I've been fostering hamsters for over five years. I thought I'd share some of the things I've learned from it.
Why foster animals?
It's easier to house an animal than it is to house a homeless person. More than that, this is not a charity just for them, but something that helps us all become more mindful of our environment, how we are taking care of them, as well as how well we are taking care of ourselves. It's a great tool for interpersonal development and self-discipline. It gives you a very important job, where their lives are in your hands. And it gives you creative control of how to care for them.
Step 1: Get Connected
First, it's always good to look around for non-profits that rescue small animals, and ask them if they need any volunteers. This is how I got started. The reason this might be easiest is that often non-profits will have inside connections to the local animal shelters, and they can help you find and afford homeless hamsters or whatever creatures you're happy to house. They can also help out when you have any veterinary health issues.
A lot of my hamsters come directly from animal shelters. I've been blessed to find myself with enough space to accommodate about ten hamsters at a time. I spend about ten minutes a day tending to my hamsters and I budget about 25$ a month in bedding and food supplies for them. I also schedule a cage cleaning with each cage about once or twice a week, which with up to ten cages can be a couple of hours of work. My non-profit asks for about $25 per hamster as a voluntary contribution and donation and I usually see about five to ten prospective hamster parents a year.
Step 2: Learn to Sex Your Hamsters
What is a hamster?
Hamsters are very cute tiny mammals that fit in the palm of your hands. Hamsters are not actually good pets for children to learn the responsibility of pet care, but they are good first pets provided there is an adult that can be there to supervise. Hamsters are nocturnal, so most likely they will be up and most active while your child is asleep. An active hamster wheel can be quite noisy, but taking care of them with a little vegetable oil will sometimes help with the squeaks.
As a foster care hamster parent, it's very important to learn to sex your hamster. Being mistaken about their genders can lead to more hamsters. A litter is usually 7 hamsters, but it can be anywhere from 1 to 20 hamsters.
If you've never sexed them before, you can ask your local non-profit experts to show you.
Here are a couple of tips about learning to see the difference between a girl and a boy hamster.
Back it up! When a boy hamster backs up, you will see a lumpy part, an extra bulge around its tail. A girl hamster will be circular. If they are still only a few weeks old, it might not be easy to tell. Don't make assumptions about the gender when they are still young. Keep checking them out until you're sure you have them right.
At six weeks, each of them are sexually mature and physically capable of having another pregnancy. Another way to tell gender is to look at the space between their genitals and their anus. You'll want to carefully hold them upside down and on their backs so you can see their bellies. The girls have their anus much closer to their female parts. The boys will have a wider space, and also a yellow scent gland where you'd expect their belly buttons to be.
Step 3: Cleaning and Environment
Keep a garden. I would suggest that if you have even a mildly green thumb, that you try supporting your hamsters with kale, herbs, or anything else that you think you would be able to grow. Otherwise, you can simply use your own chopped vegetables.
Share your water. I like to provide an eco-friendly source of water to the plants in my garden by using grey water, which is water salvaged from washing dishes or showering. In fact, I'd suggest you wash your hamster dishes in a bucket not only to save the water for your garden, but also to have a clean sink free of hamster waste.
No fighting! Are your hamsters verbally squabbling or are they biting each other? Biting is a sign that they will need to be separated. One way to show them they shouldn't fight is to verbally tell them "No fighting!" in a clear, but even tone, and then blow at them. It is important to discipline them, or at least watch that they haven't hurt each other. You may want to keep an extra cage if you have more than one hamster, just in case. A good sign that they are doing well is when you notice that they are able to sleep next to each other.
Treats and verbal tone.* It's always good to use your "Play Voice" to talk to small animals. It shows you are mindful of with whom you are speaking, and that you know that you are a lot bigger than them. I used to have a lot of weird feelings about adults who chose to speak to me with that kind of performance voice when I was a kid. But as a parent of an animal, somehow a playful voice makes more sense. And it's more fun! I love to be creative with caring for them, and sometimes the conversations you have with them can be meaningful in multiple ways. Feeding them with new vegetables and snacks is a great reward system for good behavior for both of you.
Each cage should have a water bottle dispenser, a food bowl, paper litter, a little shelter large enough to sleep as many hamsters as are in the cage, and at least one wheel per hamster ideally. Although the plastic cages are popular and very colorful, wire cages like Martin's cages and 20 gallon fish tanks are actually easier to keep clean.
*Thanks to Lavish Mango for your constructive criticism and help!
Step 4: Taking Pictures and Posting Them
Handling your hamsters is a careful business, especially when you're looking to take pictures of them.
I've found that they really like to stay inside of bowls, and they will be easier to take a picture in it for that reason.
I'm the kind of person that doesn't like to pick up a hamster with my bare hands randomly. I prefer to let it climb into an empty toilet paper roll or inside a cup. After that, then putting them in my hands is easier, and they seem more ready to be held.
I built a white paper environment to make it easier to take pictures of them where they are the focus of the picture. It's always good to have things that they can climb onto, inside of, and feel hidden by. I also have a giant potted tree which I let them roam around, which keeps them busy and happy once in a while.
Step 5: How to Feed Them
Share your salads. My hamsters are often who I think of first when I shop at the grocery store for salads. Will I have enough to share with my hamsters? Is this something I think they would enjoy? It's always good to look online to research which foods are safe for hamsters. I have a lot of dwarfies which are susceptible to diabetes, so beware of feeding too many fruits.
Grains, nuts, and seeds are usually a good idea, all in moderation. There's a small corn on the cob that you can microwave into popcorn that makes a fun treat for them once it's cooled down. I also use vitamin c drops for their water, which I have heard helps prolong their lives. These are both available at most pet stores.
It's also usually good to have at least one piece of wood in there for the hamster to nibble at and shape its teeth on. Like a beaver, hamsters teeth and nails just keep growing so it's important to have something in there that they can use to file it down with. Some suggest putting in a coarse stone or sandpaper as well.
Step 6: Lost Hamsters
This is a quick note on the fact that hamsters are notoriously good at escaping, and that they usually only live for two years.
I've lost many hamsters before, but I'm usually able to find them rather quickly. I have some catch and release hamster traps, one of my favorites being "Smart Mouse Trap, humane" which looks like a clear plastic green Monopoly house available on Amazon.
Sadly hamsters have a very short life span, and while I do recommend them as pets, I also know how hard it is to lose a pet. Having loved and lost is the path I've chosen. I hope that you are helped in some way by this post.