As an experiment, last year I fed half my animals on a mix of dry and fresh food and the other half on dry food only. Those fed on dry food without greens lost condition and weight within a week.

Cat biscuits are suitable for hamsters and I often give the lamb kidney type but tend to avoid the fish type. Eggs are relished by hamsters. Other foods you may consider are protein dog food and chicken if your finances permit. As long as you are giving your hamsters a well balanced diet they should remain in excellent health and live happy lives.

Good luck, I hope this article is useful and informative.