Hand-rearing baby hamsters is an exhausting task. There are only two reasons for deciding that hand-rearing is the way to go.
- If the mother has abandoned her nest and doesn’t feed/keep warm/defend the babies herself.
- If the mother has died before the litter are 14 days old
Under no other circumstances should hand-rearing be the first option unless advised so by a vet (in very rare cases).
In this article I will show you how to set up a suitable cage, how to keep the nest warm, how to hold and feed a baby hamster and how to encourage peeing and pooping.
All this information is from personal experience and through extensive research on Google.
I recommend all this information for pups upward of 7 days old.
How to set up a baby-safe cage
What you need:
A basic cage (preferably one without fancy tubes and tunnels)
Fresh vegetables (carrot or cucumber being better choices for babies)
A water bottle
NOTE: Do not use sawdust in a babies cage as it can be dangerous for tiny inexperienced mouths!
As you can see from the picture (right) the cage I am using doesn’t even require a lid as such yet. The babies are at such a stage that climbing out is unachievable and as the feeds are regular, its a pain to have to take a lid on and off constantly.
The base is also compromised of 4 sheets of large kitchen roll. It covers the bare plastic, provides vital heat insulation and is much safer than sawdust at this stage in the pups lives.
Everything is very much open which is important for keeping an eye on wandering babies. As they are still blind having places to hide is a risky move on the owners part so keeping things as simple and open is important.
I have also attached the water bottle onto the inside as low as possible to the ground so that when they are exploring if they want a little drink, they can. As of yet, they havent touched the water bottle. I think 14-21 days is the general time region to expect self-drinking babies, if not longer.
How to keep the nest warm
The nest in which you are raising these babies in is hugely important. Its where the majority of the pups time will be spent whilst growing up.
As you are rearing these babies without a mother, the necessities wont be provided naturally to the babies. For example, the heat of a mothers belly will no longer be there to maintain a healthy body temperature for the pups.
This is crucial!!
Babies will lose their body temperatures very quickly when alone and without a mothers tum to nestle into, this is literally a matter of life and death for young pups.
To compensate for a mothers tum, there are two things to do to keep your hamster babies toasty.
Firstly, an almost boiling-hot water bottle. Its incredibly difficult to maintain an even temperature but throughout the night you cant cradle the bubs against your own body for warmth! So its the easiest way to heat the nest.
This is where the layers of kitchen roll and a hot water bottle cover come in handy dispersing heat and also makes sure that the cage doesn’t overheat.
If it is too hot, the babies may squeak a little (they are letting you know its uncomfy – simply place a towel or blanket inbetween the base and bottle to take away some heat) or they will just move out of the heated section of nest. They aren’t stupid and they will decide where they want to sleep in the nest.
This will require changes every 3 or 4 hours to maintain a decent temperature (even throughout the night) so pay attention and regular checks are a MUST!
In contrast, heat pads are available which can maintain even temperatures across a layer which can be placed in a cage however they can be costly (especially when you’ll only really need them for 2 or 3 weeks) and I was recommended by a worker at Pets at Home that heat-pads are more commonly used for reptiles and regularly-changed hot water bottles are equally as good for this situation.
The second way to keep the bubs warm?
Hold them in your hands of course! Plenty of handling can be helpful as it keeps them at body temperature which is the end game really. Like I said earlier, this isnt possible 24 hours a day but any chances you get – it can be super efficient!
How to hand-feed a baby hamster
Hand feeding a baby hamster is a challenging operation. It requires effort, patience and a very gentle touch.
From 1-14 days old hourly feeds are required. Yes, every hour! I never said it was easy people! Pups get dehydrated in a matter of hours so slacking on this front could kill them.
When the pups are eating soft/solid foods (approximately between 10-16 days) the milk weaning can begin reducing feeds to every 3 hours.
When the pups are comfortably feeding themselves, milk feeds can be stopped altogether.
Is cow’s milk okay?
Babies need nutrients from milk to help them develop and grow properly. Milk low/without lactose is important as it is as close to the mothers milk as you can commercially get.Cat or puppy milk was recommended by the vet I visited, and she also stated that there was not much difference between cat and kitten milk so either is perfect for feeding baby hamsters.
How to hand feed milk
It is a very time-consuming task hand feeding pups.
You have to take it sloooooow. Any hurry or forceful feeding can lead to milk being inhaled into the lungs and causing death within the minute. This is serious stuff!
- Gently hold the pup in your hand being careful not to squeeze them tightly.
- Take a pipette full of milk and place it near the pups mouth. Remember they are not used to being fed this way so resistance is natural.
- Try not to squeeze vast quantities into their mouth, they’ll choke! Little and often is the way to go.
- Allow the pup to lick/bite the end of the pipette on their own to take in milk.
- If they dont show an interest, a small drop of milk on the bottom lip can be licked up and enjoyed all the same.
- Wait for the pup to stop ‘chewing’ the milk (its how they swallow and is normal) then repeat
About 2 or 3 drops in one sitting is plenty for a little hammy.
Anymore and you may be doing more harm than good.
If milk covers the nostrils, be quick to wipe it off as this can be inhaled and will kill your pup.
I find hand-feeding 2 pups takes between 10-15 minutes. There is no point in rushing the feeds as, like I mentioned earlier, they are still babies and can inhale just as easily as swallow which will kill them!
How to introduce solid foods
There is no use leaving a bowl full of muesli out for your babies to munch on. Their teeth are still developing and will have nowhere near enough power in their jaws to break down the solid nib-lets you get in muesli.
This is where fresh veg come into play.
Dice your chosen veg into teeny-tiny chunks – no bigger than the pups ear-size.
Place the chunk in your hand in front of them and wait for them to hoover it up.
They very well may take a good 20 minutes chewing a chunk – its new to them! Just be patient and wait for them to 100% finish the chunk before feeding a drop of milk or just retuning them to the nest. You don’t want to over-do it.
Placing these finely chopped veg into the cage near the nest encourages the pups to explore and scavenge for their food.
Finely chopped apple is also a winning food as its hydrating as well as nutritious.
How to encourage peeing and pooping
You may very well giggle at this but until about 12-15 days of age they wont be able to pee or poop on their own. Their mother would have to lick their bottoms to encourage them to relieve themselves which is where you have to step in and play surrogate.
If you don’t do this, it can lead to “backing-up”. Can you imagine how uncomfortable that would be for a bub?! Its also a cause of death for infant rodents, so dont slack about at this stage!
What you need:
Lukewarm clean water
Basically heat the water to about body temperature (you are mimic-ing a mothers lick here).
Dip the cotton bud into the water, drain any excess water off.
Hold the baby so their bottoms are hanging free from your grip.
Gently rub the damp end on the babies bottom area. A regular up-and-down motion for no more than 10 seconds will encourage the babies to relax enough to pee. They even tend to hold still at this stage so you know they’re concentrating!
Having placed the tissue underneath the pup, it should catch any drips from their little wee! Any poop may need a bit of extra rubbing with a cotton bud. Stubborn things!
How often should you do this?
Really as often as you can manage!
I do my two every 2 hours or so however at 10 days old they have started peeing and pooping without encouragement – phew! I only discovered this however when they were causally exploring my bed and both managed to pee in unison.
As I said at the start, the whole process is not for the faint-hearted. Its all very well thinking its best for your pups to be hand-raised by yourself but are you prepared to sacrifice everything that comes with it? (Sleep being a biggie! I haven’t slept for more than 2 hours at any stage since Friday)
Taking the babies away from the mother may be the only option but it needs to be considered in respect to everything else – do you have the time to hand-raise a litter?
Tomorrow I shall post a 24 hour ‘diary’ of my day caring for the pups, just to give you an idea of how much my life currently revolves around these tiny rodents!
Hope this information is helpful to someone out there!
If you have further questions/worries you can contact me for free of course.