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The most important piece of advice I have for you is don't panic. Animals like hamster can be on a run for a couple of weeks and still be found healthy. They are resourceful and can usually find some source of food and water on their own. For example, the dog's water bowl or the crumbs under the kid's bed.
Close doors and keep them closed until you have found your hamster. Check the last section for those stubborn recaptures. For outside doors like the back door, do not leave them open for long periods of time.
The advice below comes from nearly 10 years of keeping a variety of species of pet, big and small. You can apply the following advice to mice (like dwarfs), rats (like Syrians), gerbils (like Syrians), degu and so on. Just use items that are suitable for the size of pet you have.
Usually an escape is simply due to cage damage. Old cage bases can go brittle and crack, hamsters or other pets will exploit this weakness as a chew point. Most rodents can chew out of a plastic cage base in around an hour. So making sure the cage is fine before you go to bed is essential. But don't be upset with yourself if an escapee does chew out of their cage, a persistent female Syrian can find chew points in places you wouldn't have seen. If this is the case make sure you rehouse your hamster in a glass bottomed cage or tank. They will do it again!
Remarkably few people realise how rubbish some cage doors are. Check how hard it is to open the cage door, on the top or on the side (Syrians are determined animals) and follow the advice below.
Human error - Get into the habit of checking that you have shut the door properly when you feed them or put them back in after playtime.
Sometimes an animal can get spooked while you are getting them out or putting them back and instead of things going to plan, they'll jump out of your hands onto the floor. Follow the advice in the section 'Seeing a Hamster On The Run' below.
This is difficult. You don't know the lengths to which your particular hamster will go until they do. Nevertheless, check cages each evening for signs of chewing. Before you put your hamster in it's cage, make sure there aren't any cracks in the base, loose bars and that the door clicks shut securely. A cage door that can just be pulled open without effort, can also be pushed open. Secure any loose doors with a bull dog clip on BOTH sides of the top of the door ensuring there is no gap if you pull on the door that is bigger than the gap between the bars.
When you get a pet, take a look around the house for holes that lead to the outside, under the floor or other places that would be difficult to retrieve them from. For example, we once had a hamster squeeze through a gap in the side of the bath where they found a hole in the chipboard flooring that allowed them to crawl under the floor and, eventually, between the walls. Not being able to find food, the hamster that started in the bathroom ended up in the kitchen cupboards downstairs with nothing more than a sprain and hungry. If the hole is bigger than a couple of inches, a Syrian will try to get through. For a dwarf, you cannot proof your house. All you can do is regularly check for damage to the cage.
Always do a head count each evening. It's an ideal time to check the water bottle, check the cage and check the hamster. Don't just see there's a nest there, rouse your hamster and make sure the nest isn't empty.
This applies to many species. Don't grab for them. An animal that has gotten out of it's cage usually behaves differently to one that is out for playtime, it's in an unfamilar situation and choosing to flee. In a fight or flight type of scenario, you may risk getting bitten. Your pet still loves you but at this point it might be in a panic and even humans don't think clearly in those circumstances.
Watch to see where they run, they will usually make a beeline for cover. If you can, block off any further escape by closing the door to the room, using objects to act as barriers (I'll use the bedding bag, a sheet of cardboard or even a carrier). Try to isolate where they can run to.
You will need something for your hamster to run into if they are up against the skirting board and underneath furniture, or squeezed down between furniture. For a dwarf, a poster tube with one end covered is ideal. Pop some food down so it's at the end and place this by the exit to their hiding place or up against the skirting board as most will follow this. Your pet is look for 1. shelter and 2. food. For a Syrian you can use a large cereal box laid on it's end with the top open, a larger tube or something similar. Put bedding and food into the box and wait or leave overnight. As long as the door to the room remains shut, you'll always know where they are even if they go underneath another piece of furniture overnight.
You've walked into your hamster's room and found it's cage empty or that there is one of a pair or group missing. You need to first identify the room the hamster is in. There are several ways to do this and it will depend on your experience as to what you need to do next.
I heard my hamster scratching in a room - Great! This makes life easier. Simply follow the advice in the section above once you've identified where in the room they are. Be sure to check under and behind everything including bookshelves and chests of drawers. See below for more places your hamster can hide.
I don't know where they are! - This is a much harder situation for several reasons. It's easier for you to panic when you can't find your hamster and you can't start the process of recapture until you know where they have gone.
Don't panic and put your logical head on. Start in the room the hamster's cage was in. Close the door first. Start in the far corner (get someone to act as a 'spotter' in case the hamster runs past you while you are looking). In a bedroom, a hamster can be under a wardrobe, a chest of drawers, a bookcase. Some furniture is solid at the front but open at the back, providing a nice space to hide underneath and unfortunately you will need to pull the furniture away from the wall to check behind and underneath it. Check each space with a torch until you have ruled all of it out. Check in laundry baskets that have holes in the side, open schoolbags on the floor and piles of clothes on the floor. You don't know how long your hamster has been out for, they can get into lots of places in a short amount of time. They can also get stuck so this process is very important. Be thorough. Once you have finished, leave the door shut and move on to the next room.
Check bathrooms and the kitchen too. Hamsters can get downstairs with no problem. Or upstairs. Check the sides of the oven, that all footplates around the cupboards are secure. Check under the fridge and freezer. Check behind the toilet and under the bath. Check under the sofa and look for access holes inside the sofa. I once lost three rats inside a rise and recline armchair. It's vital that, until the hamster is found nothing like this sort of armchair is operated.
***If your hamster is under a divan bed, use a long strip of wood or dowl to 'herd' the hamster out. It's too risky to wheel the bed away from the wall, you may accidentally run them over. Place a tube or box (as in the above section) at one end of the bed and touch the hamster with the rod or wood so that they run along the skirting board and into the tube or box. Wedge the entrance in with cloth so that the hamster can't just hop over the top of it. You can use this method for large pieces of furniture.
If you have checked everywhere, closed all the doors and you still can see no sign then you may have to set some humane traps. This catch animals live, and safely. Set one up in each room with something smelly as bait. I don't recommend any one brand, shop around for a good price and make sure you use the right size. A Chinese or Roborovski won't trigger the plate in a large trap.
Your hamster may have gotten outside. If this is the case, there's nothing you can really do. You can always set up live traps in the garden but with their tunelling ability, your hamster is unlikely to have stayed within the fence line. If you can't find the hamster in the house, I would check under the shed or any obvious 'voids' or empty spaces. Let your neighbours know your hamster is loose. The chances of finding a stray hamster are low but not impossible. My rescue took in a few strays over the years so it's important that the RSPCA is aware you've lost your pet. Someone might find a hamster and take it to a local vet so be sure to ring those in the local area.
Smaller rescue centres can be notified too.
Sadly the chances of survival outside are small but you have to remember this is not your fault.
Don't place the hamster straight back into it's cage until you know how it got out. It's handy to have a plastic tank like a Rosewood, Hagen or Faunarium for animals who are sick or need to be observed. Once recaptured, don't handle them immediately as they may be stressed and likely to re-escape or bite. Place them in a safe cage or your 'hospital tank' with bedding, dry muesli and water. Either a water bottle or a chunk or cucumber.
Check your pet is walking around without issue and is not hunched or limping. If you see any of the following issues then you need to see your vet:-
Coat standing on end
Obvious broken bone
Continued irritability or biting after being allowed to relax. Biting can be a sign of pain
Not eating and not drinking
Acting other than you are used to. Allow a good hour for your hamster to settle in, or even overnight in the tank.
You need to think about dehydration, broken bones, sprains and if your pet has been outside, that it hasn't been attacked by a predator. Bear in mind that if it's been out for a few days your hamster may have been worried by family dogs or cats, stepped on, fallen or otherwise injured. A course of pain relief or antibiotics from your vet may be in order. I found this rare, most of mine came back completely unhurt and only one had a sprain.
If you are happy your hamster is ok, and the cage is secure then place your hamster back into it's own cage like normal. I find it helps them if you don't clean them out before this so that the smells are all familiar again. If they are due for a clean, just do a partial clean our or hold back a small amount of bedding that you can add back in.
If it's been longer than a few hours, do not re-introduce a hamster to a group or pair. This hamster must now live on it's own unless you are experienced enough to try and willing to risk injury to your pet. I don't recommend you try it. If it's different species like a mouse or a rat then follow your usual procedure for introducing these animals.