Choosing an Appropriate Hamster Food: with an Introduction to Homemade Diets
Hamsters are foragers, and depending on species, eat a variety of seeds, grains, insects, vegetables & grasses in the wild. A species appropriate diet should replicate this in captivity and common issues we see with hamsters who are fed inappropriate diets are picky eating habits (which can cause malnutrition) and obesity & diabetes.
What An Appropriate Hamster Food Does NOT Look Like:
Many (practically all) commonly available diets on the market are heavy in pelleted extrusion with added fruits, flaked cereals, and few actual whole ingredients. Usually any whole seed included is just millet or sunflower seed. Many also have added dyes, and flavourings, and even added sweeteners like added sugar & molasses. These are all signs of a low quality hamster mix that you want to avoid.
Wait, no pellets? But I thought hamsters NEED a lab block?
Hamsters do not need pellets in their diet. There is this ideology pushed within the hamster community that a hamster ‘needs’ a seed mix + lab block to ‘ensure nutrition’ (with some even stating that a lab block should make up the bulk of their diet, with a seed mix being supplemental)- this is entirely false. If you are feeding your hamster an appropriately balanced, natural diet for their species you do not need to worry about malnutrition/picky eating habits nor do you need to supplement with lab blocks. No, not even species appropriate (balanced!) homemade diets require pellets. Additionally, every single lab block I have found that is commonly recommended for hamsters is absolute trash, including scrap ingredients like ‘soybean hulls’, high amounts of corn and added sweeteners like molasses - they have no place in an appropriately balanced seed mix, and are particularly problematic with hybrid dwarfs, Campbells, and Chinese hamsters who are often incredibly sensitive to diets containing added sugars that can lead to obesity & with it, increased risk of diabetes (we'll touch more on this later on in this post). There is this obsession with lab blocks because they're ‘lab standard’. This is so ridiculous that it is almost funny. Lab blocks are designed for lab animals to limit fluctuations that may be diet related which could potentially jeopardise a study: they are not designed with quality in mind, but as a cheap way to give lab rodents everything they need to survive. Surviving does not equal thriving. Would you give the stamp of approval to the conditions lab animals are housed in and aim to house your pets the same way because hey, it’s approved by a lab? I’d hope not.
But isn't a pellet free diet dangerous?
There have been one or two notable incidences were owners have created pellet-free mixes and marketed them as complete diets, sold them to the general public, only for a significant amount of animals fed these diets to suffer every deficiency under the sun, with some even tragically dying. However, what we need to stress is that this was not caused by a simple lack of fortified pellet: it was caused by inappropriately balanced diet, with inappropriate ingredients.
It's like if you knew someone who only ever ate pizza and drank coke, and who never took any multivitamin supplement, who ended up developing a vitamin deficiency and then using this as an example to lecture people on how not taking supplements is dangerous - but they didn't get sick based on the simple fact of having never taken a supplement... they got sick by not eating an appropriately balanced diet. You wouldn't use our pizza & coke diet friend as an example to "prove" dangers of not taking a supplement - but you would use them to show the dangers of not eating a properly balanced diet. Similarly, you can't just toss together a couple seeds & grains and call it a day, and then act shocked should your pet get sick - you need to feed them an appropriately balanced mix, or they will simply fail to thrive. Animals who fail to thrive on pellet-free diets are animals fed inappropriately balanced diets: it has nothing to do with the absence of pellets, and these animals can't be used to "prove" the dangers of pellet free mixes at all.... but like our pizza & coke friend, they are perfect examples of the dangers of inappropriately balanced diets.
What A Species Appropriate Hamster Food DOES Look Like:
The ideal diet should replicate your hamsters natural diet as close as captivity is capable of achieving. Additionally, they should be free of pellets, added dyes, artificial flavourings, and added sweeteners and contain only quality ingredients that reflect on the natural diet of the species you are feeding it to.
Syrians favour rich agricultural fields (not the desert!) and so have a higher tolerance for a variety of grains/cereals (like wheat, oats, rye, corn, etc ) and vegetables & even fruits and thus, a mix for a Syrian can contain all of these components and be an appropriate, high quality diet. On the contrary, the Phodopus species (which is the Winter White, Roborovski, and Campbell dwarf hamsters) and also the Chinese dwarf hamster are from much different habitats and should not have fruit in their main diet (it may be offered very, very sparingly – but should not be part of their day-to-day diet), and a base mix containing fruit would not be a species appropriate diet for these species. Furthermore, cereals in the diet of dwarf hamsters - specifically Campbells, and Roborovskiis - should be limited as they would not naturally consume a diet as rich in cereals like the Syrian hamster. Unlike the Syrian who favours rich agricultural habitat, Campbells favour much more arid/semi-arid habitat while the Roborovski is an exclusive desert dweller.
Wait, so I can’t Feed My Syrian Hamster the Same Diet as my Dwarf?
Right. You should not be feeding a Syrian hamster the same diet you would feed your dwarf hamster. Syrians prefer a diet with more variety of cereals with fewer tiny seeds (i.e. millet), dwarf hamsters need a diet with fewer cereals & more tiny seeds. You may feed, if you wish, your dwarf hamsters the same diet as each other but you should not feed your Syrian and dwarf hamsters the same food. They have different preferences with their natural dietary preferences being simply far too different, it does not work.
Dwarf hamsters have a preference for a wider + larger variety of smaller seeds compared to Syrians, and this is one of the reasons (different dietary preference) for why you should not feed a Syrian hamster a mix intended for dwarf hamsters, or vice versa. (Dwarf hamster mix featured is by Getzoo, just using a food scoop from Rodipet - but rodipet also stock species appropriate main diets, though they are not complete in the sense that you are required to supplement animal protein separately. Many other sites, including Getzoo, also offer this option of mixes without added animal protein to allow you to choose your hamsters preferred insects instead).
So What About the Guaranteed Analysis?
I personally do not obsess over Guaranteed Analysis (that is fat, fibre, and protein percentages) and instead I choose to focus on providing a balanced, species appropriate mix for if you focus on this, you cannot go wrong. People obsess far too much over ensuring exact protein, fat, and fibre percentages and completely ignore the quality of ingredients + natural diet of the species they keep. If your hamsters diet is appropriately balanced, do not fret over determining the exact GA (but if you want to learn how, keep reading!). Do you sit down at the end of every day and calculate out the exact percentage of protein, fat & fibre in your food, or do you focus on eating a healthy, balanced diet instead?
But How Do I Know My Hamsters Diet is Balanced?
A balanced diet includes a species appropriate seed mix that is, as we’ve discussed, a seed diet that replicated your hamsters natural diet as close as captivity is capable of achieving + regular fresh food (herbs/vegetables) a minimum of 1-2 times a week + protein (if not included in base mix already, such as insects and meat). If you provide your hamster with these three, key dietary components it would be virtually impossible for your hamster to be malnourished unless they were literally toothless. If you would like to purchase a commercially available diet, you can do so via Getzoo, Rodipet, Mixerama, and FutterParadies. These are the four sites that I am personally aware of that all stock balanced, appropriate diets for both Syrian and dwarf hamsters. If you cannot for whatever reason order from these sites (perhaps they don’t ship to your country), we’ll discuss how you can make your own homemade, balanced mix later on in this post.
Insects?! But I Don’t Like Insects, Can’t I Just Leave Them Out?
No. Hamsters are omnivores by nature, and would naturally consume insects in the wild. For some species, like the Roborovski for example, live (not dried!) insects make up a large proportion – up to 50%! – of their natural diet in the wild. It is unfair to deprive them of a natural component of their diet on the basis that you don’t like it. If your hamster refuses to eat insects, you may try offering meat (like chicken), either cooked or freeze-dried, instead. Hamsters do eat carrion in the wild, so offering them some cooked/dried meats is absolutely fine. However should not be used as an alternative to insects on the basis that you don’t want to feed them bugs. If you do not want to deal with insects, perhaps an animal who has a natural diet which includes insects is not the best choice of pet for you.
Aren’t Live Insects Dangerous Though? Mealworms Can Bite Your Hamster!
There is this ridiculous myth in the hamster community that any live insects fed to hamsters must be killed/have their heads crushed before offering to your pet: this is frankly ridiculous. If you offer your hamster an appropriately sized prey item, you do not have to worry about your hamster being attacked or injured by a bug. Note: appropriately sized prey item. Large morioworms (also known as superworms) are not appropriately sized prey items, and dwarf hamsters in particular may struggle with them. Appropriate prey items that may be offered live include mealworms, small/medium dubia roaches, small/baby morioworms, crickets, small/medium locusts, waxworms, silkworms, and black soldier fly larvae. Many hamsters who don’t like dried insects often show preference/liking for live. Additionally, while dried insects are absolutely fine to offer your hamster as they are not a species who rely on them for their entire nutrition, live insects are superior in the sense that they can be gut-loaded (fed healthy veg) prior to feeding, which increases their nutritional content thus is more nutritionally beneficial to your hamster and if possible, I would highly recommend you include them in your pets diet.
There are No Appropriate, Pellet-Free Mixes Available In My Country, What Do I Do Now?
It is entirely possible to create your own homemade base mix from scratch if you wish. However, this cannot be done by just combining items you find in your kitchen cabinets. It is also not often cheap to create your own homemade mix but if you want to learn, sit down & grab a cuppa and I’ll walk you through the basics.
Creating a Homemade Base Mix:
First things first, you need to know the species of hamster you are creating this diet for. Are they a Syrian, or a Dwarf? Like we discussed earlier, Syrian hamsters have a much higher percentage of cereals in their diet compared to dwarf hamsters, so knowing the species of hamster you are creating this diet for is incredibly important as when we are creating a base mix, ingredients are grouped into two categories: Farinaceous – which from now onwards I will be referring to as ‘starch’ for short, and Oily/fatty. These ingredients are then added at a specific ratio to provide an appropriate base mix for the species. However, what ingredients make up those ratios will vary depending upon which species they are being created for. For example, the bulk of your starch ingredients for a Syrian would include Wheat, Oats, Rye, Barley, and Buckwheat with fewer smaller cereals like millet. On the contrary, the bulk of your starch ingredients for a dwarf hamster would be Millet, Canary Seed, Grass Seed, and often Barley and/or Sorghum. The vast majority of dwarf hamster owners will only include barley, and sometimes also buckwheat as a cereal, and completely omit oats and wheat - however, there are varying opinions on this. My opinion is that you should limit cereals specifically as it relates to the Campbells dwarf and Roborovski, and I will discuss more on this further on in this post as we discuss diabetes in dwarf hamsters. Purebred Winter Whites & Chinese dwarf hamsters can be found in wheat fields in the wild and so if you wish, you may want to include some more variety of whole grains/cereals in the diet of these species - but it is typically advised that you are much more strict on the usage of flaked cereals and use exclusively, or at least mostly, unprocessed cereals. (more on this later!)