You may have noticed that I talk a lot about my cat. I’m a proud pet lover. But when I was in university, I didn’t have the time, money, or commitment level for a dog or a cat. (Two of my housemates ended up getting cats, actually. I loved having them around, but I definitely wasn’t ready to make the leap myself.) I lived in an on-campus residence in first year, and I missed having a pet – at the time, my family had a dog at home, three hours away. In my second year, I moved off-campus into a house with some friends. I took that year to ponder what type of pet I would like… and could handle.
- A fish? Interesting to watch every so often, but not much of a “pet” in the companionship sense.
- A bird? It would be a risk – they could be loud and messy, which would be an issue with housemates. Plus, their feet kind of creep me out.
- A reptile? Not cuddly enough. Their diet was also a bit off-putting.
- An amphibian? Same deal as a reptile. Cuter, granted, but still not the kind of experience I was looking for.
I’d narrowed it down to mammals. While I considered factors such as size, lifestyle, and expense, I had a friend introduce me to her own hamster and share some of her experiences. Hamsters met all of my criteria! And in September 2013, I acquired Henry the Hamster.
This is Henry. Sitting in a shoe.
So what made Henry the best pet I could have asked for as a university student?
Size and Footprint
In a small student apartment, the size of a pet and the equipment needed to take care of it is a deal breaker. For Henry, I bought a cubic collapsible fabric box with a lid (about 50 cm each dimension). His cage sat on top of it like it was a table, and I was able to fit all of his equipment inside the box if I ever needed to do so. For exercise, I had your standard 7″ exercise ball, and he could just run around my room – no need for a playpen like some larger pets.
From what I’ve seen and read, hamsters are moderately social. They don’t get along well with other hamsters, and most of the time they like to be left alone. With more social pets, skipping a day or two of play negatively impacts their mood and mental health. For a hamster, leaving them alone simply gets them accustomed to being alone, so it may take some time to warm them back up to playing with you. The longer you wait, the harder it gets, but if you’re looking to get a pet for companionship, I’ll assume that you’re planning to socialize with them regularly anyway. I tried to play with Henry daily, or at least have him get some exercise in his ball.
Did you know that hamsters can be potty-trained? And it’s actually the easiest thing! They will naturally pick a spot in their cage to use as a toilet, and you just place a potty tray in that spot for next time. Not only that, but they will also clean their sleeping nests of old food and other garbage, so the cage doesn’t get as gross as you might think. Of course, a hamster’s standards of cleanliness might be different from yours, and you’ll still have to remove trash, litter, and old shavings regularly. But your hamster will help you out as much as they can! I know mine did.
Sleep Schedule (no, really)
You might have heard that hamsters are nocturnal, which sounds pretty awful for a pet. But in reality, they’re crepuscular, which means they’re awake twice a day during “twilight” hours: around dawn and around dusk. I don’t know about you, but when I was a student, I was basically out of the house all day doing work. I’d only really be home for a few hours before going to sleep. So while a diurnal pet sounds like a good idea, you might actually miss most of the time they’re awake because you’re busy in class or at the library. In general, Henry was awake from 6pm-10pm, then again early in the morning when I was getting up to go to class. This turned out to be an awesome schedule, as I didn’t feel like I was missing out on any of the fun!
Maybe this doesn’t apply to everyone, but one of the reasons I wanted a mammal as a pet was for the feeling of fur when holding, petting, or playing with them. There’s probably a scientific, oxytocin-related explanation behind it. I found it was very beneficial to have a cuddly creature always available during stressful times such as exams.
Relatively Low Costs
It’s obvious that there is a correlation between a pet’s size/complexity and the cost to raise them. Here’s a rough cost breakdown for Henry over 22 months:
- Hamster: $10
- Cage: $30
- Bedding: $5/month ($110 total)
- Food: $5/month ($110 total)
- Toys: $20 (plus free stuff, like paper towel rolls)
- Cleaning spray: $10 (the bottle lasted his whole lifetime)
Total: $290 ($13 per month)
If you buy food and bedding in larger bulk quantities than I did, you can probably reduce that monthly cost as well.
Advanced (i.e. Additional Costs Because I Spoiled My Hamster A Lot)
- More Toys: $30
- Litterbox: $10 – it’s not really necessary, but it will save you time and effort in cleaning the cage.
- Litter: $5/month ($110 total) – it has to be small animal litter, since cat litter will mess up their little lungs! I recommend this stuff since it clumps for easy cleaning.
- Cage Extensions: $50 – I’m talking tubes, a carrier, a fancy wheel, a mini maze…these were always on my Christmas list.
- Treats: $20
Total after additional costs: $510 ($23 per month) – keep in mind, though, a lot of this was in the form of gifts.
Even though hamsters are small, simple animals, they still have quite a bit of personality. Some of the stuff Henry did was pretty hilarious. I’ll let you discover the unique personality of your pet on your own!
This one is a little bittersweet, but it’s true. In university, most of us don’t know where our lives will take us next, so committing to a pet that will be with you for a few decades may not be the best decision quite yet. Henry lived to be almost 2 years old, so he and I went through third and fourth year of university together. When he did pass away (peacefully, in his sleep), I was sad, of course, but also confident that I had given him a pretty awesome life for a hamster.
So if you’re thinking about getting a pet to be your companion during school, I would definitely encourage you to consider a hamster! What have been your experiences with pets in university?