Anyone who has ever cared for a hamster knows just how active the little mammal is. Hamsters are most active at dusk and dawn but seem to spend most of the night running on their wheels. When they’re not on their wheels, they’re racing about their cages, looking for a way out, tunneling into their bedding and exploring any other toys in their immediate environment.
Hamsters are incredibly active for a good reason. Their instinct makes them this active. The oldest species of pet hamster, the Syrian hamster or Mesocricetus auratus has only been in captivity since 1930. All other species of pet hamsters first entered the pet market much later than 1930. There has not been enough time for pet hamsters to evolve new behaviors that served their wild ancestors so well.
Wild Hamster Behavior
Hamsters evolved to survive in bleak, wind-swept arid areas where food was scarce. These areas include deserts and steppes of Syria, Siberia, Mongolia and China. Hamsters spent the day sleeping in order to stay protected from predators such as birds of prey. They also had to spend most of the winter underground when no food was available. In order to find enough food to stay alive, hamsters had to roam for miles around. BBC’s documentary Wild China notes that Roborovski hamsters, the size of ping pong balls, each night runs “the human equivalent of four marathons.”
When hamsters found food, they ate only a little and stuffed the rest into their cheek pouches. This food would then be deposited like buried treasure in one of many burrows a hamster would have. If a hamster just one particular small area, food would quickly be depleted and the hamster would starve. Moving about allowed a hamster to find new food sources and wait for older sources to replenish themselves.
Hamsters Need to be Busy
Even in the presence of ample food and water, pet hamsters will still try to escape their comfortable cages and find other sources of food and hidey-holes to stash that food in. They still are driven by the instinct to create a supply of food for the winter.
In order to keep the hamster busy, caretakers need to provide their pets with many types of toys, including wheels. Other good toys include chew toys, plastic tunnels made for hamsters, scrunched up plain paper with a small seed inside and hamster balls. This will keep the hamster from getting into mischief such as chewing on the bars of its cage all night.