How To Have A Hamster (The Lives And Times Of The Rodents In Our Home)

**Updated 1 July 2017: I got questions about how my Golden Hamsters lived together when I was growing up, because especially nowadays it's recommended hamsters be kept separate (and btw in Mong Kok you will find 10-20 hamsters living together in large tanks).. Generally, you may be able to keep two females together and that was the original plan before we realised one of the animals we were sold was male...

After the babies were born, once they were weaned, all males were kept separate, as were the more aggressive females (learned the hard way - my rat gave me my worst bites but after him, I had some bad bites from trying to separate fighting hamsters as well). I did however have one huge multi-storey cage that had about 6 females from the same litter staying together (that group never fought. Interestingly they were the offspring of my favourite female hamster who was incredibly sweet natured as well.)

ALL males that I had however fought and had to be separated, and one reason I started letting the hamsters run freely in my room every night was because the individual cages were much smaller. During their turn out of the cage, I then had to keep an eye on the other cages because the free-roaming animals would invariably climb up and pick fights with the other individually housed residents. 

The group who lived together roamed my room together as well. And got into many adventures, squeezing under doors, chewing holes in mattresses and furniture and burrowing - yes, together.  

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Remember All Animals Go To Heaven, But First They Stop By Our Apartment?

One blisteringly hot sunny day, Gemma passed.

Gemma's last cuddle

Gemma's last cuddle

Gemma went very quickly from scratching in her running ball, scratching in her umpteenth cardboard box from school..... (Queen E regularly visits the "junk modelling" collage table at Kindy, more on that someday, to put together all manner of strange contraptions while attending staff at the various craft stations during free play supervise and chat with the kids.

(Here's yet another one)

(Here's yet another one)

Almost every time she gets off the bus it's been with some new, often flamboyantly-decorated whacky invention of cereal boxes or blue-tacked wires and gears (that one disappeared into her play cupboards so fast I'm still looking for it for a picture) for the hamster to live in/ ride in/ watch My Pet And Me by Cbeebies from...)

Queen E took the animals out for a spin

And then she took the animals out for a spin

...to getting more and more drowsy and finally not waking up. We knew Gemma would be leaving us in the relatively near future, she was an old hamster, and in the last weeks leading up to her passing, she was increasingly drowsy all the time.

(Which animal falls asleep in a ride like this one?)

JD: I fall asleep in cars too

Thing is, a really old hamster is surprisingly great for kids because you hold it and walk around.... and it falls asleep. You put it in your pocket as you go about your day..... and it falls asleep. You go for lunch with it and when the food comes..... it's fallen asleep and your kid can get on with eating while it snoozes in her lap (watch out for large birds flying overhead if you're outdoors though, they really do swoop in and steal sandwiches and would totally eat your rodent if they could; we once saw a bunch of crows fighting noisily in the air.... before dropping a little terrapin shell still with meat in it).

Another thing we always tell the kids is, if you want a live pet, it will need to eat. That means it'll also produce poop, ergo you are also looking at cage cleaning. (And I would suggest - always involve the kids, however small a part they get, in a cleaning. Because everything is a "package". Live animals always come with poop.)

Now, here's the big attraction with the last two hamsters we've had - if you get the dwarf desert species, they mostly drink less water, thereby producing less pee, and also less smell. We've been having Russian dwarfs, but as a tween I once had up to 16 Golden Hamsters (pet shop mistakenly gave me a young male and female instead of 2 females. After I watched the first litter get eaten I vowed to raise the next litter successfully so I got some books. Til today I can tell you the gestation period of a Golden Hamster is 14-18 days. (Kudos to my parents for letting me do this in my bedroom which at one point had an entire wall of hamster cages)) Yes, then they smell and need to be cleaned very often. I shampooed them at one point. And they are incredibly noisy late into the night. And I let them out to run all over the room every night. Don't get 16 Golden Hamsters.

As a lonely teen who went from being popular to knowing absolutely no one when my family first moved from Sandakan to Penang, I also ended up with 8 dogs at one point but that's another story 😛

Thing is, the messiness, the chaos, the accidental (and very, very occasional, considering I had so many animals) bites, the pet deaths... that's what "life" is. You can do without all the bother and get XBox, drones and tamagochi, but there is something that caring for another living thing gives you (or your child), that you cannot replicate from anything that isn't well, alive and doesn't well, produce poop and smell. Of course, live pets also die. But there is something pure about a friendship with an animal - animals only care if you are kind. Not if you're cool or cute or smart or all the things that human friends invariably will react to (because that's what being "human" is 🙂 )

It's here somewhere. JD btw had serious shyness issues when we first got her from this puppy mill-like place long ago in Singapore. She used to cower under furniture and howl, so we did the full on Agility training figuring that her Border Collie instincts would overtake her shyness. She still has space issues and doesn't like being crowded, but Queen E has, expectedly, wormed her way into transforming our dog into a rug.

It's in here somewhere. JD btw had serious shyness issues when we first got her from this puppy mill-like place 14 years ago in Singapore. She used to cower under furniture and howl, so we did the full on Agility training figuring that her Border Collie instincts would overtake her shyness. She still doesn't like being crowded, but Queen E has somehow gotten her way again, transforming dog into rug.

(The caveat re dogs vs hamsters of course is, dogs live for much longer than hamsters.)

Anyway, back to the story - we stopped by Park and Shop to get something to dig with, on the way directly to the park after lunch to go bury Gemma...

We stopped by Park and Shop to get something to dig with, on the way directly to the park to bury Gemma.. who is in that plastic bag Queen E insisted on holding

..who is in that plastic bag Queen E insisted on holding while walking all over the supermarket.

Years ago somewhere on the Peak, we saw a young couple sit under a tree, seemingly talking to it, and eventually leave a box of tennis balls there. Another regular dog walker in that area would later tell us Dino was a 9yr old Maltese who was well-known in the neighbourhood, succumbed to tick fever and - no surprises here - adored tennis balls.

Sad smile, as we pick a spot...

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(Oh, and fair warning, "What's in the bag" may not be what you want to ask Queen E if you see her walking around purposefully holding something like this, because you may not really want to be shown what's in there :P)

I think to put Gemma in the hole we've dug beneath the roots of a carefully selected tree (in a place the many dogs who frequent this park won't be able to dig up)

I think to tip Gemma as respectfully as we can, out of the bag into the hole we've dug beneath the roots of a carefully selected tree (in a place the many dogs who frequent this park won't be able to dig it up), but when I turn around I realise Queen E's taken her out of the bag and has been holding her awhile -

Queen E: You can tell she's dead. She's getting cold already.

Me: <speechless for a moment> Yeah. She's also getting increasingly stiff. It's called rigor mortis, when the chemicals in her muscles start to behave differently now the body is no longer alive.

For a moment I wonder if she's going to change her mind and ask to take a look inside, and I struggle to be ready with how feel about it; remember this is a kid who once watched several Youtubes on the dissection of a dog carcass when she had questions about the strings of muscles under her own skin. Unlike relatively indifferent Rockstar, the Queen has a huge fascination with the icky.

But no, she simply puts Gemma carefully in the hole and we thank her for the many hours of love and fun.

I lasted 2 days. Maybe 3, tops. Queen E never once asked for another hamster, and when I asked her why not, all she said was she "wasn't sure (she was) taking care of them properly". (This from a kid who usually canNOT stop talking. About everything.) Despite all that telling myself I wouldn't have to clean a hamster cage anymore, I totally caved and went looking for another because I couldn't bear seeing her come home from school and not immediately pick the thing up, then proceeding throughout the rest of the day using only one hand.

So we went back to the SPCA right before the last Typhoon 8

So we went back to the SPCA right before the last Typhoon 8

The typhoon is almost upon us, but we meet two other kids in Singapore International School uniform and their mum there. When I volunteer that Gemma has just died, we get, "Our two hamsters too. One of the kids cried for two weeks when it first happened."

The SPCA office checks previous records (you have to bring proof of address, identification, and fill up a form and sign an agreement when you adopt; the hamster itself however costs maybe HKD 20). The lady says something like "Your other hamster is dead, right? It was very old." I'm very thankful they said that, hearing someone else say it made Queen E feel a lot better.

Unlike before when there was just Gemma (back then nicknamed "Fatty"), this time when we check online we find 6 hamsters up for adoption. When we get there though, we learn "Pear," Queen E's first choice simply because she's light-coloured and looks the most like Gemma, was just adopted. The staff remark "probably went really fast because she was pretty." Of course that happens. That place we got JD from when we had no intention of getting a dog - families would drive up all the time, and these little kids would beg and beg their parents for a puppy, "Because it looks so cute!"

If you're not ready to say no should your child prove unready for a live pet, Please. Don't go there.

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Queen E meets her next two choices. On paper her second choice, "Orange," is a little older than "Macchiato," her third choice. We figure the older animal will be calmer, more used to handling - very important if you have a kid who cannot stop picking it up. Rockstar's two cents' worth, having acknowledged that Queen E puts in wayyy more animal time and therefore has first say on pets, is that he hopes we get a dark-coloured animal.

(Just a side note to be mindful of anything with a long tail, all other things equal - I once had a huge albino rat and thinking to assist in the cage cleaning our housekeeper had pulled the bottom tray out, then caught the rat's tail in it when inserting the cleaned tray back in. About 1 1/2 inches of tail eventually dried up and fell right off and he was ok again, but for several weeks Pinky was in pain.

Actually on a further aside, there's another reason I prefer to go to the SPCA - their vet checks over the animals. Gemma was originally nicknamed "Fatty" because when she'd been picked up off the street, she had apparently weighed in as 'overweight' for a year-old dwarf. Uh, WHO knows what the ideal weight for one of these things is?! (They did.) Because Queen E dives right in, I didn't want some animal-mill inmate carrying unknown bugs biting her, however much cuter it might look... if bites are par for the course, then clean bites please 😛 and yes growing up I had to have shots after some horrible bites because goodness knows where a rat originally sourced for a Biology class dissection has been.)

Anyway, this is Sophie

Anyway, after about 5 renaming exercises, this is "Sophie"

Our third choice, and only about 5 weeks old when we got her; Rockstar would NOT let Queen E rename her "Gemma." Said it was "disrespectful" to the dead animal.

When Queen E met them, the other hamster was much more reluctant to come out of its cell. That might be a "plus" for some families who just want a little animal in a cage with a wheel like how you would keep a goldfish in a tank, but we have a little girl who will involve the animals in everything, so help her Lord. While she was able to handle both hamsters we looked at, it soon became clear that the animals had quite different personalities - one was simply more nervous and prone to darting about unexpectedly than the other. And so we went home with the younger, less good-looking one. Queen E would, in the following weeks, ask me how we could've thought Sophie "wasn't pretty," and I would jump at the opportunity to drum into her that now we've gotten to know Sophie better, she looks prettier and prettier to us because of how nice she is. 

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Being much younger and apparently not overweight though, she is much more energetic. For eg, she just latches on and keeps on climbing. Anywhere she figures how to climb up.

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(Rockstar likes to tease his sister that this is the hamster trying to get back in the cage so it can get away from her)

This past weekend, Queen E then earned herself another sleeping rodent.

She managed to get the new hamster to fall asleep i her hands too

Hamster Ninja. She managed to get the new hamster to fall asleep in her hands too

Wouldve titled this post "Another One Bites The Dust" but didnt want this to be insensitive to Gemma, who first taught my daughter how to be gentle when handling her

Would've titled this post "Another One Bites The Dust," but realised it could be taken another way 😛

Further "research": There are some non-English channels that feature hamsters living mini-human lives, and I didn't want to risk posting something that actually says "AND they're extra yummy on toast too!" ...and then we found Dumptruck and Porkchop.

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About Aileen

I blog about living and raising my son in Hong Kong - where toddlers have entrance interviews, parents keep test score spreadsheets, private school debentures can trade for more than half a million USD. Raising Rockstar's the most important thing I'll ever do. We show our true colors by the choices we make in bringing up our children. My blog is a message to my toddler son, about what the world and his parents are like today - for when he becomes a teenager and knows everything.
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