Q: I have a Syrian hamster named Mr. Scruffy Pouch. He turns 1 in a month, but he’s a right fatty. He has an exercise wheel, but he just refuses to use it. When I put him in his ball, which is the biggest ball I can find, he isn’t interested in running around; he just finds the part of the room with the most draft and sits there. I put him in the garden, and still all he did was sit there. When I first got him, he loved his exercise ball and wandered around for ages, but now he’s just lazy. I feel mean just leaving him in a ball when he clearly isn’t enjoying it. I got him a playpen, but he just climbs out of it. I even got him a little play area, but that doesn’t interest him either. He’s just so lazy, apart from attacking his cage at 2 o’clock each morning. Is there anything else I can try to do to get him active? I’m not too concerned about his weight. Although he’s long and fat, he’s proportioned; but I don’t want him to get to the stage where he’s so fat he may die. He eats well. He has his normal hamster mix, fresh veggies quite regularly, and every now and then he gets hamster chocolate.
A: It seems like you’re doing almost everything right, and you’ve got a good grasp of the hamster diet. The fresh veggies are very important in addition to a staple mix. You also recognize that Syrian hamsters should be just a bit on the chubby side.
The appearance of obesity in a Syrian hamster, however, would be cause for worry. There are conditions, such as congestive heart failure, that will cause lethargy. But if your boy were suffering with that you would very likely see a great build-up of fat in the extremities, and he would get rather pear-shaped. Though you have to be vigilant in watching for telltale signs of systemic illness, Mr. S. Pouch does indeed seem like a normal hamster.
Experience suggests that your hamster is deep into middle age. Vigorous activity simply may not be in his DNA. You say that he was much more active when he first came to the house, but all Syrian hamsters show very eccentric and energetic behavior when they enter a new environment. That was unusual, and what you are seeing now may be Mr. Pouch’s “normal” activity level. As far as weight variations are concerned, it might give you more confidence if you put your hamster on a kitchen scale every few weeks and monitored his weight. It might not be varying that much.
Continue to vary his environment with play pens/areas and other activities. Keeping a hamster curious and active is without question the “fountain of youth,” so continue trying new things. You say that Mr. Pouch just tries to escape the playpen. For him that’s exercise, so make the most of it. Keep a close eye on him but let him keep climbing out, only to be placed back inside by your loving hands.
The exercise ball may not be useful. As you point out, when they don’t care for them they just sit and sulk, and that does no one any good. But exercise does keep a hamster young, as a rule. You say you got him the biggest exercise ball available. If it’s for rats or ferrets, it may actually be too big for him to maneuver. The proper size for a Syrian hamster is about 8 inches in diameter.
If your hamster doesn’t like his current exercise wheel, try another brand. One that virtually all hamsters seem to love is the Wodent Wheel, but any wheel that’s at least 8 inches in diameter and has a solid running surface is ideal.
If your hamster really likes to bite his cage bars, try weaving a torn toilet paper roll in between the bars. That may be more satisfying to Mr. Pouch, especially if he has to work hard to get it out. Another trick is to stuff a treat inside a wad of thin toilet paper and then put the wad + treat into a toilet paper roll, stuffing more toilet paper into the roll at each end. Your hamster will have some fun working his way to the treat. Your local pet store should carry similar engaging treats, and you can fairly easily make your own, too.
You mention that Mr. Pouch becomes active late in the evening. A way to deal with this is to train him to awaken a little earlier, gradually over time. It’s possible but not easy, and depending on age, may not work.
Here’s the routine for changing your hamster’s schedule. Empty out his food and refresh it with new mix and fresh items every day at a set time. He’ll notice, and his attention mechanisms will gear up around that time. After a few days, make it 15 minutes earlier, then 15 minutes earlier, and so on. I have seen hamsters get used to waking an hour earlier than normal using this method. The conditioning can’t be sustained forever, and it requires a special effort on your part as well, but it might give you a little bit more active “together time” with your guy in the short-term.
At a certain age, your hamster will definitely want to stay to himself more and nap like a cat for most of the day.
Mr. Pouch is a lucky hamster to have you in his life.