Land of the Lost

It doesn’t take a Sarah McLaughlin commercial to evoke pity and concern at the sight of a suffering animal. Few among us can walk by a pitiful-looking stray cat or dog without feeling at least a momentary urge to help. Some spare no expense, and even dedicate their lives, to find and care for lost and abandoned dogs and cats. Me, I rescue hamsters.

It was a very cold day in November when I found my calling, and my mammalian temperature regulation system wasn’t doing a very good job. I felt every bit as cold-blooded as the snakes, lizards, and gaily colored scorpions around me. 

It was standing room only at the Reptile Expo, where I discovered a seedy subculture of tattoed, spiked-jacketed, nose-ringed teens in the market for glow-in-the-dark invertebrates that were likewise sporting sharp appendages. As I soon found out, it was a culture with little regard for the small and fuzzy.

As in the age of the dinosaurs, rodents were relegated to the corners of this world of reptiles – and their prospects were limited to being ignored, mocked – and occasionally eaten.


The Snack Section!

It was laid out like a dinosaur deli. Past the “pinks” and “fuzzies” in frozen food was the “Snack Section.” I wish I’d taken a picture of the sign. Right underneath it, in a small plastic cup barely large enough to hold them, were two infant dwarf hamsters.

They were huddled together, clearly terrified. Even worse, they were obviously hungry. Destined to become snake food within hours, they were left without food or water; my daughter and I found them desperately nibbling on the paper towel lining the bottom of the cup.

They cost $4 each, which I thought was a small price to pay to sleep at night. Passing a Subway on the way home, we affectionately nicknamed them our little “$4 inch-longs.”

The first day

Call Guinness!

These little guys usually live only a year or so.[1] While his brother had a more normal, though still quite respectable lifespan (a little over two years), Pecan lived nearly four years! He died peacefully of natural causes, surrounded by soft bedding in his favorite hutch. As far as I know, that’s a record.

The vet was certainly astonished, took lots of pictures, and probably wrote a research paper about him. She’d never seen an “old” hamster before. “They don’t get old,” she said, “they just die.”

Your Guide to Rodent Longevity

So how can you raise a fuzzy little Methuselah? It has to be mainly genetic, but I’ll share some secrets that I’m confident allowed our little “Peekie” to reach his full potential.

Pecan in his dotage

Pecan in his dotage

He had mange, benign fatty tumors, failing eyes, and arthritis – we had to install a “handicapped ramp” near the end when he could no longer climb. Yet he was happy and active right up to his last day.

We were concerned he might be suffering from his various infirmities, but the vet said no. As long as a hamster is eating and moving, he’s feeling well.[2] Hamsters are very robust, have high pain thresholds, and are pretty much a combination of the Black Knight and Chuck Norris in rodent form. They are simple creatures with simple needs and, of course, unaware of their own mortality. (That is probably the worst element of human suffering; mercifully, it is entirely absent in animals.)

Top 5 Tips for a Happy Hamster

1)   Get two, preferably from the same litter. Hamsters are social, and companionship is just as important to their happiness as it is for people. They will bond, and play, and live much fuller lives. Of course, make sure they’re the same gender, or they will reproduce like Tribbles!

Pecan and Zilly sharing a treat


2)   Get them as young as possible, and play with them daily. This is where reptile shows and other kinds of adoptions come in. Buying them from a pet store is probably too late. Unless they’re socialized to humans before their pea-sized brains are completely wired, they will never fully accept people – they will see you more as alien overlords than loving parents.

3)   Keep them in a stimulating environment, with clean, high quality bedding. Let’s face it: hamsters are not the sharpest tools in the shed. If rats are the “German Shepherds” of the rodent world, dwarf hamsters are probably the “Pomeranians.”

Nevertheless, they enjoy and benefit from variety and creative play. That said, it’s stressful for them to have their routines entirely disrupted, so don’t go overboard. What we found works is adding new elements to their world, while keeping everything they’re used to the same.

Peekie on his 3rd birthday, secure in his castle keep

Hamster mansion

4)   Give them a varied diet. High quality store-bought food is a fine foundation, but be sure to supplement with fresh vegetables and fruit. We also gave him lightly sweetened cereal as a treat; Honey Nut Cheerios were a perennial favorite!

5)   Finally, love them! Some might mock the sentiment that small rodents can appreciate love, and of course they can’t – in the Shakespearean sonnet sense, at least. But I do believe they can sense and respond to human emotion in some meaningful measure.

Speaking to them in a soothing tone, moving them away when you vacuum the rug, not doing Insanity workouts right in front of the cage, etc. This kind of consideration and kindness, plus being held and petted daily, lowers their stress level and surely has positive effects on their general health and longevity.

Which kind should I get?

That’s a topic for another article! You only have this choice in a pet store anyway. If you “rescue” rodents from a show, they will, in a sense, choose you. Buy the ones who need you most.

We followed our hearts, and it was the best $8 we ever spent.

Dwarf Hamsters (Barron's Complete Pet Owner's Manuals)
Amazon Price: $8.99 $3.99 Buy Now
(price as of Mar 16, 2014)
A definitive source for information on raising these lovely animals. They will fall on your house like 20 Megatons of "Cutonium" and radiate love for years to come.