It can be a shock to discover one morning that a new hamster has given birth - even more so if the new owner was assured they were buying a male hamster! Unfortunately though accidents such as this happen as hamsters can successfully mate from around 3-4 weeks of age, so if baby hamsters are not separated early enough into different sex groups at the breeder’s or pet shop then pregnancy can result. Also due to their small size there are times when a hamster’s sex may be determined incorrectly, leading to a male hamster inadvertently being left with a group of female hamsters or vice versa.
If the new mother hamster is not kept alone then the first thing to do is determine if any cage mate is male or female. Although Syrian hamsters are solitary and should be kept alone, dwarf hamsters are sociable and can be kept together so if the new mother is a dwarf hamster sharing a cage with another hamster then it is important to determine the sex of her cage mate. If the cage mate is male then it should be removed if further breeding is not wanted. However, it may well be that the mother is already pregnant again, as they often mate immediately after giving birth, but removing the male will reduce the chance of a second litter occurring and of course eliminate the chance of even more unwanted pregnancies afterwards.
Whatever the species of hamster, care of the new mother and babies is much the same. There may be spots of blood present on the bedding from the birth and this is normal and should be no cause for alarm. The important thing is to ensure that the mother is distrubed as little as possible. The nest should not be disturbed and the babies should not be touched as this can change their scent and may cause the mother not to recognise them as her own babies leading to her rejecting them or even cannibalise the litter.
If there is a wheel in the cage, this is best removed, as mothers can sometimes neglect the babies in favour of playing on the wheel and obviously it will be necessary to feed the mother and ensure she always has water available to drink, but apart from that she should be disturbed as little as possible.
Ideally the cage should not be cleaned until 2 weeks after the birth. With planned pregnancies of course owners can ensure the cage is cleaned prior to the birth but with unexpected births the cage may not have been cleaned previously. If the cage begins to smell or the woodshavings become overly wet and really needs cleaning before this time, then simply remove the wet woodshavings from the area of the cage that the hamster urinates in and replace with fresh woodshavings rather than completely clean the cage, being careful when doing so not to disturb the nest.
The mother should be fed as normal during her nursing of the babies, with some high protein foods such as scrambled or boiled egg, tofu and cheese. Don’t overfeed the high protein foods as these will spoil if left uneaten so only feed an amount the mother will eat immediately.
Depending on the colour of the babies their skin may start to pigment from around 4-6 days and at 5-7 days hair begins to grow. At around 9-10 days the eyelids are developing and the babies may start to wander around the cage even though they are still blind. The female will usually collect the wandering babies by picking them up and carrying them with her teeth and return them to the nest. The babies may squeal when she picks them up and carries them but it is not usually anything to worry about.
Once the babies start wandering about the cage add another water bottle to the cage at a height the baby hamsters can reach - they will figure out how to use this on their own. As the babies start to eat solid foods they will easily manage foods such as grated carrot, wheatgerm, tofu, cheese and scrambled or boiled egg and will then start to eat hamster mix.
At 14-16 days of age the baby hamsters eyes open and they are fully covered in fur, and by this time it is safe to handle the babies for short periods and also give the cage a full clean. Ensure mother and babies are given ample food, along with continued feeding of high protein foods - but only enough that they will eat immediately so as not to leave any in the cage to spoil.
At 3 weeks of age (4 weeks for Roborovski hamsters) the babies are fully weaned and no longer require the mother’s milk although they may still suckle if she still has milk available. At this age the babies should be moved into two separate cages (one for females and one for males) to avoid breeding with each other. The mother and babies may become a little stressed over the separation but usually settle after a day or two.
The babies should be kept in their single sex groups for another 2-3 weeks and then at that time they will be sufficiently confident and developed to go to new homes.