One of the greatest points of contention in the hamster-owner community comes down to what we feed our pets.
Many hamster owners and expert sources believe that lab blocks (or pellet food) are essential to a hamster’s well-being, while others think they’re unnecessary or even harmful. So do hamsters really need lab blocks, and should you feed them to your pet?
Here we’ll discuss the two sides of this debate and conclude with our thoughts on the matter of whether hamsters need lab blocks.
Disclaimer: The author of this article is not and does not claim to be a veterinarian. This article is largely based on personal experience and does not cover every aspect or consideration of hamster nutrition. Please do additional research when deciding what to feed your pet.
What Are Lab Blocks for Hamsters?
Lab blocks, also known as pellets, are a kibble-type food for hamsters and other small pets. They’re often called “lab blocks” because they’re the type of food typically found in laboratories that use rodents for research and experimentation.
Some people use this as evidence that lab blocks offer high-quality, consistent nutrition in every bite. Others, however, insist that laboratory diet standards shouldn’t be applied to pet hamsters and that lab blocks aren’t necessary or healthy for hamsters.
Argument in Favor of Lab Blocks for Hamsters
The main argument in favor of lab blocks for hamsters is that hamsters will pick and choose what they want to eat out of a seed mix, which can lead to malnutrition.
A balanced lab block ensures that a hamster gets its full range of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals in every bite. We’ll go into this more under “Our Opinion on Lab Blocks,” below.
Arguments Against Lab Blocks for Hamsters
Even though most hamster authorities and veterinarians agree that lab blocks or pellets are an important part of a hamster’s diet, there are many owners and hamster hobbyists who disagree.
Here are some of the reasons that people may advocate against feeding hamsters lab blocks:
Not part of a hamster’s natural diet
First, many hamster owners argue that wild hamsters don’t need lab blocks to survive, so why should hamsters in captivity need them? In the wild, hamsters live off of a range of seeds, grasses, and small insects, which is more similar to a balanced seed mix.
Another drawback of lab blocks is that they’re not species-appropriate. They’re not designed with Syrian hamsters specifically in mind, for example, or for any species of dwarf hamster.
Instead, lab blocks are actually created for a range of small rodents, including rats, mice, and hamsters. They’re mainly designed around the nutrition needs of rats and mice.
Lab blocks don’t give hamsters the type of foraging enrichment that they receive from a scattered seed mix. Hamsters naturally have the urge to forage, so feeding them exclusively a block or pellet isn’t ideal.
Lab blocks and pellets contain a small number of binding ingredients that help them maintain their block-like shape. These are sometimes considered “fillers” because they don’t offer nutritional benefits to rodents.
The components that make up the base of most lab blocks — namely soybean meal, ground corn, wheat middlings, and ground wheat — are often referred to as “fillers” by those who disagree with feeding lab blocks, too.
Hamsters won’t pick and choose ingredients if fed properly
Advocates of a no-lab-block diet for hamsters believe that when fed properly, hamsters won’t pick out the ingredients they like and leave those that they don’t like. This means that they’ll get the full nutritional content of the food by eating each and every ingredient.
Feeding a hamster properly, according to this theory, means waiting until your hamster has eaten every bit of food before giving them more.
Learn more: Hamster Cage Size Minimums Around the World
Our Opinion on Lab Blocks for Hamsters
Our opinion on lab blocks for hamsters (and multiple other small pets) leans much more towards the “for” camp than the “against” camp.
This is not only because of the larger number of hamster authorities who promote lab blocks as an important part of hamster nutrition, but also the result of our own research into hamster diet and nutrition.
However, we also understand the opinions against lab blocks and believe the answer is somewhere in between these two camps. Here are some of the reasons behind this conclusion.
A wild hamster’s diet isn’t ideal for pet hamsters
Pet hamsters live longer than wild hamsters, partly because they benefit from better and more stable nutrition. Hamsters in the wild often suffer from malnutrition, which isn’t something we want for our pet hamsters.
In theory, we could look at what a hamster ideally eats in the wild during times of abundance, but it’s hard to know what an “ideal hamster diet” would be in the wild.
The nature of the wild is that conditions are not ideal for any species in particular. We actually have much more information about the ideal hamster diet from keeping hamsters in captivity and observing their lifespan and quality of life.
Lab blocks are a staple, not a sole food source
We do not recommend feeding a hamster solely lab blocks or pellets without giving them a seed mix as well. Hamsters can live off of lab blocks alone, but they will be very bored and won’t be able to express their natural urge to forage and horde different types of food.
This isn’t good for a hamster’s mental health, which can ultimately lead to physical stress. Pellet food or lab blocks should always be considered a staple of a hamster’s diet but not the entire diet.
Lab blocks add chewing enrichment
Lab blocks might not offer much foraging enrichment (although you can hide them around the cage), but they do offer chewing enrichment for hamsters.
Chewing on a solid lab block is entertaining for many hamsters, and it also helps maintain the teeth of hamsters who need help doing so.
Hamsters will always pick and choose
This is the most crucial argument in favor of lab blocks, and it’s the one we’ve based our opinion on the most.
In our experience, hamsters will always pick and choose what they want to eat from a seed mix, even if you try to wait until they’ve eaten everything to give them more food.
A hamster won’t necessarily starve itself to death rather than eating a part of the seed mix that they don’t like; they would likely eventually eat that particular ingredient in order to survive.
However, they’ll go longer between feedings than is ideal because they’re avoiding eating that ingredient that they don’t like. Ultimately, this means your hamster is eating less than it should be and can suffer from malnutrition.
Additionally, we can’t know whether a hamster is having an adverse reaction to a particular part of the seed mix. The reason they avoid eating certain ingredients may not be because of flavor but because of how it makes the hamster feel.
The role of “fillers” is often overstated
Many people will read the ingredients on a bag of lab blocks and feel disappointed by what they see. Rather than a vast variety of herbs, seeds, fruits, veggies, and insects, you’ll see ingredients like soybean meal and wheat meal.
While these may look like fillers or “cheap” ingredients to bulk up the pellet, they’re actually heavily researched feed ingredients that have been used for animals for many years.
These are not “fillers” to hold the form of the block together but important, readily available sources of nutrients like protein. These are also ingredients that are similar to what a hamster would consume in the wild, including grasses and grains.
Natural sweeteners like molasses are also appropriate as a wild hamster would consume sweet fruits if available. This is why they’re drawn to sweet flavors and why small amounts of natural sugars aren’t harmful.
Lab blocks don’t cause death, but malnutrition does
While some hamster owners who choose not to feed a lab block diet state that lab block “fillers” may cause disease, there just isn’t enough research or evidence to prove this.
What is certain is that malnutrition is a cause of death for hamsters, and feeding exclusively a seed mix can cause this.
A species-appropriate seed mix may be enough for some hamsters
Although we do support the use of lab blocks for hamsters, we also acknowledge that some hamsters can get the proper nutrition from a high-quality, species-appropriate seed mix such as RobinsGourmet Species-Specific Seed Mix.
However, these seed mixes are also inconsistent, and many hamsters will still refuse to eat the full range of ingredients. For this reason, we believe the risks of forgoing a lab block outweigh the potential rewards of doing so.
Species-specific lab blocks would be beneficial
We agree that lab blocks aren’t catered to the specific needs of different species of hamsters, which can be problematic.
A great change we would like to see in the small pet industry is lab blocks that are tailored to different species, including the different types of hamsters.
Learn more: Best Hamster Cages and Enclosures in the US
Best Lab Blocks for Hamsters
We generally recommend Teklad 2018 Rat Food Pellets because they’re of a higher quality than most commercial lab blocks. Unfortunately, Envigo-Teklad is a laboratory feed producer, which may lead you to choose not to support them. An alternative is Mazuri Rat & Mouse Food.
Keep in mind that lab blocks are a type of pellet food, but not all pellets are lab blocks. Most pellets intended for small pets aren’t appropriate for hamsters because they’re hay-based. For example, most Oxbow products aren’t appropriate.
Conclusion: The Benefits Outweigh the Risks of Lab Blocks
Ultimately, what you feed your hamster is up to you, and only you can observe how your hamster reacts and responds to different diets. But in our opinion, the benefits of feeding your hamster a lab block in addition to a nutritionally balanced seed mix far outweigh the risks of giving lab blocks to your hamster. Additionally, the risks of feeding your hamster a seed-mix-only diet (even one that’s species-appropriate) outweigh the potential benefits of doing so.
- “What to Feed a Pet Hamster.” RSPCA. Accessed May 3, 2023. https://www.rspca.org.uk/adviceandwelfare/pets/rodents/hamsters/diet.
- “General Feeding and Nutrition.” California Hamster Association. Accessed May 3, 2023. https://californiahamsterassociation.com/feeding-and-nutrition.
- “Species Appropriate Hamster Care.” Five Little Hams. Accessed May 3, 2023. https://fivelittlehams.wixsite.com/correcthamstercare/blank-1/2020/05/05/choosing-an-appropriate-hamster-food.
- “Nutrient Requirements of Laboratory Animals: Fourth Revised Edition.” National Research Council (US) Subcommittee on Laboratory Animal Nutrition. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1995. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK231928/.
- “A Guide to Choosing an Appropriate Hamster Food Mix and How to Read Our Quality Rating System.” The Hamingway. October 31, 2020. https://www.thehamingway.com/foodmix