There are a wide range of substrates suitable for hamsters, each with its own positive and negative aspects. Which you use depends on what is best for you and your hamster(s), and sometimes it takes a bit of trial and error to find one that suits. I have used all of the following substrates at various times!
I prefer not to use wood shavings as I find the alternatives allow more time between clean outs. I cleaned weekly on shavings and every 2-3 weeks on the others. Absorbency is one thing that all the other substrates have over shavings, as well as them not containing phenols which some people find of concern. Many people with larger numbers of hamsters use substrates sold for equine use due to the larger bale size and absorbency.
I liked Megazorb and Aubiose as I found them cost effective but unfortunately I developed allergies to both. I especially liked Fitch as did my hamsters but I changed as it was increasingly hard to buy it in bulk and the cost was regularly increasing. I now use Finacard with wooden cat pellets or Back2Nature for my longhaired Syrian hamsters.
Places to Buy Substrate
Back2Nature, Biocatolet, Carefresh, shavings, wood pellets
(Variable size bags, avoid scented substrates)
Shavings, wood-based cat litter
(usually smaller bags so less cost effective)
Horse Supply Shops
Aubiose, Ecobed, Finacard, Megazorb, Shavings
(Usually larger bags/bales so more cost effective, though requires storage)
Aubiose, Carefresh, Ecobed, Finacard, Fitch, Megazorb, Papelit
(Ecobed and Finacard are sold by some online retailers in smaller bags)
Description: Hemp-based horse bedding
Pros: Absorbent and therefore requires less frequent cleanouts than wood shavings. Large bale size and reasonable cost. Many find it suits long-haired hamsters.
Cons: There were some sharp bits in aubiose but my creatures never had any problems with it. I unfortunately wheezed when cleaning cages which became intolerable. Large bale size needs more room for storage.
Notes: Stockists may keep Aubiose outdoors so do ask as damp can get into the bags if not kept indoors. Hemcore is a similar hemp-based substrate, but is treated with citronella which may irritate rodents' noses and respiratory systems and therefore is best avoided.
Description: Wood pulp small animal bedding
Pros: Absobent and forms nests well. Soft, especially for post-operative recovery. Available in different colours (confetti colour shown in the photo on the left).
Cons: Expensive, the 'natural' colour can have a funny smell
Notes: In the US some substrates that look similar to Carefresh contain baking soda so do check the contents
Description: Cardboard squares
Size(s): 800g and 20kg
Pros: Less likely to cause allergies for humans/hamsters. Suitable for other rodents, e.g. rats, mice. Less tangling with long-haired hamsters.
Cons: Not as absorbent as other horse beddings. Dwarf hamsters can find climbing over the squares tricky, especially the robos.
Notes: Smaller bags of Ecobed are available from some retailers, e.g. Ratrations, though postage costs may be high.
Description: Shredded cardboard
Size(s): 800g - 20kg
Pros: Easier for smaller hamsters to walk through/on than cardboard squares. Less likely to cause allergies for humans/hamsters. Suitable for other rodents, e.g. rats, mice.
Cons: Not as good for forming nests. Less absorbent than other horse beddings.
Notes: Smaller sizes are available from Ratrations and the Finacard site. The latter has a 'sample pack' containing 2 small bags of Finacard, one bag of nesting material and one of Papelit (although not stated on the site, from personal correspondence you are only allowed to order one of these packs)
Description: Recycled paper animal bedding
Size(s): 1kg, 10kg and 20kg
Pros: Very absorbent and soft, requires less frequent cleanouts. Large bale size. Warm for winter, many hamsters use it to nest with as well. Holds nests and tunnels well. Can be used for other rodents, e.g. mice.
Cons: Limited availability in stockists therefore added delivery costs. Larger bale requires more room for storage. More expensive than other horse beddings. Can tangle with longhaired Syrians.
Description: wood pulp horse bedding
Pros: Absorbent and therefore requires less frequent cleanouts. Holds tunnels and nests reasonably well, not sharp.
Cons: Bags can be rather dusty. Megazorb tends to tangle in long-haired males' coats. Larger bale size requires more space for storage.
Notes: Damp can get into the Megazorb bags if kept outside, for example at stockist.
Paper and Wood based Cat Litter
Description: Paper or wood cat litter pellets
Size(s): variable dependent on brand
Pros: More absorbent than wood shavings. Less likely to tangle in long-haired hamsters' coats. Readily available.
Cons: They tend to be more expensive and less absorbent than the horse beddings. The pellets can be hard, especially wood-based ones (middle of photo), and make the cages heavy.
Notes: Never use clay-based cat litter for hamsters as it can cause illness if ingested.
Back 2 Nature (left side of photo)
Biocatolet (right side of photo)
Wood cat litter (middle of photo)
Wood shavings and Sawdust
Description: Shavings and sawdust, usually pine
Pros: Cheap, widely available and come in many different sized bales.
Cons: Shavings can tangle in long-haired hamsters' coats. Not suitable for all other rodents (e.g. rats, mice). Some people are concerned about phenols present in shavings/sawdust though others have used them with hamsters for decades without problems (may be more of an issue in the US).
Notes: It is important to get wood shavings that are designed for use in animal cages as some woods and treatment agents can harm hamsters' lungs. Scented shavings and those made from cedar wood should never be used. Sawdust can irritate the eyes and nose of some hamsters