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How to care for a Syrian hamster

First discovered in Syria, hamsters have since been welcomed into homes as pets across the globe. According to the ASPCA, the most common pet hamster is the six-inch Syrian, a type of hamster that is often referred to as the "golden hamster" or the "teddy bear hamster." Though small in stature, hamsters are not as easy to care for as one might assume of such a diminutive animal.

Hamsters are often seen as ideal pets for kids, but that reputation is, unfortunately, inaccurate. Hamsters remain nocturnal animals, which means they prefer to be up at night and sleep during the daytime. That schedule does not fit the schedule of a typical child, and this can prove problematic when kids don't respect the sleeping patterns of hamsters. Like many humans, hamsters don't like to be disturbed while they are asleep and often react to such interruptions by biting or nipping at the person who awoke them, potentially putting curious kids in danger. In fact, the ASPCA recommends that families with small children avoid adopting hamsters as pets, and that children over the age of six only interact with hamsters when under adult supervision.

But hamsters' nocturnal nature does not mean they can't still prove to be good pets to adults who understand these lovable animals. In addition to respecting hamsters' nature, hamster owners should take steps to ensure their pets are healthy and comfortable.

* Feed hamsters a healthy diet. While the average lifespan of a Syrian hamster is 11/2 to 2 years, it's still important for hamster owners to feed their pets a healthy diet. Such a diet should include a hamster mix that includes cracked corn and pellets, grains and seeds. The ASPCA also recommends that owners supplement their hamsters' diets every few days with fresh grains, sunflower seeds and a small amount of nuts. Alfalfa pellets, fruits and fresh vegetables, such as apples, carrots, lettuce, and spinach, can also supplement a healthy diet. Never feed hamsters chocolate, candy, junk food, onions, or raw kidney beans, and make sure hamsters have fresh, clean water available to them at all times.

* Perform daily maintenance. Some people may adopt a hamster because they feel such animals are low maintenance compared to more popular pets like cats and dogs. But hamsters cannot go ignored for several days. Droppings, leftover food (hamsters tend to stash food in their cages) and dirty bedding must be removed every day, and the cage should be cleaned with hot, soapy water once a week.

* Keep hamsters alone. Syrian hamsters are solitary by nature and, therefore, must live alone. A Syrian hamster should be housed in a 10-gallon aquarium with a wire-mesh top or in a wire cage, ideally the biggest one you can find. Syrian hamsters don't want to share their cages, and they should also be kept away from other household pets like cats and dogs. When finding a place for the cage or aquarium, choose a spot that does not get any direct sunlight, as this can interrupt sleep during the day. Also, choose a spot that is not drafty.

* Furnish the cage or tank. Many people associate hamsters with running on wheels, and that's because hamsters love to exercise. When furnishing the cage or tank, be sure to include a wheel hamsters can run on and don't forget to include enclosed spaces as well. Hamsters rely on such spaces to get some sleep, so include a small box or flower pot in the cage or tank. Empty paper towel or toilet paper tubes are another thing to consider adding to the cage or tank, as hamsters love to crawl through tubes for fun and exercise.

* Let hand-tamed hamsters out once in a while. Once a hamster has grown acclimated to your hand, you can allow your furry friend out of its cage or tank in a secure, enclosed area every so often. The hamster must be supervised during this time, as hamsters do not have great vision and can easily get lost or hurt if they spend time out of the cage unsupervised. Hamsters may want to gnaw on electrical wiring, so be sure no such wiring is accessible in the enclosed area where the hamster will be playing outside of its cage.