Does My Hamster Need A Manicure?
by Miko Schmid
special thanks to Liz Newbery
This was a question that never occurred to me until I heard someone asking for help about their dwarf hamster's nails being too long.  Then I thought, oh no!  Another seemingly complicated thing to worry about with these slippery but adorable little furries.  As it turned out, my first pair of dwarves did not need their nails trimmed.  However, with my second pair, I did notice one of them having long, problem nails.

The first thing to note is that most hamsters DO NOT need their nails trimmed.  Furthermore, some hamsters trim their own nails.  Evidence of this is if you see and hear them scratching at a rock, parts of their cage, or toys. One of mine used to spend 10 - 20 minutes or so scratching madly at the bubble end cap of the tubing and another hamster used to scratch at the bottom of her plastic sand potty, much like a dog digging for bones. They would do this daily for several days then stop, at which time I suppose they felt their nails were trimmed nicely!

Let's look at what's considered "too long" and some problems it may cause:
Manicure Picture 2
Manicure Picture 1
Fingers tangling and clumsy due to the nail's length or curliness.
Problems holding food comfortably.
Manicure Picutre 3 Manicure Picture 4
These nails are too long and curly!  They could get hooked around bars, toys or parts of their cage.   Other problems include difficulty wheeling due to painful, clumsy nails.
If you find that your hamster's nails are too long, see if they might do the job themselves.  You can assist by providing them with a tiny terra cotta pot or a clean rock, which can be a "found object" or one purchased from the aquarium section of a pet store.  Be sure to sterilize it first by boiling in water.  Place the rock in the cage in such a way that it has no chance of tipping over and hurting the hamster.  I knew one owner who found a wonderfully-shaped flat rock which her hamsters loved... especially in hot weather, when it provided a cooling oasis to rest on, as well!

Since the "sandpaper" issue invariably comes up during a discussion of this topic, I will address it now.  I personally am not in favor of using sandpaper in a part of their cage.  I feel if a hamster needs a nail trim, why take the chance of making its feet irritated, if the problem is the nails?  Not to mention the potential health hazards of the hamster chewing at it, inhaling potential dust particulates, and the fact that not all owners will be alert to removing it in a timely matter.  It's better in my opinion to just get the job done by clipping their nails if the hamster does not respond by using a provided rock or a part of the cage to keep their nails in trim.
"Okay, I have a hamster with nails that are too long who won't do the job him or herself - so what's next?"
Your best resource is having a vet trim their nails.  In fact, I highly encourage it if you are a newer hamster owner or if your hamster is not very tame, or if you are very young or have poor hand-to-eye coordination.  You might even visit the vet once or twice and have them show you how - I understand nail trims are not that expensive.  It's very important not to injure your hamster, so watching an expert first - be it an experienced hamster owner, a vet or a vet nurse, is time well spent towards insuring their safety.  I was a hamster owner for close to a year before I finally felt confident enough to even attempt nail trims.

If you have reasonable experience handling hamsters and want to try it yourself - be it that you want to prevent the extra stress of a trip to the vet, save a bit of time and expense, etcetera, here are a few suggestions and tips to keep in mind!
Manicure Picture 5 Manicure Picture 6





Trimming hamster nails is easier said than done.  You will need plenty of patience.  It might take several days before you get the hang of it, and it may take just as long to succeed in trimming just one nail!  Sometimes the nail trimming goes smoothly for some reason, letting you get several nails done.  Then there are those other times, when the hamster is just too squirmy and you have to try again on another day.

Good lighting helps immensely.  To help you see more detail, you might try investing in a pair of magnifying reading glasses for this job (sold at most drugstores or borrow from grandma or grandpa).

Once you've got the clipper on the CORRECT PART of the nail, hold your hamster's arm gently yet firmly (if that is the technique you are using), and clip the nail decisively. If you falter, you might end up with a hangnail or a ragged edge which may be worse than if you had not clipped the nail in the first place.

Try to clip the longest nails first. That way, if you only get one nail for that day, at least the most offensive nail is taken care of.

Always err on the side of clipping less (especially if you're new at this).  If it's still too long, you can always trim again on your next round.  NEVER cut too much, you'll hurt the hamster and leave their nail area prone to infection.  However, if you should accidentally clip the nail too short and it bleeds, have some styptic powder on hand to dab on the area - this should quickly stop the bleeding.  In the very unlikely event it doesn't stop, give your vet a call for advice.  Styptic powder is available from the vets or at pet shops, and is inexpensive.

Once clipped, you needn't worry about clipping for a month or more, when you start noticing the nails getting too long again.  However, it's still important to check their nails when you conduct your daily routine inspection of your hamster's overall health.  You might notice, for example, elderly hamsters who have never needed nail trims before, growing longer nails due to their reduced activity level.   Or you might find one nail growing much faster than the rest.  Also check for any breakage, tearing or soreness.
"So how do I go about trimming my hamster's nails?"
People and hamsters are all different, so unfortunately, one method will not work for all.  I will discuss how I personally trim my hamster's nails, not because I necessarily think you will succeed in using this method, but rather, as an example to help you with ideas.  This will be the part where you will have to use your own ingenuity, keeping your hamster's temperament and tastes in mind.  Create a relaxing situation for you and your hamster so that you might gain access to their nails for a trim.  My method boils down to clipping their nails while using food as a distraction.

I fold up a towel for my hamster to stand on to create some height (so I can work the clippers under those curly nails).

I put some chicken flavored baby food (or your hamster's favorite flavor) mixed with 10-grain hot cereal, optional, on the back of a spoon.  You can try plain cooked oatmeal, too.  I then place the spoon upside down on the towel near the edge, as shown below.  The point of this food is that because it needs to be licked, it sustains the hamster's interest and keeps them in the same location for a minute or two.  Obviously, if you use something like a sunflower seed, the hamster will grab it, pouch it, and off they'll go!

I place my hamster on the towel near the spoon, and while she is licking at it, I use my one hand to hold her arm.  With a pair of clippers in my other hand, I carefully trim the very tips of her nails.


Manicure Picture 7
These are the tools I use - a towel, a spoon with lick-able food on it, magnifying reading glasses and a small pair of human-style nail clippers I'm comfortable with.  For most owners though, a pair of pointed tip nail scissors comes highly recommended as the easiest and most precise to use.  A small pair of guillotine-style clippers is another option for those who prefer it.  Being comfortable and familiar with your tool creates less distraction, freeing you up to concentrate on those oh-so-tiny nails!
Manicure Picture 8 Manicure Picture 9
While my hamster is busy licking the back of the spoon, I hold her arm just under her elbow and press gently yet firmly.  This causes her paw to open up and spread, much like a cat's paw.  I then carefully trim the tips of her nails.
Don't be discouraged if one method or food does not work for you.  Try another, or try the same method for a time, to see if your hamster (and you) can get to a point of being more relaxed.  Because hamsters tend to be very active in new situations, creating a routine, familiar environment should help calm them.
Kosmo Picture 10 Manicure Picture 11
And finally, the rewards of a nice manicure:  "Look Ma, no more tangles!"
A needed manicure well done, helps contribute to your hamster's overall health and comfort.  Your reward is the sense of accomplishment that comes from adding another thing you are able to do in caring for your hamster.  If you decide to undertake this job yourself, let me wish you patience, steady hands and a calm hamster!
Kosmo, the dwarf hamster whose photos are featured in this article, is blind due to glaucoma.  Click here to read more about it.
Back to Newsletter Page