When you first get your hamster home, put it into its cage, check that it has plenty of food, water and bedding, and then leave it alone for twenty four hours. This will give the animal time to settle down and begin to get used to the sounds and scents of its new home.
Once the hamster has settled in you can begin handling it. Hamsters from breeders and from good pet shops will have been handled from a young age. They will not be frightened of humans and so will just have to learn your voice and scent. Talk quietly to the animal and offer titbits, so that it learns to come to you when you call it. (If your hamster has not been handled before, spend extra time at this stage. Allow the animal time to realise that humans are friends and nothing to be scared of). Continue by gently stroking it and then, holding it firmly, pick it up. As with human babies, hold your young hamster firmly but don't squeeze. At this point in handling it may be helpful to stand the cage in a deep cardboard box and remove the barred top. That way you can reach the hamster easily without having to fish through a small cage door for it. Also, if the hamster jumps out of your hands, (as babies will), or wriggles out of your grip, it will land in the box rather than loose on the floor.
Syrian hamsters can be picked up by grasping them around the middle with one hand and lifting. Alternatively, use a grip similar to that used on a, (computer), mouse. Place your hand lightly over the animal's back, with its head towards your wrist. Close your thumb, ring and little fingers firmly under its belly and then lift. (This actually sounds much more complicated than it actually is; try practicing on the PC mouse, with the button end being the hamster's tail end!) Other species, (Dwarfs), should be cupped firmly in one or two hands. Most animals do not like being held at arm's length, so cuddle the hamster against your body; it will feel more secure that way - and may decide to explore you! For all hamsters, always hold the animal low over a surface or the floor, in case the animal jumps or wriggles and gets dropped. Hamsters can be remarkably stupid about heights and will gaily walk straight off table tops into the air or peer over the edge of things, lean out too far and fall - so be warned! (I have even heard of a hamster that walked through the bannister rails and fell thirteen feet to the tiled floor below! That one survived - but others may not!)
Once your hamster is confident with you, and you are confident with him or her, the house is your oyster, (to misquote a phrase)! The hamster can be allowed, under your supervision, to ramble over the sofa, a bed or enclosed areas of floor. You do, however, need to be careful. Any area that the hamster is to use must be secure; no holes in the skirting, or under the gas fire, no open doors, check that the cat really is outside and not asleep under the armchair..... ! In addition, make sure that the hamster cannot reach hazards such as toxic house plants or electric cables, (hamsters are natural, if unsafe, electricians and may try "re-wiring" your house with their teeth!) On top of all this, you need to ensure that the hamster itself cannot damage anything, for example, by chewing books, curtains, expensive, borrowed jumpers, (it has happened!) etc. If all this sounds terribly complicated, all I can say is; do your best.
If, like me, your nerves don't cope very well with the thought that the hamster might find a hole under the settee or something else that you hadn't noticed, stop worrying. The simplest way to have a safe "playtime" is to convert a large cardboard box into a playground. You can make tunnels out of cardboard tubes, hide food in egg boxes or jars, set up a free standing wheel and so on. A "playbox" is great fun for you, (designing it), and for the hamster, (using it), and is probably the best thing to use if you want your hamster to have exercise outside the cage.
If you keep hamsters for any length of time you will, almost certainly, have at least one escape to cope with. You may leave the cage door open, by mistake, or the hamster may engineer its own escape route. For example, two of mine, (Heron and Vervain), have gnawed through the plastic trays of their cages and one, (Lime), has removed a bar from his cage. Don't panic at this thought; that's only three out of several hundred that I have kept over the years, but its something to be aware of.
What do you do if your hamster escapes? Here is an action plan.
Close all the doors and keep them closed until you find the hamster. As you go in and out of rooms, watch the floor. If you know which room the hamster is in, this will keep it there. If you don't know this will at least stop it roaming around the house, playing hide and seek with you.
Find out which room the hamster is in. This may be obvious; there may be an open hamster cage in someone's bedroom with the room door firmly shut. In this case, move onto the next step. If the hamster vanished overnight, or at a time when room doors were open, put a few seeds, (just five or ten), on a sheet of paper in the corner or corners of each room. Leave these overnight and, next day, look to see which, if any, have gone. If they have, and everyone has kept the doors shut, the hamster must be in, or have access to, that room.
Concentrate your efforts on the room that the hamster is in. Carefully move all the furniture away from the wall, a piece at a time, and search behind and under it. Often a hamster will give itself away by dashing out as you move the furniture. On the other hand, you may find clues - a nest of chewed paper, for example. Remember to check cupboards and drawers as well; I don't know how hamsters can climb up inside furniture but they can. Hopefully this will reveal the whereabouts of your errant pet. If it doesn't, move on to the next step.
Get hold of a number of deep buckets or similar objects, at least 2' deep. These will be your live traps and exploit the hamster's stupidity about heights. Place these near the walls in the room that the hamster is in. Use books to make steps, (or planks to make a ramp), from the wall up to the edge of each bucket. Put some sawdust and bedding in the bucket, together with a piece of strong smelling food, such as cut cabbage, hard boiled egg, etc. Leave these traps set overnight and examine them first thing in the morning. Hamsters loose in a room nearly always run along the walls. Upon discovering the ramp curiosity will prompt the animal to investigate it. When it reaches the top it should smell the food, lean over to locate it and ... bingo! Once in the bucket it will be unable to escape and you can rescue it in the morning.
If you don't catch your hamster in the first day or two, don't despair. Hamsters are quite tough and can survive by eating almost anything. Keep trying and keep an eye out for damage, (chewed curtains, carpet etc., gnawed bits of food or droppings), to give you a lead.
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