Most hamster owners will have at some stage, heard the sound of their fury little friend chewing on the bars of their cage. Whether this is a continual annoyance or not, it is important to realise that this behaviour can be seriously detrimental to their health and should be actively discouraged. In this article I will be discussing some of the reasons why hamsters chew the bars in their cage, the associated health risks and what we, as owners can do to minimise bar chewing. When I first got Misty, she was an avid bar chewer but using some of the methods described in this article I managed to rehabilitate her.
Before I get started with the reasons for bar chewing I think it is important to understand that gnawing is an absolute necessity for all hamsters regardless of breed. The 4 front teeth grow continuously throughout their lives and need to be grinded down to prevent them from becoming too long. With this in mind, the approach to stopping your hamster chewing the bars should always be “Give them something else to chew or distract them” and not “How can I stop the chewing altogether”
Why do I need to stop my hamster chewing the bars?
As mentioned above, bar chewing can be detrimental to the health of your hamster. The main areas that you should be aware of are:
- Bar Rub / Raw and Inflamed Skin – Constantly chewing at the bars can lead to areas of raw or inflamed skin commonly known as bar rub. These areas can cause unnecessary stress for your hamster which ultimately can lead to more bar chewing. If your hamster does begin to show signs of bar rub then it is important to step in and make an attempt to stop this behaviour. Persistent chewing will only make the condition worse whereas the wounds of a rehabilitated bar chewer will heal J. As with any abrasion to the skin, bar rub can lead to more serious conditions such as infection. If at any point you suspect there may be an infection then seek guidance from your vet ASAP .
- Misaligned teeth – Hamsters have 16 teeth in total. 4 large front incisors and 12 molars which are a little harder to see. The molars are used to grind food in to smaller portions which are easier to swallow whereas the incisors are the primary cutting tool and defence mechanism of the hamster. All 16 teeth will be established within 1 month after birth but it is only the incisors which continue to grow throughout the entire lifespan. For this reason it is vital that you pay close attention to the progression of your hamster’s dental health. Misaligned teeth from bar chewing can be when part of the teeth break away, causing them to vary in height. Although this may sound trivial it can be serious with extreme cases resulting in teeth growing up in to the roof of the mouth (or down in to the base of the mouth) leaving the hamster unable to eat. The other form of teeth misalignment sees teeth growing in at irregular angles and can again have serious consequences. It is fairly easy to inspect the teeth of your hamster providing you have a good handling. It is very common for hamsters to attend regular visits to the vets to get their teeth trimmed. If you see signs of misaligned teeth in your hamster then I would suggest seeking medical advice ASAP. Do not try and trim the teeth yourself as there is a possibility of hitting a nerve – something which hammy will not thank you for!
- Potential brain damage – During my research in to the effects of bar chewing, I have repeatedly come across the subject of brain damage. It is widely publicised that excessive head shaking from bar chewing can result in brain damage. I can neither confirm or deny this so I will go with general consensus and say that it is a possibility…either way, the possibility of this eventuality should be enough to persuade every hamster owner that bar chewing is not a good idea
- Escape – One of the reasons why hammy will chew on the bars is because they desperately seek freedom. Do not take this personally and think that they dislike being in your care because it’s just the way it is. Hamsters are adventurous creatures and it is in their nature to explore. Should they continue to chew at the bars of their cage or other areas then they may succeed in creating an escape route. I do not need to tell you that this is a bad thing and could lead to terrible consequences. If your hamster does escape then always bear in mind that they are attracted to water and food. Placing treats and a water bottle inside a bucket can be an effective way of locating the runaway hamster.
- Create sharp edges – This kind of falls in to the realms of bar rub and escaping but there is middle ground which sees the hamster creating sharp edges in the home which can cause serious injury
Why does my Hamster chew the bars?
So now that we are aware of some of the health risks associated with bar chewing we can now take a look at the some of the main causes. It is very hard to pin point the exact reason why your hamster decides to chew the bars of their cage but there are common causes which attribute to this behaviour. The following list outlines these reasons:
- They want to escape – Possibly the most common cause of bar chewing is the hamsters desire to escape. Regardless of how comfortable you have made their home, hamsters are always going to want to explore. You and I know that it is unlikely that they will be able to break the bars of the cage but that will not deter them from trying – hamsters are not overly familiar with the concepts of metal and believe that it is only a matter of time before they break out so they should just keep on chewing.
- Natural Instinct – Hamsters are natural chewers and frequently engage in gnawing at anything they can find on their travels. As mentioned above, the front teeth of a hamster continually grow throughout their life and need to be worn down through gnawing. This therefore makes gnawing second nature to a hamster and when they come across the hard surface of cage bars it is only natural for them to start chewing. In a strange kind of way I can draw similarities between a hamster chewing the bars of their cage and a child who is teething. Both seem desperate to gnaw away as if the process is pleasurable. There are articles to support this and state that gnawing releases endorphins to a hamster making the entire experience pleasurable.
- Boredom – It is not hard to imagine how a lifetime spent within the confines of a cage may seem boring to a creature that in the wild will travel many miles foraging for food each night. As caring hamster owners we all try our hardest to provide adequate entertainment to our fury friends but with the greatest will in the world, even a child would get bored of Disneyland if they lived there all the time. I will be covering some of the things you can do to prevent boredom shortly but it is important to understand that you can always do more to keep your hamster entertained.
- Stress – Hamsters, by their nature are extremely alert and shy creatures – they need to be to stay alive in the wild. This alertness makes them easily agitated and prone to stress. Stress within a hamster can be attributed to a wide variety of things and can be as simple as the slightest circumstantial changes within their environment – simply changing their food source can elevate stress levels. The more stressed the hamster gets, then the more they may want to escape from their home. If you think about someone who is claustrophobic being trapped in a lift; the longer they are in there the more stressed they become and the harder they will try to get out.
- They just like it – You can have the biggest home in the world with the best wheel that money can buy. Throw in as many toys as you can and even have a separate, deep filled quarter just for digging. The point is that if your hamster likes chewing the bars then they are going to do it. If you find yourself in this situation and have unsuccessfully exhausted all avenues then it might be time to think about a home without bars. Remember that hammy does not always know best and you can always step in for the sake of their health.
- Cage Size – I went in to Pets at home on the weekend and just wandered in to the hamster section. I was surprised to find that not one cage met the minimum size requirements for a Syrian hamster as recommended by the RSPCA (75cm x 40cm x 40cm) – it is therefore no wonder that many hamster owners are even aware of this guidance. Having a cage which is too small can lead to increased bar chewing as the hamster feel a greater desire to escape. Upgrading your cage may not always be an option due to financial constraints and in all truth, it is not guaranteed to work – these are all pieces of unique puzzles which can be considered when trying to stop your hamster chewing the bars.
How to stop your Hamster chewing the bars
Now that we have looked at some of the reasons why hamsters chew the bars in their home we can start thinking about some of the things you can do to try and prevent it.
- Introduce Boredom Breakers – In the section above, I outlined boredom as one of the reasons why hamsters chew the bars of their cages so this would be a good place to start. The idea behind boredom breakers is to provide hammy with some in-cage entertainment and distract them from more mischievous activities. Probably the best boredom breaker you can give to your hamster is an exercise wheel – not only will it keep them entertained for hours on end, they are also getting high levels of regular exercise. I have never had a hamster that has not enjoyed running in their wheel but I have had hamsters that have not used the wheel because it was too small for them. This was entirely my fault and once rectified my hamster started to use it. If you already have a wheel which is not being used by your hamster, chances are that it is too small for them. Why not try out a few before deciding that they are just lazy.
Note: The recommended minimum wheel size for a Syrian hamster is 8 inches in diameter. Anything smaller introduces health risks due to increased back arching and anything bigger is always welcome. If you are on the look out for a new wheel then I would recommend the Savic Orbital Large Hamster Wheel
Other boredom breakers can include hamster toys such as balls, ramps, seesaws, hammocks, bridges and tubing. All of these can be made manually or purchased from any good pet store. Feel free to check out our selection of Hamster Toys available to purchase via Amazon.
Note: As with the wheel, you need to ensure that your toys are suitable for your hamster. If you insert tubing then make sure that it is large enough for your breed of hamster and equally, make sure that any wood placed in the home is free from any chemical treatments.
- Provide other things to chew – We have already discussed that gnawing is an essential activity for any hamster, the constantly growing teeth demand that they be kept in check. There are several alternatives which can be given to your hamster that will help grind down the front teeth. The following list will help to keep the teeth from growing too long. Note that all of these items have relatively hard exteriors.
- Wooden Gnaws – usually found in stick form but can vary. Misty has a wooden house which she frequently gnaws on
- Fruit Tree Branches (no pesticide)
- Unflavoured dog biscuits
- Sunflower seeds in the shell
- Dried Corn on the cob (please note that corn can be sugary which is a concern for hamster breeds which are prone to diabetes – Winter Whites, Hybrids, Chinese & Cambells. Always give in moderation)
All of these items can be purchased from any good pet store or online
- No feeding through the bars – Like most animals, hamsters can quite easily recognise the early stages of routine. Feeding your hamster through the bars of the cage is something that I have always been against but I suppose that is down to personal preference. By feeding your hamster through the bars of their cage can leave traces of food on the bars which they may sniff out at a later stage – this will only lead to incentivised bar chewing. If you have some food to give your hamster then try feeding by hand or something I like to do is hide it beneath the sawdust so that they can hunt it out later – this can also act as a boredom breaker.
- Time outside the cage (ball & playtime) – If your hamster is trying to escape then why not let it – in a controlled manner of course. Handling your hamster on a regular basis will improve the hamster / owner bond and allow them to experience a different environment. Having a hamster ball will also allow your hamster to get out and about. Like the wheel, always ensure that your hamster ball is suitable for your specific breed.
- Deep filling substrate for digging – I have owned Syrian hamsters for almost 15 years now and I don’t mind admitting that I have made a few mistakes along the way – it is after all a learning curve for any hamster owner. The cages I bought in the early days were not fit for purpose and did not allow for a deep filling of sawdust. Now that I have realised the error of my ways I now have the ability to fill up to almost 6 inches of sawdust for Misty. Of course you can go deeper but this depth allows her to create complex underground tunnel systems and keep her occupied for hours – too busy to bar chew – Please be aware that there are other materials which can be used as substrate other than sawdust. Sawdust can create excessive dust for your hamster and there are safer alternatives available.
- Talk to your hamster – You might not be able to do this all day but you will be surprised how effective this can be. Don’t worry we all do it
- If needs be get a new home which does not have bars (Tank) – If you are at your wits and with the bar chewing and have tried absolutely everything to prevent it to no avail, you might want to think about getting a home without bars. Glass tanks are very popular along with bin cages and do not have any bars to chew. You can also get cages which do have bars but are positioned higher up – this solution can encourage climbing and act as yet another boredom breaker …Thanks to Laura for suggesting that great tip The one thing I would say is that you need to provide your hamster with gnaws on a regular basis to keep the teeth in check. Although too much bar chewing can be dangerous, I would be lying if I said it did not serve a purpose in moderation.
In the sections above I have taken a look at the health risks of bar chewing, some of the reasons why a hamster might partake in this action and some of the things which you can do to minimise it. Each hamster is different and there is never going to be one fix which works for every hamster – their individuality is after all why we love them so much. You could say that most bar chewing could be minimised with a larger home or a better wheel but this is not always the case. Many factors could be contributing to this behaviour so it is down to you to work with your hamster to find the right answer. This is just one of the joys of owning a hamster and the journey that you will both take together.
I hope this has been helpful and feel free to offer any advice on bar chewing or share your own experiences. I welcome any feedback good or bad and will always respond to comments.