Owning and caring for a hamster can be good fun, rewarding and definitely entertaining. But looking after a hamster is a big responsibility and not something that you should do on impulse.
There is a lot to learn about hamsters and there’s definitely no one ‘perfect’ way to care for hamsters as they all have their own personalities and behaviors.
It’s up to you how you look after your hamster, but by reading this guide, you’ll have a good understanding of some of the ‘do’s and don’ts’ when it comes to basic hamster care. This will help to make sure that your hamster lives a happy and healthy life that they deserve.
Your hamster’s home/environment
Making sure that your hamster has a suitable place to live is very important and one of the first things you need to think about is your hamster’s cage. Let’s look at the different cage types that are available.
There are many different factors which will determine the type of cage that is right for you and your hamster.
Some of these include the species of hamster you have chosen, how many hamsters you have, where in your house you decide to put the cage, and whether there are any other pets around etc.
There are a variety of cages and they come in all different shapes and sizes. Therefore I will talk about the following cage types in a general sense and what species of hamster they are suited to.
This type of cage is available as single, double or or triple storey and they generally come with ladders or tubes connecting the various levels.
Wire-top cages consist of a plastic tray base with a rigid wire top and the floors in multi-storey cages are generally made of wire or solid plastic.
There are two bar width varieties that you need to be aware of (the space in between the bars). Some cages have a gap of 0.5 inches which are suitable for Syrians only whilst others are 0.3 inches which are suitable for Chinese, Dwarf and Syrian hamsters.
Cages with a gap of 0.3 inches generally come in smaller sizes and may be advertised as a mouse cage. These are definitely not big enough for Syrian hamsters.
If you’re thinking about getting a multi-storey cage then it’s worth noting that the total floor space in these cages may be the same as a single storey cage; especially if a multi-storey cage only has partial floors.
Also make sure that you can pick up your hamster from any part of the cage because a multi-story cage with only one door will make picking up your hamster difficult.
Things to consider
- Avoid cages where the ladder is positioned over the doorway, has too few doors, has wrongly hinged doors (doors that open upwards instead of downwards or sideways) or has unstable levels which will make your hamster nervous.
- If you opt for a multi-storey cage ensure that your hamster can’t fall from the roof to the floor. Ideally access to each floor should be on alternate sides of the cage.
- Finally check that the catches that secure the wire top to the base are secure. If it’s not secure then the base could be separated when you lift up the cage. Not only will this make a mess if the hamster cage is made up, but your hamster could also escape or get injured.
Plastic tank cages
Again these cages come in all shapes and sizes. Some are just plastic aquarium type containers, others are more elaborate and have multiple tanks/modules and connecting tunnels and most of them can be expanded.
Some plastic tank cages look like a large plant propagator with large wire doors on the top (required for two handed pick up). Again these come in different shapes and sizes.
Another type combines a plastic tank cage with a wire top cage so you might have a plastic tank base and a second level made out of wire.
The plastic base will protect the hamster from drafts and enable them to do lots of burrowing, whereas the wire top is used for climbing. An advantage of this type of cage is that the top can be easily lifted so that you can access the hamster.
Remember to make sure that the gaps in between the bars are suitable for your species of hamster.
Things to consider
- Plastic tank cages are easy to set up and clean.
- Odours are largely contained.
- In terms of size they may be ok for a pair of Roborovski hamsters but may not be suitable for Syrians.
- Plastic tank cages are often too deep to allow for proper ventilation causing heat and condensation to build up inside. You should use it as a temporary cage when the main cage is being cleaned out.
- One good thing about these types of cages is that younger members of the family can’t put their fingers in so they’re less likely to be bitten.
- Hamsters are able to chew through plastic so make sure that they have plenty of things to gnaw on.
- Plastic tank module cages can be difficult to retrieve a nervous hamster (they may disappear into another module). This might be ok if you have a hamster that is accustomed to you and well-tamed.
Glass tank cages
Glass tank cages include aquariums and also purposely designed glass tanks for small animals. Again they come in a variety of sizes and are suitable for all species of hamster.
Depending on the size of the tank, it may have a number of internal floor levels and some tanks have shelves, ventilation and special covers.
Obviously hamsters can’t chew through glass, so it’s important that if you do choose this type of case that your hamster has plenty of things to gnaw on. This will prevent their teeth getting too long but also it will prevent it from damaging itself or any plastic components that might be present in the cage.
Many hamster owners use converted aquariums to house their hamster, including some hamster YouTubers whose cages are quite elaborate! You could do this too and in my opinion, aquariums make the best hamsters cages. They generally offer a lot more space than other cage types, you can see your hamster clearly and there is limited chance of escape.
If you do convert an aquarium the normal cover will encourage condensation and can be relatively easy for your hamster to remove it. It also completely seals the tank preventing the tank from being properly ventilated.
Instead, you need to replace the cover with mesh that overlaps the tank. This will allow air to circulate well whilst keeping your hamster from pulling off an escape.
Some hamster owners buy a wire cage and put it on top of the aquarium. They then have either a ramp or a tube that runs from hole in the floor in the top cage through to the bottom of the aquarium.
This gives your hamster a semi-private bit at the bottom and an open area at the top and drastically increases the square footage for your hamster. If you do make a ramp make sure that it is hamster safe, but I suggest using tubes if at all possible Make sure the tubes are wide enough so that your hamster won’t get stuck in them when it grows bigger.
Remember hamsters are very good at climbing up but not very good at climbing down and you don’t want your hamster to fall. Falls are not good for hamsters because they have a very delicate bone structure
If you don’t fancy making your own version of these cages, then Omlet offers what are known as Qute cages. Not only can they look very nice in your living room as they complement your furniture, but they also provide a place for your hamster to go whilst you’re cleaning out your cage. You can have a look at these Qute cages by clicking here (takes you to the Omlet website, #CommissionsEarned).
If you’re into DIY, then you may consider building your own hamster cage. Here are a couple of options for you:
If you design a wooden cage well and with a gnawing rodent in mind then wooden cages can make excellent homes for your hamster.
When making your wooden cage make sure that the wood is untreated because paint or varnish is highly toxic to hamsters.
Also plywood or composition wood should not be used because it contains glue that may be ingested.
You could use a standard rabbit hutch for your hamster cage – just be sure that you replace the wire on the door with 0.5 inch square wire mesh for Syrians and 0.3 inch wire mesh for Chinese, Dwarf and Syrian hamsters.
Things to consider
- Wooden houses tend to absorb urine quite well so they need to be cleaned more thoroughly and allowed to dry for longer.
- May need ongoing repairs.
Bin cages are very popular these days mainly because they are cheap to make, offer plenty of space for your hamster and you can decorate them and put your own stamp on them.
Bin cages, as the word suggests, are made out of plastic storage bins or containers. To make one of these, you simply take a knife or a dremel and cut a window in the lid of the storage box and attach some wire mesh to it. You should also cut a window out of one of the sides for additional ventilation.
Make sure that you put the side window high enough to allow you to to use at least 6 inches of substrate without it falling out. Also make sure that the mesh on the side window goes on the outside of the bin so that your hamster doesn’t catch itself on the edge of the mesh.
If you’re still unsure check out the video below.
A word about Crittertrail cages
Crittertrail cages tend to come in bright colours and consist of a wire top that clips onto a plastic base. Visually, they are very appealing to humans (especially children) and tend to have lots of accessories and tubes that snake out of the side and connect to others either on the side or on the top.
They also come with brightly coloured water bottles, plastic viewing hemisphere bubbles, extra snap-on running wheels and plastic sleeping houses.
If you see one of these crittertrail cages for sale in your local pet store don’t buy one of them unless you intend to use it for traveling with your hamster. They are simply too small and don’t offer nearly enough floor space for your hamster. Although hamsters are small, they need a minimum of 450 square inches of floor space (more on cage sizes later).
Pet shops don’t always have the welfare of your hamster in mind and neither do the manufacturers of these cages. If manufacturers think there’s a market for cheap, “cute”, small cages, they’ll make them and sell them, but that doesn’t mean they’re good cages for your hamster.
Where you put your hamster cage is important so you need to think carefully about it’s position. So here are some things to think about when placing your hamster cage:
- Keep the cage out of direct sunlight.
- Keep the cage away from drafts.
- Make sure that the cage is not too near sources of direct heat like radiators.
- Place the cage on a stable surface, where it can’t be accidentally knocked on the floor.
- Make sure that the room has a constant temperature (even a slightly cooler room is better than a room with temp fluctuations).
- Don’t put wire top cages near soft furnishings (curtains, armchairs etc) as your hamster will add it to their bedding!
- Place the cage where it is easy to access and clean and easy for you to enjoy your hamster.
- Consider putting the cage in your living room, bedroom or den/office. If you put it somewhere where you can see it and smell it readily, you’ll be more vigilant in cleaning the cage which is definitely not a bad thing.
- Avoid putting your hamster’s cage on the floor if at all possible.
Size is extremely important when it comes to hamster cages and many hamster owners think that hamsters only need a small cage because they’re small animals, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Hamsters have a lot of energy and need a lot of room to do what they do naturally.
Although hamsters are domesticated to a reasonable extent they are not nearly as domesticated as other animals such as dogs and cats. They are therefore not too dissimilar to their wild counterparts.
Hamsters have evolved to be ground dwelling vagabonds and so they need plenty of space to roam around and forage for food. The average Syrian for example has been known to run 5.1 miles in a day in their wheel. Hamsters could run even further if they are stressed out by loud music, handled roughly or restricted to a small cage for 10 minutes.
Research has also shown that hamsters in larger cages show less bar gnawing, less protracted wheel running and lower stress levels. Also, hamsters in sufficiently large cages spend more time exploring and less time on their wheel.
The general advice when it comes to purchasing hamster cages is to go as large as you can afford to whilst making sure that it meets a minimum of 450 square inches in terms of floor space (multiply length and width).
Check out the video on below on why hamsters need large cages:
What goes inside
Let’s have a look at the things you should be putting inside your hamster’s cage.
You can use a dish instead of a water bottle if you like as hamsters are more than capable of drinking out of them, but you may find that dishes get soiled quickly so you need to be checking them at least twice a day.
In my opinion though, water bottles are the easiest and cleanest way of providing water for your hamster.
If you’re unsure how they work, you simply unscrew the drinking tube, fill up with clean water and screw the tube back on. The water bottle simply clips onto the side of the cage (if your cage has a wire top) and the drinking tube extends into the cage where your hamster can reach it.
There are water bottles available to suit all styles of cage but if you have a bin-cage, you might want to use some industrial strength velcro (Amazon, #CommissionsEarned) to attach the bottle to the side of the cage.
Here are some tips to help keep your hamster hydrated:
- Ensure that the water bottle is at the correct height for your hamster, so it doesn’t have to stretch to have a drink.
- Check the water level daily and fill with fresh water daily.
- After filling up your water bottle, check for any blockages by running your finger under the ball-bearing at the bottom of the drinking tube.
- If the bottle is suddenly empty, check that it hasn’t leaked all over the cage.
Finally, don’t panic if you don’t witness your hamster drinking. Hamsters don’t need to drink much (about a teaspoon a day) because they originate from hot climates and they’re probably drinking when you’re not looking during the night.
Also different hamsters drink different amounts and if fresh greens are given, then your hamster will drink less.
If you find your hamster chewing on it’s bottle this can mean one of three things. Either the water bottle is empty, the hamster can’t get the water out of it or it needs something to chew on because it is stressed.
We like to put apple branches (Amazon, #CommissionsEarned) in our cage so he has something to chew on. Pear or orange branches are also good options.
Many hamster cages come with food dishes when you buy them. If not, you can always buy a ceramic dish (Amazon, #CommissionsEarned) or a metal/plastic dish for your hamster.
Despite providing a food dish for your hamster, they will always take the best portions of their food to their bedding area. So a food dish is not essential, but as humans, we like to put food in containers. Hamsters on the other hand enjoy foraging for their food so they don’t mind it being scattered around their cage.
We tend to put a food dish on a platform in our hamster’s cage which has the added benefit of providing extra exercise for him when he goes to get some food.
One thing to be aware of is that when you clean your hamster’s cage, you will likely come across some of their food stashes. When you’re doing a full cage clean you’ll end up throwing a lot of this food away, but just make sure that you replace it with new food otherwise this can stress your hamster when it returns to the cage and finds out that its food has been taken away.
Hamsters love wheels and they love to run so it’s very important that they have a wheel in their cage at all times as this will keep your hamster busy and content. If you find that your cage isn’t big enough to take a wheel then you need to rethink the size of your cage.
Most hamster cages come with wheels already included which are fine when your hamster is young, but you’ll soon find that it’s no longer suitable for a fully grown hamster.
When your hamster is fully grown, you need to replace the wheel with a large solid plastic wheel. I recommend at least an 8-inch wheel for Syrians and a 6.5 inch wheel for a dwarf hamster. Again, the bigger the better really as you don’t want your hamster’s back to arch when they’re running on the wheel. This 12 inch wheel on Amazon (#CommissionsEarned) is ideal.
When considering a new wheel for your hamster, always go for a wheel that is made of solid plastic and never go for one of those wire or slotted plastic wheels as there is a danger of their limbs becoming trapped.
If your cage does come with one of those open-rung wheels then you could cover the outside of the wheel with a strip of cardboard or weave pieces of cardboard through the rungs. This will stop your hamster limbs from falling through the gaps.
Of course you will need to replace the cardboard as and when it becomes chewed.
Some cages come with wheels that are attached to one side of the cage but if you have a glass or plastic cage, then of course self-standing wheels are available.
If you have a Dwarf or Chinese hamster there is an alternative type of wheel you can buy that looks a bit like a satellite dish like this on Amazon (#CommissionsEarned), which your hamster will enjoy running on.
If you have more than one hamster then you may want to have more than one wheel to prevent any squabbling.
A hamster house or hideout will make your hamster feel safe and protected and it’s somewhere where they can get a bit of privacy and go to sleep in.
What you basically want to do is mimic their native environment as close as possible. For example in the wild they will hollow out a small room in their burrow to use as a sleeping area.
Hamsters are very organised animals so they will often find one corner to sleep in and they will use another corner as a toilet area.
It is of course up to you whether or not you buy your hamster a house or make your own.
You can get commercial “hide boxes” which are either disposable (paper tubes) or come in longer lasting forms (made out of wicker to recycled plastic).
If you decide to make your own, you can use a small cardboard box such as a cut down tissue box or an empty tissue box.
Empty toilet rolls or sections of empty paper towel rolls also make good sleeping areas. Just make sure that you cut down the length of the tube so that your hamster won’t get stuck.
We have a wooden log that our hamster snuggles under when he goes to sleep. We put lots of unscented, shredded tissue paper on the top of the log and on top of the substrate underneath to help him hamster feel extra cosy. Like humans, hamsters like to feel cosy when they’re asleep.
Feel free to get creative here but don’t be disappointed if your hamster doesn’t like his new house and decides to snuggle up under a heap of shredded tissue paper instead.
Whether or not they choose to sleep if their house or hideout may depend on the ambient temperature. The close quarters of a sleeping box may be too warm for fur-covered hamsters in your part of the world.
Here are a couple of things to be aware of:
- Make sure that your hamster’s house has enough ventilation because a build up of condensation can lead to damp bedding, which can in turn cause health problems for your hamster.
- Also make sure that it is easy to clean or throw away if it becomes soiled.
Ramps and platforms
Hamsters love to explore their cage and ramps and platforms will greatly increase the available floor space in your cage. It will also give them a little extra exercise, especially if they have to climb onto a platform to get to their food and water.
Again these usually come as part of your cage but if you’re using a repurposed aquarium then these can be bought from a local pet store. Usually ramps and platforms snap into place, but if you have a wire cage like we do then they are usually held in position by the bars of the cage.
If you’re into your DIY then you can make ramps out of hobbyist wood strips and you can even make your own hamster platform like in the video below:
Hamsters are very clean animals by nature and are very organised too. They will often designate one corner of the cage as a toilet or ‘wet corner’.
Take a note which corner your hamster uses as a wet corner and if you like, you can train your hamster to use the litter box.
Assuming that you’ve given your hamster a few weeks to settle in, you can start to train your hamster to use a toilet, which is nothing more than a plastic container that fits snugly into a corner of your hamster cage. It’s worthwhile getting one with a roof as well, like this one on Amazon (#CommissionsEarned), as this will make your hamster feel more secure.
In order to train your hamster to use this toilet, simply put a small amount of their soiled shavings from their wet corner into the toilet and then place the toilet back into the wet corner.
Your hamster may use the toilet straight away or you may have to wait several days or weeks before your hamster realizes what it’s for.
There is a chance of course that your hamster may not use it at all and may use it to store food which is perfectly normal.
The great thing about a hamster toilet is that it keeps your cage cleaner for longer and you can clean the toilet out as often as is necessary.
Sometimes you’ll hear the term ‘cage enrichment’ which is a relatively new term used to describe any toy or ‘cage accessory’ that can be added to your cage beyond tubes, food, water and a wheel etc.
Providing accessories for your hamster is important. I know I would get bored if I was confined to a single room with nothing to do!
Research has shown the benefits of cage enrichment to include reduced aggression, better scores on problem-solving tests, less fear and even increased optimism!
There are lots of devices and toys available at your pet store from levered food-dispensing containers, plastic balls with jingle bells inside, chew tubes, chew blocks, carrots holders, dyed wooden toys (veg dyes only) and hanging chains with balls, bell’s and dowel pieces attached. The variety is endless.
We prefer to give our hamster an apple or orange branch to gnaw on in addition to some of the wooden bridges and logs that he has available to chew on.
It is good to change the items in the cage every week or so to offer a bit of variety, but don’t jam pack the cage with accessories too much as you need to give your hamster enough room to walk, explore and burrow.
You can check out my article on hamster chews and chew toys to give you an idea of what is available.
Hamster balls are a little controversial and I don’t agree that you should put your hamster in them.
Hamster balls obviously don’t have any water or food source, your hamster could get too warm in there due to lack of ventilation and they can easily get frightened or stressed if they crash into anything.
I’ve listed more reasons against getting a hamster ball here.
Play boxes and playpens
An alternative to a hamster ball is a playpen which you can get on Amazon like this one (#CommissionsEarned) or you can build a play box.
A playpen or play box gives your hamster a chance to run around without the risk of falling or escaping. It also enables you to bond with your hamster and allows it to eat or drink as it pleases which is not possible with a hamster ball.
Check out the video below on how you can make your own playpen:
Generally there’s not much difference between substrates (the stuff that goes on the floor of the cage) and bedding for hamsters.
Lightweight substrate will temporarily hold a tunnel shape (like Aspen) and a hamster can burrow through it and pile it up for a sleeping area.
Common substrates that you’ll find in a pet shop include aspen pellets, alfalfa pellets, pecan pellets, ground walnut or pecan shells, shredded wheat stamps, shredded hibiscus stems, recycled newspaper, coconut husk fiber and cypress mulch.
Some of the pelleted substrates are good at controlling odours and absorption. When these pellets get wet, they fall apart into sawdust. These tend to keep the cage fresh but they don’t hold the shape of a burrow when a hamster has tunneled through them.
Some of the newer substrates that are available are basically recycled newspaper. One brand in particular, looks like twisted bits of gray paper and is very odor and moisture-absorbent. This type of substrate is treated so that any non-soy inks left in the pulp can’t harm your hamster.
Again, this type of substrate doesn’t hold the shape of burrow at all, but your hamster will enjoy shoving it around. It also helps to add different textures to your hamster’s cage.
One thing that shouldn’t be used as substrate is straw because the tough strands can hurt your hamster’s cheek pouches.
If you fancy making your own substrate then you can use torn up strips of newspaper (without ink) or paper towels.
Don’t use shredded paper as it isn’t absorbent at all and will result in liquid garbage on the floor of your cage. This will make your cage smell even if you clean it everyday. If you shred paper, then make sure to use absorbent shredded paper.
Alternatively you can take some white paper towels and tear them into half inch wide strips and put them into a bucket of water for about half an hour until they become mushy and fragile.
Next, take small handfuls of this mush and squeeze them as dry as you can with your hands and then roll them between your hands to remove even more water. Let the clumps dry on a towel in the sun if possible or on your kitchen counter. Once they’re fully dry you can use the dried clumps as you would Carefresh or other paper litter.
All these types of substrates are worth trying, although in my experience, aspen shavings are the best.
Basically any paper-based bedding like Carefresh (Amazon, #CommissionsEarned) and Kaytee clean & cozy (Amazon, #CommissionsEarned) is safe for your hamsters. These often come in different textures and are sometimes colored, but they are totally safe.
Aspen shavings (Amazon, #CommissionsEarned), hard wood shavings and hemp shavings are also safe to use in your hamster’s cage. Softwood shavings are the ones that are harmful to your hamster.
Click here for more ideas for safe hamster substrates.
Substrates to avoid
Pine and cedar wood shavings are well-known substrates and are widely available in pet shops. Your pet shop may even recommend these substrates to you, but they are very dangerous for small animals since they contain toxic phenols and natural acids.
The phenols create the smell in these wood shavings and if your hamster breathes in these fumes all day every day, it can become very damaging to their respiratory system.
Other substrates to avoid are sawdust and corncob substrates and ‘sawdust’ because this is too fine and can also be harmful to your hamster’s repository system.
You should also avoid ‘unspecified’ wood shavings and products that don’t explicitly name the type of wood used to create the shavings because, chances are, they will contain Pine or Cedar shavings.
Paper products like shredded strips of kitchen roll or toilet paper are ideal nesting materials because they are soft and cosy for your hamster. Just make sure that the paper products are non-toxic and don’t contain any inks.
You also need to avoid any materials that can separate into thin strands such as cotton wool or similar ‘fluffy’ bedding products, because although these are cosy, they can get caught around your hamster toes or feet. Also, because hamsters transport their nesting materials to their nest, cotton wool or similar materials can get wrapped around their teeth or get stuck in their cheek pouches.
Because hamsters are burrowing creatures, you need to make sure that you have a thick enough layer of shavings that will allow your hamster to stay hidden whilst sleeping and to allow for burrowing without leaving areas of the cage floor bare.
I have recently written this article on how deep hamsters bedding should be, but this study carried out by von A. Hautzenberger showed that hamsters should have cages with deep bedding and suggested a depth of 1.5 to 3 feet to mimic the natural burrows of the golden hamster.
When it comes to bedding depth, the deeper the better, but I recommend at least 6 inches or more if your cage will allow it.
Next let’s have a look at how you might go about setting up your hamster’s cage.
How to set up your hamster’s cage
- The first thing you want to put into your hamsters cage is the substrate. This needs to be one of the safe materials that I’ve mentioned early. Anything that is paper-based or a hardwood like Aspen is fine to use in the bottom of your cage. Remember to have a depth of at least 6 inches (even more if you can) to allow your hamster to burrow.
- The next thing you want to put into your hamsters cage is a hideout. Hamsters in the wild hollow out just a small room in their burrow to use as a sleeping area, so you want to try and mimic their natural environment as much as possible. This gives them something to sleep in, helps them to feel safe and gives them some privacy.
- Next, add a wheel to the cage and make sure that it can turn unimpeded. This is super important as hamsters need a lot of exercise. It needs to be a safe wheel like I’ve previously mentioned (no wire or mesh wheels) and it needs to be large enough so that your hamster’s back isn’t arched. Remember, you can’t have too big of a wheel – the bigger the better.
- Next add some accessories and chew toys. There are loads of options here. Again, you can check out my article on hamster chews and chew toys to give you an idea of what is available. You can also choose to go with some natural accessories, like Cork log (Amazon, #CommissionsEarned) or Grapevine wood (Amazon, #CommissionsEarned), which helps to mimic their natural environment. Just make sure they’re big enough so that your hamster doesn’t get stuck.
- Next, add at least one food dish – one with soft hay and another perhaps with a seed mix/kibble that forms the other part of their diet. You can get by with one dish because hamsters shove food out of their dish and move it elsewhere, generally to where they sleep.
- Finally, add either a water dish or water bottle. If you use a bottle, wash it out, fill and suspend from the side of the cage so your hamster can drink from a standing position.
Tip: If your hamster’s cage has a door at the top and the side, like my cage, always try to use the top one when placing your hamster back in its cage or filling up its food dish. If you forget to close the door, there is a reduced chance that your hamster will escape.
For many years it has been common knowledge to change the substrate in your hamster’s cage once a week, scrub down the base with soap and water and replace it with clean and fresh bedding.
However since then, hamster knowledge has evolved and it is now known that this is stressful and unnecessary for your hamster.
In fact a study has shown that a complete cage clean can increase your hamster’s heartbeat by up to 150 beats per minute and it can take over an hour for a hamster to calm down afterwards.
Cleaning your hamster’s cage out too often can be very stressful for your hamster. Stress can weaken their immune system which in turn can make them more vulnerable to illness.
How often to clean your hamster enclosure depends on the size of the hamster cage and how clean and tidy your hamster is. The larger your cage, the less often you’ll have to clean it. However a smaller enclosure means that it will become soiled faster.
Hamsters by their very nature are clean and organised animals and generally choose areas of their cage in which pee. However not every hamster does this and some hamsters pee everywhere.
Any cage which has at least 450 square inches of floor space won’t have to be cleaned out more than once a month. Cages that are smaller than this may need to be cleaned out every two to three weeks.
When it does come round to cleaning your cage, it’s best to only remove half of the soiled substrate rather than getting rid of it all as you want to leave some of the familiar smells in there.
If your cage does appear clean, then just take out a small section of the bedding.
In between full cage clean outs, it is important to spot clean your cage which will make the cage feel cleaner for longer. This involves removing soiled spots in the enclosure such as removing poop and wee spots.
Our hamster Richmond has chosen one particular corner of the cage that he uses to pee in, so it is very easy to do a spot clean. Some hamsters pee in their wheel or in their sand bath, which also makes spot cleaning easier.
The most important part of cage cleaning is removing the pee, because pee is wet and can grow bacteria. It is also the thing that causes your hamster’s cage to smell.
If your hamster isn’t quite so organized and pees everywhere, you can remove the top layer of bedding, then add more and mix it with the old stuff. The stuff underneath is usually untouched in any case because the hamster is either on top or in their burrow.
This has a couple of benefits. Firstly the substrate underneath smells familiar (especially if the hamster has been burrowing) and secondly, it can save you money which will allow you to afford more substrate!
Hamster poop on the other hand is hard and dry. If you see a few poops here and there, it doesn’t mean that your cage is dirty. But if you see a lot of poop in one area, you need to remove it.
If your hamster poops in its nesting area, then wait until they’re awake and carefully remove the poop without destroying the nest. If it’s not possible to reuse their nesting material, then removing it is better than your hamster having to sleep in their own poop.
When you do a spot clean, rinse their food bowl out and fill with new food. Similarly, you should empty their water bottle or dish, rinse out and refill and put it back in the cage, but you should do this on a daily basis.
Tips on cleaning the cage out:
- Unless your hamster is ill, avoid using pet safe disinfectant. These kill 99.9% of all bacteria but hamsters need a certain amount of bacteria to build up their immune system.
- Use warm, soapy water, baby wipes or a vinegar and water combination (1 part vinegar, 2 parts water). Doing this will get rid of most of the bacteria.
- Don’t clean your hamster’s toys on the same day as you clean the cage because their toys smell familiar. Wait for a week after cleaning the cage. That way, the bedding will smell familiar to them so it won’t matter if the toys don’t.
- Don’t clean out their entire hoard (a hoard to hamsters is like your pantry). Hamsters hoard food, so that if food is scarce, they have some food available. Instead, get rid of old stuff and put some new food back where you found it. When your hamster goes back into their cage, they will immediately look for their hoard. If they find it, that will reduce some of the stress caused by the cage cleaning.
- It’s possible to litter train your hamster which will make a big difference to the smell of the cage. It also makes spot cleaning easier as you can simply take the litter tray out a few times a week..
- Choose a good substrate with good odour control – Aspen is the best. You can purchase it online on Amazon (#CommissionsEarned), Petco, Petsmart or Pets At Home if you’re in the UK. In your local pet shop, you’re likely to find Aspen in the reptile section.
Hamsters are omnivores which means they can eat insects as well as plants and vegetables.
But to ensure that your hamster is getting all the vitamins and minerals it needs, you need to choose a good hamster mix (Amazon, #CommissionsEarned) and supplement it with some fresh greens, high protein foods and fresh fruit.
One important point is to make sure that your hamster’s diet is kept consistent as any sudden changes can lead to stomach upsets. Instead, make small adjustments or try your hamster with new foods in small quantities to see how they react.
Hamster mixes contain crushed oats, oats, clipped oats, flaked maize, sunflower seeds, peanuts, dried peas and grass pellets. Some contain dried banana, dried coconut or dried apple.
The important thing here is that you need to try to find something that has between 17-19% protein, 4-7% fat and 6-15% fibre. Always opt for a good quality mix and not necessarily the cheapest, make sure that it provides plenty of variety and never use mixes intended for other animals.
Some of the cheaper hamster mixes haven’t undergone the rigorous safety and quality checks of some of the more expensive brands.
Finally, look for mixes that look clean, fresh and dust free. Make sure that any oat grains are clipped and don’t have any sharp points on the ends of the oats.
In addition to your food mix you need to supplement with fruits, vegetables and other extras as these can contain a lot of nutrients and minerals.
Fruit and veg is super healthy for your hamster but make sure it’s fresh, good quality and frost free and always wash thoroughly before putting it in the cage.
Fresh greens are not a daily necessity but your hamster will enjoy them from time to time.
Here are some fresh greens to try with your hamster:
- Broad beans
- Runner beans
- Bean sprouts
Herbs also have a lot of good minerals in them but not many hamster owners think to give them to their hamster. The Akinesia herb is good for strengthening their immune system, Dill is good for upset stomachs and Chamomile is good for indigestion and respiratory diseases. Simply sprinkle some in the cage once per week.
When giving your hamster fruit and veg, make sure that anything that hasn’t been eaten is removed from their cage the next day. Otherwise it can go mouldy and attract bacteria which is not good for your hamster’s health. Also, your hamster may not be able to shrug off the effects of eating under or over ripe fruit and veg like humans are capable of doing.
Foods to avoid
Be wary of leafy greens like Romaine or Spinach as anything larger than an inch square can cause temporary diarrhea. Avoid iceberg lettuce as it has no nutritional value and contains too much water. You should also avoid citrus fruits such as Clementines.
Check out this post for more foods that you should avoid giving to your hamster.
Remember hamsters are very small in comparison to humans so fresh fruit and veg should only be given in very small quantities. For example, this could either be a slice of carrot, a sliver of apple or a maximum of two to three bean sprouts at any one time.
As a rule of thumb, a Syrian hamster needs on average about a tablespoon of food (10grams) a day plus a few supplements like a bit of carrot, apple or 1 inch stick of celery.
If you have a Chinese, Campbells, Winter white or Roborovski hamster, then you should give them at least the same amount of food as you would a Syrian, because although these hamsters are smaller, they have a higher metabolism.
Your hamster should only drink clean, fresh water from the tap and it must be available to them at all times. If you’re concerned about the level of chlorine or other chemicals in your tap water, then get some filtered water.
Getting to know your hamster
It’s very exciting when you bring a hamster home for the first time but there are a few things to bear in mind which will help your hamster get settled in less time. Here are some tips for when you bring your hamster home for the first time.
Bringing your hamster home
When you first get your hamster, the pet shop will usually put your new pet in some kind of travel box like a shoe box with holes in it.
However ideally you should bring your hamster home in a plastic cage as hamsters have been known to chew their way through cardboard boxes.
Afterall, the last thing you want is for your hamster to escape to a small space in your car (like under the seat for example).
Another tip is to make sure that collecting your hamster is the last trip you make before bringing your hamster home. You don’t want your hamster to be sitting in its carrier for hours whilst you do your shopping for example.
When your hamster arrives at its new home, let it crawl out of its travel box on its own if possible and into its cage. If not, scoop your hamster out of the box, holding it firmly so that it won’t fall and run off
Next, talk to him/her and put it in its cage which should already be set up at this point.
One mistake that we made was that we bought the cage, toys, food, bedding and hamster all on the same day. We had to set up the cage whilst the hamster was still in its travel box, which caused him to be stressed and he started hissing at us.
Once your hamster is in its cage, close the doors on the cage and tell your hamster that it has a new cage, a new owner and a new life. Put the cage in a dark, quiet, room and let it explore its new home.
Every time you walk past cage, stop and talk to your hamster for a moment
This might sound silly because they don’t understand you and they can’t talk back, but this will help your hamster to get used to the sound of your voice and to the idea of seeing you regularly.
It’s important that you don’t handle your hamster during the settling-in period (2-3 days) as it will have had enough disturbances after moving home. This helps to minimize any stress. Some hamsters need even more time than this to adjust. Patience is the key here.
What you have to remember is that your hamster has come from somewhere familiar to them to a brand new home which can be very unsettling for them.
Although you shouldn’t handle your hamster for a few days, it is of course okay to change their food and water. Try to do it when they’re awake though, so they don’t get scared when your hand goes into the cage.
It’s a good idea during this period to watch your hamster in the cage and talk to it. This will help them to get used to your voice and the sounds going on around the cage.
If your hamster hisses at you, it means that they’re frightened, not that they hate you. You may also notice that they act a little crazy in their new environment – this is perfectly normal at first. Give your hamster time to adjust.
Monkeybaring and bar chewing are also signs of stress but this can be caused by a cage which is too small. If this behavior lasts more than two days, you need to reconsider the size of your hamster’s cage.
If your hamster is eating and drinking then your hamster will thrive in its new environment, so don’t worry whether or not your hamster will be okay or not.
If you don’t see your hamster drink, they may be afraid to come out and have a drink in the openness of their cage. They also don’t need much water and don’t drink very often because they originate from desert and semi-desert environments.
One thing that may alarm you as a new hamster owner is when you witness your hamster ‘eating’ their bedding. In actual fact, all your hamster is doing is storing it in their cheek pouches to take it to their nest so they can make a comfy bed.
And finally, hamsters are nocturnal/crepuscular which means they are mostly active at night. Some hamsters will wait until you’ve turned off the light and gone to bed because they are simply too scared to come out!
Taming your hamster
After two or three days or maybe even longer, you can start the taming process. It’s important that you don’t wake them up to do this and you should let them come out when they’re ready.
If you notice your hamster grooming itself in the open cage, then that is a sign that they’re relaxed. So when you think that they’re comfortable, approach your hamster slowly with the back of your hand or knuckle and let it sniff you. That way, if your hamster does bite, you won’t get bitten too badly as there isn’t much to grab hold of and bite.
Whenever you’re about to hold your hamster or interact with your hamster in any way, you need to make sure that your hands are clean. This is because hamsters rely on their sense of smell more than their poor eyesight.
So if you’ve been eating something prior to this, then your hamster may mistake your finger or hand for food and take a nibble.
One of the mistakes I’ve made in the past is poking my finger in our hamster’s house only to have it bitten by my hamster because he thought that it was food!
The next thing to do is offer your hamster some treats (this could be a couple of sunflower seeds on the palm of your hand for example). Place your hand in the cage so that your hamster can see the seeds and keep your hand in there for a few minutes whilst he builds up the courage to approach it.
Let him grab a seed or two from your hand and scurry off before taking your hand out. It’s important that you’re quiet when doing this and that you don’t make any sudden movements, or your hamster will be scared and run off! Also, make sure that when doing this that your hamster has an exit route and doesn’t feel trapped.
Don’t worry if it takes your hamster a few days to build up confidence, soon enough, it’ll be eating out of your hand.
If your hamster doesn’t come onto the palm of your hand on its own accord, you can use a treat to lead your hamster onto the palm of your hand. Keep doing this until your hamster is confident enough to do it on its own.
Repeat this step once or twice an evening for a few days until he realizes you are a friend.
Picking up your hamster
Finally, once you have your hamster sitting on your hand cracking open the sunflower seeds, you can begin to pick up your hamster.
When your hamster is in the palm of your hands, simply cup your hands around your hamster and lift it up slowly.
Hold your hamster closely so that it can’t escape. You would also be better off being close to the floor or on a bed, so that if it darts or jumps, it won’t get injured. Your hamster needs to feel secure and not feel like it’s going to be dropped. You don’t want your hamster ever to be dropped because even a small fall can injure it.
When holding your hamster, it’s important to be gentle and obviously keep away from other pets. If you have children, then you’re going to have to supervise them to make sure that they’re handling the hamster gently.
Remember, a hamster won’t sit still for very long so just let them do what they want and don’t restrain them.
A good idea is to let your hamster roam free either in a hamster safe room or a play pen. It’s important to play with your hamster everyday to maintain the bond that you have with your hamster.
All hamsters can bite, especially Syrian hamsters, usually because they’re new, frightened and haven’t been tamed yet.
Hamsters can also bite if you’ve just eaten and not washed your hands before picking them up. They may confuse you with a snack because they have a great sense of smell but not very good vision (they can see only a few inches in front of them).
Another reason hamsters bite is when they’re woken up, which makes them grumpy. When your hamster is asleep make sure that you talk quietly and make slow movements.
If you find that your hamster is still biting then you need to continue the taming process. Feel free to use mittens or gloves whilst your hamster becomes used to being picked up and use treats to reward them for not biting.
Remember, hamsters are prey animals so they are naturally scared and wary of being picked up. Always make sure you pick your hamster up by cupping your hands underneath its belly, make sure that they can see your hand approaching first and never pick them up with one hand like a giant claw!
Hamsters must never be bathed in water unless you’ve been instructed specifically to do so by a qualified, exotic, small animal vet due to a serious medical condition.
Water bathing has no benefits for your hamster, it’s not natural for them, and causes excessive levels of stress which can have implications for their health further down the line. For example, two common stress related illnesses are Demodex Mites and Wet Tail. Both of these can be fatal and Wet Tail in particular has a low survival rate.
As prey animals, hamsters need to be in a stress-free, calm environment to stay happy and healthy.
Like a lot of animals, Hamsters have a layer of natural oils on their fur which protects them from the rain and cold in the wild.
Not only will bathing cause stress to your hamster, it will also strip their fur of oils, exposing them to the elements and will result in their fur looking greasy and dirty.
Although hamsters shouldn’t get wet, they are actually able to swim but only if required to do so in the wild (i.e. when there is no other way to escape a predator).
Let’s look at an alternative way of bathing your hamster (but without using water).
How to bathe your hamster
To properly bathe your hamster, you need to use a sand bath, which is another accessory you may want to add to your hamster’s cage.
To create a sand bath, simply fill up a shallow bowl or tray with grainy sand and leave it inside the cage. You can leave the bowl or tray inside the cage 24/7 and your hamster will use it as and when they please, which can often be several times a day.
There are two types of sand that you can use, one of these is chinchilla sand (Amazon, #CommissionsEarned) which you can find at your local pet shop (not to be confused with chinchilla dust as this can cause respiratory infections). The other is children’s play sand. If you use play sand, make sure that it has been heat treated. If it hasn’t, then you can cook it in the oven at 350 degrees to kill anything pathogenic.
If you have a dwarf hamster you’ll have fun watching it roll around in the sand, however if you have a Syrian hamster, then they’ll prefer to dig and slide their tummies across the sand.
If your Syrian are Chinese hamster is particularly greasy then they may require some assistance. To do this, simply sprinkle some sand over them and gently massage or brush the sand through their fur.
If your hamster doesn’t use it’s sand bath to bathe in, then it may use it as a litter tray. This is perfectly normal – just make sure that you change the sand regularly or sieve to remove any waste.
Hamsters, like cats, are fastidious about cleaning themselves, so they normally won’t need grooming.
You can bring out the shine in the coat of a short haired hamster by letting it run through your hands. If however you have a satin Syrian hamster, you may find that the fur becomes greasy after being handled for a long time. A small soft baby brush works well for this but it may take your hamster time to get used to it.
Generally, Chinese and Dwarf hamsters don’t need grooming at all, but if you have a long-haired Syrian hamster, they may need a little more attention especially as they get older.
Long-haired Syrian males can grow what is known as a ‘skirt’ (basically the tufty bit at the back of the hamster) which is prone to getting matted and may need to be groomed up to three times a week.
If your hamster has a short skirt, you may get away with grooming only once a week.
To get rid of any matting, you can tease it out with a fine comb, a soft baby brush or even a children’s toothbrush and just brush over and smooth over your hamster’s fur.
Make sure that you don’t brush your hamster’s head as it can make them nervous and ideally, you should do this from a young age so your hamster will get used to it very quickly.
If necessary, feel free to cut or trim the skirt, especially if it becomes uncomfortable for your hamster or becomes troublesome to keep tidy. Just don’t trim too much off it can lead to a chill.
If you have a hamster with a long skirt, you may find that some substrates can get stuck in their fur which can cause notting and matting and can be painful for them if you try to remove it.
Therefore, to prevent this from happening, you should either use a paper-based substrate or a wood-based cat litter that won’t cause as many tangles as substrates such as Aspen.
Because hamsters are prey animals they don’t openly show any signs of illness or pain even if they are suffering severely.
Hamsters can also feel ill and go downhill very quickly so you need to get your hamster to the vet when needed – just because hamsters are small and cheap this doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t go to a vet when they need help.
In addition to taking your hamster to the vet when needed, you must also carry out some regular checks yourself which can help to save your hamster’s life if you know what to look for.
Healthy hamsters behave normally, move around quite a lot, breathe well and have bright eyes and shiny coats. On the other hand, an ill hamster may have ruffled, dry fur and it’s eyes may look dull or have a white haze covering them which may be a sign of cataracts.
Have a good look at your hamster the next time you handle him or her and run your fingers gently over their body checking for lumps and bumps and ensuring that they haven’t lost weight too quickly.
If you can feel your hamster’s bones more than before, it may be that they have gone off their food or they may have something wrong with their teeth preventing them from eating.
Hamsters can also be affected by many diseases and they can become infected by contaminated food, water or litter material.
If you notice that your hamster is developing repetitive behaviours such as running in circles or gnawing on the bars of their cage for long periods then this could be the result of a boring environment, stress, frustration and/or a lack of mental stimulation.
This is usually fixed by getting a bigger cage and providing toys and activities for your hamster. If however you don’t see any improvement, then see your vet asap.
When to seek veterinary advice
You should check for signs of illness everyday but if you’re unable to, make sure someone else does it. If you think your hamster is in pain, ill or injured, then see a vet asap.
If you notice your hamster exhibiting any of the following common health problems, then you should seek veterinary advice asap.
Seek veterinary advice if your hamster:
- Is not eating or drinking.
- Is sitting in a hunched-up position.
- Has sunken or dull looking eyes.
- ls disinterested at times when normally active.
- Is drinking lots of water.
- Has wet faeces and/or diarrhoea (which may lead to soiling of his/her rear end).
- Has discharge from the nostrils, eyes, vagina etc.
- Has persistent sneezing or coughing – hamsters are highly susceptible to strains of the human cold virus.
- Has difficulty walking or has an unsteady balance.
- Is not using a limb.
- Is persistently scratching, especially if focused on one area.
- Is suddenly more aggressive than usual.
- Has a firm, warm and swollen stomach.
- Has any injuries or abnormal lumps.
- Shows signs of physical discomfort when moving around and being held.
Hamster health checklist
Finally, here are some things that you should check on regular basis:
- Check your hamsters front teeth. These grow continuously throughout the whole of your hamster’s life so they need to gnaw objects to keep their teeth sharp and worn down. If they do become overgrown, you will need to visit a vet to get them clipped. Also, if one incisor tooth becomes damaged then the opposite tooth can keep growing and potentially stop your hamster eating. Hamsters teeth should also be yellow (not white) and about 1cm in length.
- Your hamster’s nose should be dry and not runny, blocked or scabby. Have a listen for any clicking or wheezing which may be a sign of a chest infection.
- Lift your hamster up and check that the anal area that it both dry and free of any redness. If your hamster is wet in this area or you notice your hamster sitting in its own feces and not moving to a dry spot, then these are bad signs and you should see a vet immediately.
- Check your hamster’s ears – these should be open and alert. Make sounds to see their responses.
- Check your hamsters claws. These should be a few millimeters long and shouldn’t curve. If they’re too long, try these tips before visiting your vet to have them clipped.
Finally, although hamsters don’t show many symptoms, if they’re ill, they generally drink water but won’t eat, so keep an eye on their food bowl. Ill hamsters will also sit hunched over as if to protect their body.
You know your hamster better than anyone, so if you notice that something isn’t quite right with your hamster, don’t hesitate to see a vet. It may be something that they can treat easily with antibiotics and may just save your hamster’s life.
So that wraps up my complete beginners guide to hamster care! I hope you have enjoyed reading it as much as I have enjoyed writing about it and I hope you have learned something from it.
Hamsters are amazing animals and relatively low maintenance, but there’s lots to learn and the learning never stops. But the fact that you’re reading this guide, means that you’re already a good hamster owner and I’m sure that your hamster will have a long and happy life.