Hamsters are not complicated to look after: they need regular handling, good food and a safe suitable environment. Providing your hamster with an appropriate environment helps keep him/her happy and healthy. From my experience, it also makes it easier to look after your hamster and more rewarding too.
This section covers setting up a hamster cage, types of cages, bedding, substrate and enrichment. There is information on catching escaped hamsters here.
Setting up the Cage
Before you get your hamster, have the cage set up so he or she can go straight into it as soon as you get home. When you first get your hamster, allow him or her to settle into the cage for 24 hours before starting handling. There is information on handling and taming hamsters here.
Place a thick layer of substrate (see below for different types) on the base of the cage and some bedding to create a nest. The bedding can be put into a hamster house, though it it better to wait until your hamster is tame and used to you before introducing a house. It is important to give your hamster things to do in their cage (see the Enrichment section below).
National Hamster Council guidelines recommend a minimum of 1000cm2 of useable floor space by 19cm high for a Syrian and 750cm2 of useable floor space by 17cm high for a dwarf. I prefer to use larger cages than the absolute minimum to allow for added enrichment and room for activity.
Traditional wire cages have a plastic base and wire top. They are easy to clean, and there are lots of toys designed to hang from the bars. They provide excellent ventilation, but can be cold if placed in draughts. They can be messy as hamsters can push their bedding through the bars. If the door clips become loose, a padlock or bulldog clip can be used to secure the cage. Care should be taken that a hamster cannot fall a large distance as they can injure themselves. Hammocks and shelves are useful for this. For Chinese hamsters, the bars need to be no more than 0.8cm apart or they can escape. Examples of wire cages for Chinese hamsters are the Mickey Max or, for confident Chinese, the Barney. The cage in the photo is a Savic Cambridge.
Modular cages are plastic units connected with tubes. They are attractive, and designed to appeal to children. They come in many different colours and combinations. It can be very expensive to get enough elements to provide adequate living area for a hamster. They also take up more floor room than a wire or tank cage. The tubes are usually too small for a full grown Syrian hamster and require a lot of space to provide an adequate living area. Escapes are common if the tubes don't connect correctly. They can also be hard to clean and difficult to catch your hamster. Chinese hamsters will need ladders to be able to climb vertical tubes. There are no modular cages that I would recommend.
Tank cages, either glass or plastic, have solid sides and base with a ventilation grill in the roof. They keep mess inside, and are easy to clean. They also provide good access and views of your hamster. Care needs to be taken with their positioning as they can get hot in warm weather. Examples of tank cages for Chinese hamsters are Mini Duna and Rody Hamster, with Zoozone 1 and Gabber Rex/Montagna for more confident Chinese hamsters. Glass tanks can be found cheaply online by looking for fish tanks that are no longer water-tight. They will need thorough cleaning and may need a mesh roof making for ventilation, but I have picked up 2 such tanks for 99p each! They are difficult for a hamster to escape from, but can be heavy to move.
Bin cages are plastic storage boxes which have been converted for use as hamster cages. They have similar advantages and disadvantages as tank cages. As you build them yourself, you are able to adapt the design according to your needs. There is a step-by-step guide to making a bin cage here.
There has been an increasing trend recently towards converting furniture into hamster cages, something which is also known as 'IKEA Hacks' as most of the furniture used is IKEA, for example the Deltof or Expedit. When making a cage, either from scratch or from converted furniture, always remember safety of the hamster. Therefore the cage must be secure (watch for thin back panels), well ventilated (vents will usually need to be added), hygenic (think about treating or coating any wood) and should not have too great a distance for any hamster to fall.
Substrate is the material covering the base of the cage. This is important in giving the hamster something to burrow and forage in, and in absorbing urine. The cage should have at least a 3-5cm layer at the base, the thicker the better. Newspaper or magazines should not be used in a hamster's cage as the inks can be harmful to the animal. Cedar wood shavings or scented wood shavings should also not be used as they can irritate the eyes, lungs and noses of hamsters. My reviews of the various types of substrate can be found here.
Examples of substrates for hamsters are:
- Wood shavings
- Paper or wood-based cat litter
- Horse beddings, e.g. Fitch, Megazorb, Aubiose, Finacard, Ecobed
Bags of paper flakes and shredded paper are available in most pet shops.
Enough of this bedding should be provided for the hamster to make a nest. More is needed in Winter when it can get cold. Plain, unscented toilet paper and kitchen roll are cheaper alternatives.
Some pet shops sell 'fluffy', cotton-wool type bedding. This should never be used. It can cause illness if swallowed and has led to serious injuries when paws get caught in it.
This is an example of the fluffy bedding that should not be used.
Enrichment - toys for hamsters
Toys should be safe if chewed and easy to clean. All items in the hamster cage should be checked regularly for signs of wear or sharp edges. There are many sources of hamster enrichment which can be anywhere from very expensive to free!
Pet shops and websites sell lots of different types of toys for small animals: bridges, tunnels, houses, playsticks, hammocks, coconut shells...
If you fancy spoiling your hamster, Fuzzbutt Cage Comforts is a lovely small company that makes the sturdiest (and prettiest) hammocks and fabric houses I've come across - just look in the 'Homer' section of their website
Good value cage toys include small ceramic flowerpots and glass roasting dishes (as sandbaths). IKEA Knuff wooden magazine boxes can be converted into shelves for hamster cages.
This cage has part of a Knuff magazine box converted into a shelf and painted purple, as well as a green plastic Sputnik and playsticks.
It's worth also looking in the bird, fish, reptile and rat sections for suitable enrichment. Bird drinkers can be turned into elevated sand baths for dwarf hamsters and rat hammocks can bridge gaps in taller cages for Syrians. Reptile branches and bowls can be useful for natural-looking cage layouts and aquarium bogwood or mopani wood is enjoyed by Chinese hamsters as a climbing frame.
This cage has wood from the aquarium section, a cardboard tube and some hamster-specific toys (the alphabet cube and playsticks arch). There is no wheel as the cage was housing a mum and litter.
There are lots of sources of free cage enrichment. Cardboard boxes and tubes are popular toys for hamsters, in fact my hamsters prefer them to bought toys. You can even make your own hamster maze by cutting holes in the boxes and linking them with tubes. Plastic take-away containers make lovely sand baths (after being thoroughly cleaned, of course. I also have used old mugs as dwarf hamster hidey-holes.
This cage has a bird drinker as an elevated sand bath with a wooden bird ladder to climb into it. There is also a house made of cardboard packaging boxes.
There are many sizes and types of hamster wheel: Comfort wheels, Wodent Wheels, Karlie wooden wheels, Silent Spinners, Savic Rolly wheels....
Wheels with open rungs can cause paws to get injured or the feet to develop a condition called bumblefoot. Always use a wheel with a solid running surface. Cages often are sold with small wheels in. These may be acceptable for small dwarf hamsters but would need to be replaced for a Syrian or large dwarf hamster. A hamster should be able to run in his or her wheel with a straight back. Small wheels can make a hamster arch their back which is not comfortable for the hamster.
This is Eponine when she was a young Chinese hamster running with her back straight in a smaller wheel
Val, a large Chinese hamster, in a 6.5 inch Silent Spinner wheel (his back didn't arch when his back paws kept up with his front!)
Boris runs in an 8 inch Comfort wheel
Moonshine zooms on a medium Flying Saucer which is a nice size for a Chinese hamster.
If you have more questions about hamster care, you may find joining a hamster forum helpful, such as Hamster Central. See the links section.