Whether you’re breeding hamsters, accidentally picked up a mixed-sex pair, or gave an expecting mom a loving home, there are a few things to understand about their maternal instincts.
Hamsters aren’t as attached to their young as other mothers. In most cases, they’re running on pure instinct and want to get the parenting done as fast as possible. Under the wrong conditions, the mother hamster may even eat her young.
Stress is a major contributor to this sad situation, but mother hamsters may make the call for a number of reasons.
1. The Mother Hamster is Too Stressed
Parenting is inherently stressful, and a mother hamster will not hesitate to make her life a little bit easier. If she’s worried about providing for all her young, she will cull and eat the “extras” that she feels she cannot care for.
In Pup Cannibalism by the Maternal Golden Hamster, experiments show that mother hamsters are most likely to cull their pups within 5 days of birth, and they tend to keep each successive litter a similar size. In most cases, the litter size proportionally matched her rearing ability.
Stress may stem from a number of areas, most commonly cage size, available food, and human intervention. By controlling these variables, you minimize the risk of the mom eating her babies.
Hamsters need 900 square inches to move around, and this number only goes up when pups arrive. She’s also likely to be hungry after giving birth. Make sure you offer a consistent supply of quality commercial food. High-protein snacks like cooked egg white or cooked plain chicken are also a nice treat as she nurses her young, but you should take care when offering it.
Generally, you want to leave mother hamsters and her pups alone for at least 2 weeks. Resist the urge to seek them out unless there’s an emergency, and only approach the cage to feed her and freshen the water.
While you can’t eliminate the stress completely, these details bring the mother hamster a bit of peace.
2. The Mother Hamster is Hungry or Mistakes Them for Food
Take care when providing rich treats to your mother hamster. Eggs and chicken smell delicious, but they can also trick mom into eating her young.
Pellets can be fed freely, but allowing the mother hamster to take these savory treats back to her den can end badly. If the smell gets on the bedding or the baby hamsters, she may mistake them for a snack and eat them instead.
Try offering small portions and only placing them where you can see them. Don’t leave them unattended in the cage; make sure she finishes them.
3. The Mother Suspects Something is Wrong with Them
You’ve probably been warned not to handle baby hamsters in case their mother rejects them. While there’s no ethical way to test this theory, there are plenty of owners who made the mistake and chose to pass on their wisdom.
Handling them changes their scent and makes it difficult for the mother hamster to recognize them as her young. Instead, she may see them as whatever food you still had on your hands or as a rogue invader of her den. Both roads lead to her killing and/or eating them.
Mother hamsters may also eat baby hamsters if they suspect the pup is sick or impaired. It may seem cruel, but nature is rarely sympathetic to those unfit for the wild.
4. They’ve Been with Mom for Too Long
Once the pups wean around 3 to 4 weeks, the mother hamster no longer considers them her babies. Instead, they’re rivals for her territory, and she’s ready for them to go.
You will notice her pushing them away when they try to nurse, but this quickly escalates into bloodier battles. Make sure you have plans to house them separately at this point to prevent injury, death, or cannibalism of the youths.
5. Accidents Happen
As Robert Burns said, “The best-laid plans of mice and men [often go awry]”. Even if you do everything perfectly, the mother hamster may still choose to cull a few of her pups. She may also accidentally bite them too hard when moving them or accidentally store them in her cheek pouch.
Trust her to do what she can, and support her the best you can. In most cases, the majority of the litter will still reach maturity without issue.