CHUNKCHUNKCHUNKCHUNK!!!! This is a familiar sound to many hamster keepers, especially those with Syrian or golden hamsters. The beloved hamster is gnawing endlessly at the metal bars of its cage. Since hamsters are nocturnal, no one in the home is getting any sleep until the hamster stops bar biting.
In 1998, some unknown person dumped a cage full of Syrian hamsters at our apartment complex parking lot. My roommates and I managed to rescue two. We thought we were ding the best we could by getting Habitrail cages that alternated plastic bottoms, tunnels, wheels and metal bars for better ventilation.
And then the bar biting began.
Is This Normal?
Hamster teeth grow throughout their lifetime. Gnawing regularly on hard objects helps to wear their teeth down. Some gnawing behaviors are normal. But, according to “Training Your Pet Hamster” co-authors Gerry Bucsis and Barbara Somerville, obsessive gnawing is not. Although all hamsters will test the strength of their cage bars, they should not be biting the bars for hours a night every night.
This is because hamsters evolved to wander for miles every night among arid, desert regions in Asia and the Middle East, constantly looking for food. Syrian hamsters have only been domesticated since 1930. Other pet hamster species only entered the pet trade in the 1970s at the earliest. The instinct to run, search, dig and store food is still strong in pet hamsters.
Hamsters can also break their teeth chewing on metal bars, according to Hamsterific.com. When hamsters bite the bars of their cages, they tend to lean on one side, which means their teeth are not getting worn down evenly. This can make eating more difficult as well as cause tooth damage.
Causes of Bar Biting
Hamsters bite the bars of their cages because they are trying to find a way out. According to Martha Boden, writer for Small Animal Channel.com and Bow Tie Press, hamsters are trying to find a way out because they have a ton of energy and very little room to release than energy. Even a cage we may think is large is practically nothing for an animal that evolved to scramble across the desert for miles every night.
Hamster may also try to escape if they scent another hamster in breeding condition anywhere nearby. This was what happened to the two hamsters we rescued back in 1998. Unfortunately, one was male and the other was female. Despite keeping them in separate cages and separate rooms, Hamnesty the male somehow managed to escape and have a tryst with Miss Whiskers.
A couple of weeks later, a heavily pregnant Miss Whiskers managed to squeeze through the bars of her cage despite being as round as ping pong ball. The reason she escaped was because of hunger. She was found inside the food bowl of our terrified guinea pig’s cage. Cinnamon the guinea pig, although being far larger species, knew better than to argue with a ravenous pregnant Syrian hamster. The next day, Miss Whiskers gave birth to eight healthy babies.
More Physical and Mental Stimulation
For most hamster owners, males and females arranging trysts are not the main causes of bar biting. Boredom is. Some owners with large imaginations and some spare cash create elaborate cage structures for their hamsters so they have yards and yards to explore.
Other hamster owners cannot afford such elaborate set-ups. But they can give their pets some physical and mental stimulation by taking the hamster out of the cage and placing them in a toy like a hamster ball. Ten or fifteen minutes is plenty of time inside of such toys because the air may run out. Always supervise your hamster when he or she is in a hamster ball.
Gerry Bucsis and Barbara Somerville also recommend placing the hamster in an empty bathtub for 30 minutes to one hour per night. Hamsters cannot jump out of the bathtub, but you should still supervise them anyway. Toys and chew treats can be placed in the tub with the hamster. Sticking a treat inside of a scrunched up ball of clean paper makes the hamster work for his or her food.
After all of this activity, the hamster should be tired and more than ready to get back to his or her cage, check on the caches of treats, groom and sniff about the premises to make sure all is well.
Hamsters are highly intelligent and highly active little creatures. They are not satisfied with a clean cage, plenty of food and a wheel. If these needs are not met, they turn to potentially dangerous and highly annoying habits like biting the bars of their cages. They need to discover new things and take time to run about outside of their cages. If these tips do not work, consider housing your problem hamster in an aquarium. Be sure to keep the aquarium away from heat sources like bright sunlight.
“Training Your Pet Hamster.” Gerry Bucsis and Barbara Somerville. Barron’s; 2002.
Hamsterific. “Stop Chewing on Those Bars!” http://www.hamsterific.com/CageBarChewing.cfm
Small Animal Channel. “Hamster Bites Cage Bars and Water Bottle.” Martha Boden. http://www.smallanimalchannel.com/critter-experts/hamster/hamster-bites-cage-wires.aspx
Personal experience with Syrian hamsters