Are hamster cages the best type of housing for pet hamsters? By cages I'm referring to the barred variety - usually made of stainless steel and usually with a plastic tray underneath. The general rule of thumb is to get as big a cage as you can possibly afford. The hamster cage may look big when you first buy it in comparison to the hamster but after you've put in a food bowl, the toys, the exercise wheel, it will start to look pretty cramped and hamsters who don't get enough exercise can develop cage paralysis (seehamster diseases).
What are the different types of hamster cages available?
- Conventional wire hamster cages - these are readily available at most pet stores and some even provide you with a 'hamster starter kit' ie they've put it all together for you, all you need to do is choose your hamster. With the growing popularity of dwarf hamsters, hamster cages with the bars are not the ideal for these types of hamsters. As their name implies, they are the midgets of the hamster world and barred cages are usually designed with the larger Syrian hamsters in mind, so the smaller dwarf hamsters can often squeeze through the bars with dire consequences ie you come home to an empty cage with an escapee in the house somewhere or you end up with a hamster that's stuck between the bars of the cage and often in a less than satisfactory condition healthwise. The advantages of these wire cages is that they are cheap, relatively durable, lightweight and importantly easy to keep clean. Many of these hamster cages have a detachable wire frame which you can remove from the plastic base making cleaning fuss free. Disadvantages of these wire hamster cages is that they can be rather draughty (you will need to take that into account when you decide where you want to put the cage) and the chances of the hamster being caught between the cage bars in escape attempts. Some hamster cages also have rather shallow trays which would allow shavings and the like to be scattered outside the cage in your hamster's efforts to burrow.
- Glass aquariums as alternative hamster cages - these tend to be more expensive as an investment and they do tend to be heavier so you will need to take that into account when you decide where you want to put your pet hamster's home. Other disadvantages include being more difficult to clean than wire hamster cages (there are some hamster enthusiasts who will disagree with me and they will tell you that they are easy to keep clean and hygienic) - the difficulty lies in the fact that the only access you have to clean it is via the top (you have to reach down), the glass aquarium is considerably heavier and will break if you aren't careful. You will also need to have other methods of providing water to your pet hamster housed in an aquarium - wire cages allow for easy placement through the cage bars and attachment. I know of hamster enthusiasts who have gotten around this problem by using velcro adhesive pads stuck onto the water bottles. Just bear in mind that they can detach if your hamster decides to climb on the water bottle. There is also the problem of condensation - remember that your hamster is by nature a semi-desert dweller, if you have a solid top for your glass aquarium, you are going to have problems with condensation. Using a wire lid as an alternative solves this problem - just make sure it's secured on well to the top so that your little Houdini will not have a chance to explore beyond his hamster home. DO NOT put these near a window sill where you get sun because chances are it will act like a heat trap and possibly cook your hamster. The advantages of using glass aquariums as hamster cages is that it cuts down on draughts, you can see into their burrow (especially nice when you have a nest full of babies to watch), you cut down the incidence of wire cage bar accidents to zero, it's probably the best form of hamster caging for dwarf hamsters.
- Plastic tube hamster cages - at first glance, these types of hamster cages scream 'fun filled play paradise for hamsters'! But if you are determined to give your pet hamster this entertainment paradise, be prepared to do a lot of cleaning - a lot of these plastic tube hamster cages are a nightmare to clean out. Larger Syrian hamsters and pregnant hamsters have been known to get stuck in some of these tubes so fun filled wonderland may turn into death trap pretty quickly. The other thing to note is that many of these tube hamster cages have little ventilation ie they will get smelly a lot quicker and condensation could be a problem. As with most plastic cages, they can get scratched with time. Some hamster cages on the market have a mix of wire on one side and other plastic tubing to combat the ventilation and condensation problem. Advantages are they are draught proof, they afford great entertainment for hamsters (provided they don't get stuck) and they give you hours of viewing pleasure watching him/her crawl through the different compartments.
- Plastic aquariums as hamster cages - These have the same advantages and disadvantages as the glass aquariums but they tend to be lighter than glass so cleaning may not be as onerous a task and the risk of breakage isn't there like glass hamster cages. They do however tend to get scratched with time and you may find that aesthetically unpleasant.
How often do I need to clean my hamster's cage?
That all depends on the type of cage you have and the number of animals you have in the cage (you can keep 2 dwarf hamsters in the one hamster cage but Syrian hamsters are usually housed in isolation). The general rule of thumb is whenever the cage gets smelly - which works out to be at least once a week for most wire hamster cages but more often for plastic tube cages with little ventilation.
Can I use a second hand hamster cage for my new pet hamster?
Yes you can but make sure you clean it thoroughly before you put your new pet hamster in it - disinfect it well because the previous hamster occupant could've died of some infectious hamster disease and you wouldn't want your new baby to catch whatever he/she had!
Can I make my own hamster cage?
You sure can and very economically too. You can buy those see through plastic storage containers - just make sure it's large enough and replace the lid with a wire mesh top to ensure adequate ventilation. You will have the same problem as the other solid sided hamster cages (as above) when it comes to placement of the exercise wheel, the water sipper bottle but you can use velcro for attaching the water bottle (or use a ceramic dish) and get free standing exercise wheels.
What do I need to put in hamster cages?
- bedding material - the most common is wood shavings, you can buy this from most petstores. Just check that the material isn't too fine as it will cause eye irritations. Avoid scented wood shavings - these can cause irritation to the hamster's nasal passages. The ideal wood type for shavings is Aspen - it is non-toxic. Bear in mind that your hamster lives in burrows in the wild, so supply them with ample bedding material to burrow and hide. Most hamsters like to make a nest - in the wild they will harvest materials and bring them back to the burrow to make a nest to sleep in. You can provide this luxury to your hamster by using undyed and unscented paper eg toilet paper (not newspaper or magazine paper - the dyes are toxic to hamsters if they ingest it), tear it into strips and see him/her start collecting and building! Some hamster enthusiasts swear by hay but it does tend to get messy and dusty. Avoid using cotton wool, knitting wool or any other cloth materials, hamsters will munch on their nesting material and these do tend to get caught in their digestive system and make them really sick. Some hamsters have also been known to get their feet caught up in these fibers which results in injury.
- water source - this usually comes in the form of a water bottle or a ceramic dish (dishes can get fouled by hamster's food and shavings so it will require more frequent cleaning).
- food source - this isn't exactly a must have for a hamster cage, your hamster can (and will) eat food you've sprinkled onto their bedding material. And whilst the sprinkling of food will give your hamster the added stimulus of having to 'find' its food, it does mean that uneatten food isn't as easily cleaned up and it will be hard for you to work out how much he/she is actually eating.
- hamster toys - these are add-ons - see hamster toys for more information.
- other hidey holes - because hamsters live in burrows, they adore hiding in things. You can provide these extra hidey holes by supplying them with toilet paper tubes in your hamster's cage for additional 'entertainment'. They will enjoy hiding in them and most will gnaw them to bits in time. There are other hidey holes that are more 'permanent' with plastic and wooden tubes for them to hide in and climb over.
- sand baths - some people (especially dwarf hamsters owners) will provide a bowl (ceramic is best) of sand for them to 'bathe' in. Hamsters in their natural environment would have access to sand all the time so giving them some would definitely be a big plus. However, just note that it does get messy sometimes but that's what you have to put up with if you are all for a happy hamster!
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