If you had to list the animals you fear the most, odds are hamsters would not be anywhere near the top of that list. Their fluffy bodies and cheeky looks do little to instill fear, but that doesn’t mean they are entirely harmless.
While a hamster is more likely to run from danger than attack, hamster bites are more common than you might think. Hamsters bite for a number of reasons, but reacting appropriately and fostering trust with your hamster will keep these incidents to a minimum.
The Most Common Reasons Hamsters Bite
Understand that hamsters would rather go their entire lives without the need to bite. While you may think living in your home is the safest place for your hamster, they’re still prey animals with generations’ worth of instincts telling them when to run, hide, and defend themselves.
Some species of hamsters are more likely to bite than others. This is why Syrian hamsters are recommended over dwarf hamsters as a child’s first pet.
Hamsters usually bite if they feel threatened. As pets, the most common causes include stress, fear, sudden awakenings, pain, or illness. Biting may not be the most intricate animal defense mechanism, but it gives the hamster an opportunity to escape.
Stress or Fear
Hamsters are emotional creatures that experience the same highs and lows humans do. While they can feel deep love and companionship, they’re also capable of feeling stress or fear. Like humans, hamsters are more likely to act aggressively when these emotions peak.
Stress manifests for a number of reasons, usually related to their enclosure. A well-designed hamster cage should have plenty of room for them to roam, deep bedding, and several solid hides for napping and storing food. It should be in a room that’s relatively dark and quiet during the day to ensure your hamster gets enough sleep.
It takes a while for a hamster to acclimate to a new environment, and they’re more likely to bite out of fear until they do. Giving them a safe space to live and patience prevents nippy outbursts that overshadow your good intentions.
Unless you’re one of the rare individuals who wake with a smile on your face, you can probably sympathize with a hamster’s grumpy attitude upon waking. Hamsters are nocturnal and follow a polyphasic sleep pattern, meaning they get most of their sleep in multiple episodes throughout the day.
Hamsters also spend about 11 percent of this time in REM sleep. Like humans, they’re not too happy when someone pokes around and rouses them unexpectedly, and they may even perceive this as a threat.
Ensuring your hamster gets enough sleep during the day and waiting until they’re awake to handle them keeps your fingers safe from half-awake attacks.
Pain or Illness
Because they don’t understand pain in the same way humans do, hamsters are likely to act out if you touch them and pain occurs. This is usually the case if a hamster you’re familiar with starts biting without warning or with older hamsters as arthritis sets in.
If possible, run a gentle finger over their body to see if they react when you touch a certain area. It may take several evaluations before you pick up on a pattern, but identifying localized pain opens the door to treatment and lets you know what to avoid when handling your hamster.
If the source isn’t clear or the issue worsens or remains after a few days, it’s best to take a trip to your vet for a more comprehensive exam and treatment.
What to Do If Your Hamster Bites You
It’s important to respond appropriately if your hamster bites you; the wrong reaction may stress them out more and worsen the situation.
Hamsters may not have the strongest bite of the animal kingdom, but understand it will hurt. Steady yourself and avoid screaming or shaking that may cause them to bite harder or worsen the wound. Get the hamster as close to the ground as possible and use your free hand to pry them off; most hamsters will take the opportunity to run rather than fight.
Clean and cover the wound, and then determine why they bit you and what needs to change so it doesn’t happen again.
How to Train Your Hamster Not to Bite
If there’s no clear motivation for the bite, assume you need to work on your relationship with your hamster. This often takes several weeks, especially with a new addition to your home, so have patience and move slowly.
Allow the hamster at least one uninterrupted week to acclimate to their new home. You can still change their food and water and leave them treats, but you shouldn’t try to handle them.
After this, try offering the treats from your hand. Eventually, your hamster should crawl into your hand to retrieve the treat.
Only after they’re comfortable coming to you should you try to pet them or pick them up. Progress slowly, scooping them up from below and holding them inside their enclosure at first. If they show fear or bite, move back a step and take more time earning their trust.
Hamsters may still bite when startled or if they mistake your finger for food, but the proper care and patience ensure a peaceful relationship.