Q: My children, ages 5 and 7, want a pet but we are not ready for a dog or a cat. Would a hamster be a good first pet for them?
A: Hamsters are adorable with their fluffy haircoats, big teeth, and big puffy cheeks. Teddy bear hamsters are especially popular with kids, because as their name implies, they look like miniature teddy bears. They seem easy to keep and fairly low maintenance. The pet store probably even has a starter kit, complete with a cage with tunnels, a hamster wheel, a water bottle, food, and bedding – everything you need to make your new pet feel at home.
Those little dwarf hamsters are definitely adorable, and even I’m tempted to take one home every time I step into a pet store (which is one of the reasons I avoid pet stores). However, despite their resemblance to a stuffed animal, you may be surprised to hear that I do not recommend hamsters as a pet for young children.
Your children will probably want to keep the hamster cage in their room, but hamsters are nocturnal. They sleep all day and stay up all night. You cannot break them of this nature. The hamster will be snoozing all day and keep your kids up all night running miles on his little hamster wheel.
In addition, hamsters are known to bite when they are disturbed or startled. Kids are often excited to play with their new hamster and show him off to their friends after school, but this is prime sleeping time, and your little hamster will not hesitate to chomp down on a finger with his sharp little teeth when he is awakened. Having been bit by a few hamsters myself, I can tell you it hurts! They are tenacious little rodents and once they bite down, they don’t let go, even when you are bleeding and squealing in pain.
And parents, if the biting isn’t enough to make you think twice, hamsters aren’t resilient creatures. In fact, they usually only live for about two years. They can easily develop stress related illnesses, including wet tail (a type of diarrhea) that can result in death. Heck, even the stress of moving from the pet store into a new home can make some hamsters sick!
Another concern with keeping hamsters is that they are escape artists. They can chew their way out of almost anything. You need to always be checking that the cage is secure and that a cage door hasn’t been left unlatched. I still remember when I was five years old waking up to the angry and annoyed voices of my parents as they tried to retrieve Rocky from under their bed. My older brother had failed to properly latch the door when he fed him that evening and Rocky escaped from his cage into the basement. He made his way into their bedroom and under the bed where he loudly chewed up a shoebox. Rocky was given another chance, but when he escaped again a few nights later and chewed up the brand-new gold carpet, my mom decided he would be happier with another family.
If you are looking for a small pet for your young children and a goldfish won’t do, you may want to consider a gerbil. Gerbils are not nearly as cute as hamsters, but they are much hardier and less susceptible to diseases than hamsters, even when stressed. They are social rodents and are more active during the day. They can also be active at night, but are less likely to put miles on the wheel and keep your kids up all night. They also have a longer life span of two to four years.
If you have your heart set on a hamster, I recommend to find a private breeder and avoid purchasing one from the pet store. Pocket pets from private homes tend to be healthier and have been handled more so are less aggressive. Regardless of what pet you decide on, it is important to do your research to make sure you select the right pet for your family and you have everything you need to keep your new furry friend happy and healthy. If you are unsure and have questions, call your family veterinary office. We are always happy to help you choose the right pet for your family.