Hamster Exercise Balls:

Pros and Cons

A Syrian hamster
Image Source: Needpix

Hamsters can run over 5.5 miles (9 km) every single night. With so much much energy to burn, it’s hard to imagine any cage could be big enough for them, so a hamster exercise ball may seem like a logical purchase for any new hamster owner. However, a ball may not be the right choice and in this article I’m going to explain why.

Hamster exercise balls do have some pros. Such fast, energetic creatures can easily slip away from you when allowed to roam freely, exposing them to dangers around the home such as electric wires, mouse traps, or anything nasty hidden away under the sofa or fridge. A ball is one solution to over-adventurous hamsters; it keeps them contained, stopping them from slipping into small gaps, while the larger and more brightly coloured shape is far easier for a human to spot than a sneaky little critter. Hamster balls are also cheap, readily available, easy to store, and provide a safe way for small children to interact with their pets. But despite all these obvious benefits, a hamster ball may actually do more harm than good.

Our Syrian hamster, Bonnie
Bonnie, our 1-year-old Syrian hamster during playtime

Bending their Backs

The first problem with hamster exercise balls is that they can force your hamster to arch its back. This is the same problem that many wheels have, despite the fact that hamsters are so small. A minimum wheel diameter of 8” is recommended for Syrian hamsters, while dwarfs are usually okay with a 6” wheel. The same rules apply to exercise balls. The ball you give your hamster should be appropriate for their size. As there is a lot of variation even within Syrians, it’s possible that 8” is still too small for your individual pet so it’s important to be careful which ball you choose. You don’t need a ball so large that your hamster can sit in it and be completely flat, but it is important to make sure the curve is not too steep. In order to tell if your hamster needs a bigger wheel or ball, watch them running and look at the back of their neck. If their head is tilting upwards it is time for an upgrade. Hamsters are very agile, and, being burrowing creatures, they can tolerate some bending, but if their head is tilted back it means their spine is bending to a degree that, if not addressed soon, could cause permanent damage.

Ventilation

Hamster exercise balls nearly always come with holes or slits in them to allow for air to get in. However, these are not always large enough, since being too big would present a risk of your hamster chewing their way through the plastic. This can mean the ventilation inside the ball is not sufficient and the small plastic ball can become hot and stuffy, making it an unpleasant place for your hamster to be. If you do decide to use a ball, you should limit the length of time your hamster is allowed to be in the ball to an absolute maximum of 15 minutes at a time, so as to ensure they do not become too hot. 

Bonnie, our Syrian hamster, in a hamster exercise ball

Visibility

Many hamster exercise balls are pretty, bright colours, which makes them appealing to young children. But hamsters already have poor eyesight and these colours, or even the slightly cloudy clear plastic ones, can make it extremely hard for your hamster to see where it is going. When a hamster is underground in the dark it is also unable to see its way around, but unlike in a ball, it has a way to combat this. Hamsters use their whiskers to feel where they are going, which helps them detect objects that are close to them and tells them how narrow their tunnel is. In a ball, however, hamsters cannot use their whiskers to feel their way around, which can make for an extremely disorientating experience. The ball also limits their use of their other senses, such as hearing and smell, which hamsters also heavily rely on in the wild. Not being able to see may result in them slamming into furniture or walls, which is not only distressing but risks injury. This is exacerbated by the fact that they cannot stop the ball once they have started rolling. 

You can’t tell if they enjoy it

Many of the common indicators that an animal is enjoying something don’t really apply when it comes to figuring out if your hamster is a fan of the exercise ball. Many people will cite that their hamster will voluntarily hop into the ball. However, as very explorative creatures, hamsters are likely to investigate almost anything that is placed in front of them. Hamsters are not as intelligent as many other rodents such as rats, so they may not fully remember what climbing into the ball is signing them up for. Hamsters also cannot communicate to you when they would like to come out, which is why it is very important to give your hamster the frequent opportunity to climb out of a ball if you do decide to use one. The fact that your hamster is running in the ball also does not mean that it is enjoying it. As previously stated, these creatures are not as intelligent as many others and primarily work on instinct. In a situation in which they feel afraid or trapped, a hamster’s instinct is to run. A hamster probably doesn’t understand that running will not remove it from the ball. Your hamster may be indicating that it is not enjoying the ball if it is continuously changing direction, since it is probably looking for a way out. 

A hamster in a hamster exercise ball
Image Source: Rick Kimpel

Other Dangers

In addition to being traumatic, a hamster ball can present some physical dangers, too. One of the things to look out for if you are using a hamster ball is to make sure there is no way your hamster could roll anywhere near any set of stairs. Hamsters are unable to suddenly brake once they have started their ball rolling, so it goes without saying that uncontrollably plummeting down a set of stairs is scary enough without being a tiny animal trapped inside a bubble. Some hamster balls are also cheaply made and are at risk of cracking or popping open if bashed into a piece of furniture. This can allow your hamster to escape, where it will be vulnerable to other pets you may have in your home. It may even dart away out of sight where you can’t safely retrieve it. As mentioned above, hamster balls have holes in them, and although these may not be big enough to provide sufficient ventilation, they are, in some cases, big enough to trap tiny hamster toes; the resulting injuries can be very unpleasant and gruesome. 

Alternatives to Hamster Balls

We’ve already established that it is unsafe to allow your hamster to roam free in your house, but if you choose not to use a ball you may be wondering how it is possible to provide your hamster with more exercise? If you are lucky enough to have a spare room it can be fairly easy to make it hamster-safe by simply ensuring there are no small gaps for your hamster to get through. You will also want to remove all furniture that is low enough to the ground that your hamster could hide under and become unreachable. Wires should all be completely secure or removed from the room, and, as always, it is safest to monitor your pet even in a secure room.

If you don’t have a spare room, another alternative can be a playpen. There are many different types of playpens, from makeshift pens built from boxes to paddling pools or ball pools designed for children, all the way through to purpose-built animal pens or runs. Some of these require a small amount of trial and error to recognise the potential escape routes of your little Houdini, but with a little searching for the one that is best for you, it is possible to find a cheap, safe, easily stored playpen. Another extremely easy option can simply be to use a bathtub. Make sure that it is completely dry before placing some toys into it, and then you can then allow your hamster to run around with no fear of them climbing out. This can be a great space to sit with your hamster and interact with them, particularly for children.

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