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The first and most important thing to remember about Syrian hamsters is ONE HAMSTER ONE CAGE. Although a hamster will almost always be gentle and loving with you, well meaning people think they are lonely, but keep two hamsters together and before long fighting will take place. This could result in serious injuries or even death.
There are many suitable homing options for hamsters. The NHC recommends a minimum of 1000cm2 (useable floor space) x 19cm high for Syrian hamsters and 750cm2 (useable floor space) x 17cm high for Dwarfs. If you can afford a slightly bigger cage of the same type, so much the better.
A useful cage, and one used by many breeders, is the type comprising a "cat litter" tray with a wire top clipped to it. There are many good examples of this type of caging, the Savic Cambridge, Hamster Heaven Metro, Ferplast Criceti are but a few. Levels can be used to increase floor space in this type of home, but do ensure that a young hamster cannot fall the total height of the cage. A piece of cardboard slipped across any opening will help to prevent this. Hamsters love climbing and will get plenty of exercise in this type of cage. For more information on wire caging options, please see our article, Hamster Home Review and its section on Wire homes.
Large moulded plastic cages are gaining in popularity, due to their large floor size, the protection from other pets (such as cats and dogs) due to the secure sides (which also keeps substrate in), good ventilation as they often have a wire panel door set into the moulded lid top, and the ease of access they often provide to the hamster. There is a wide range of hamster suitable moulded plastic cages, Zoozone 2, Ferplast Mini Duna, Imac Bingo are a few examples. They can though be rather expensive and are often sold for larger rodents. Due to this some have too wide a gap in the bars on the wire panel lid doors. This is easily overcome by attaching 1cm x 1cm wire to this panel. For more information on Moulded caging options, please see our article, Hamster Home Review and its section on Moulded homes.
Modular cages are often popular with owners, but may not be as popular to the hamsters! These are homes that comprise of a number of compartments linked by tubes. These look attractive and will stop draughts, although it is expensive to buy enough modules to provide a suitable sized cage. Many 'kits' are often required to approach a suitable floor size. Rotastak is an example of this, even the Creepy Castle could really do with more sections added (the Habitrail OVO range is another example). Even when this is accomplished there is no good open area for the hamster to roam about in. The cage may need to be taken apart to get the hamster out until it gets to know its owner and will come to the owner's voice. These cages can provide protection against claws of other pets. Caution should be taken as many Syrian hamsters can grow too large for the wheels and tubes of this type of caging (Dwarfs may need to be kept alone within it as the seperate areas encourage territorial behaviour). For more information on Modular caging options, please see our article, Hamster Home Review and its section on Modular homes.
Glass or plastic aquariums can also be used but a lid made with 1cm x 1cm wire mesh is required, as the standard hood has little or no ventilation, and so condensation can form. The lid can be made by making a wooden frame that just fits outside the tank and fixing the wire to this. There are some glass tanks made for rodents, Critter's Choice is an example of this. Remember, if you have anything hanging in the tank the hamster is liable to climb this and push the lid off if it is not secured in some way. With all cages, remember that hamsters' teeth keep growing all their lives and they must always chew something hard to keep their teeth at the right length. For more information on Tank caging options, please see our article, Hamster Home Review and its section on Tank homes.
Converted storage tubs are growing in popularity amongst breeders. Large clear plastic storage tubs with secure lids are used (remember to measure the floor space to make sure it is at least the minimums suggested). These are very easy to clean, protect the hamster from pets, can be stacked, provide easy access to the hamster and are often very cost effective, though they do require time and tools, and often a little skill! For details on how to make one please visit our article How to make a Storage Box Home
Whatever hard materials you put in for them to chew, the odds are that they will prefer to chew the bars of the cage, or the edges of any plastic. This is all quite normal. A commercial wood chew or a dog biscuit bone can be provide to help prevent this.
When you have your cage you must then set it up ready for your hamster. A good layer of substrate should be spread on the floor of the cage to absorb the urine. NEVER, NEVER, as suggested in some books, put newspaper under the sawdust, as chewing this could lead to poisoning. Toilet roll or kitchen tissue can be used under the substrate, though often this will be dug up and used as nesting.
You now need to provide your hamster with a nest, there are many choices out there for nesting, as discussed in general care. Some types of fluffy bedding may cause intestinal problems if swallowed and hamsters always pouch the material when making their beds.
Whatever kind of cage you buy you must provide water for the hamster and the best way is to use a commercially made water bottle. Water bottles come in many sizes. For hamsters either the 'hamster' or 'mouse' sizes often work best. Dishes can be used but they tend to be filled up with substrate very quickly. The water should be changed regularly.
Food dishes can be bought and used but normally the hamster will pouch the food and then put it in its store, so the food can just be put in the substrate. As this does not look tidy, many people prefer to use a dish. However, since hamsters must chew, a plastic dish can gradually disappear. A useful substitute is the plastic top of a coffee jar - this will still be chewed but can be replaced from the next jar of coffee. This does not appear to harm the hamster, but if you want to be very careful you can buy pottery or stainless steel dishes.
As mentioned earlier, a commercial wood chew or dog biscuit bone should be provided for the hamster to chew on (e.g. Biscrok* Bonio*) or cat biscuits. The meaty taste is often appealing to the hamster and so provides something useful for the animal to chew on to wear down their ever-growing teeth. Remember though that the biscuit bone needs to be plain, not chocolate coated or with onions or garlic.
Where to put the cage
Care should be taken when positioning the cage as this is most important. Do not place in direct sunlight and make sure it is out of draughts. The cage can be kept in the house or in a frost-free shed or garage but if kept in the latter more bedding must be provided. If kept indoors do not put near radiators or fires as extremes of temperature are harmful. As long as there is no sudden change in temperature the hamster will be safe. If the cage is kept in a bedroom spilt substrate can be a problem with wire cages, but if you get a cardboard box about 5cm bigger than the base of the cage and cut it down to about 10cm high, the cage can stand in this and most of the substrate will be caught.
Toys and Playtime
Many "toys" can be bought for your hamster, including wooden seesaws (or plastic seesaws), tunnels, climbing blocks and ladders, but a lot you can make yourselves. Cardboard rolls can be hung on wire in the cage or just placed into the cage. Cardboard boxes can be put in for them to climb on or nest in. A wooden shelf can be put in most cages and hamsters love to climb on these to groom themselves. For more information please visit our Wooden Toys and Plastic Toys article section for more details.
Nest areas can be bought, giving the hamster something to hide away in with the nesting to feel secure. There are many good options available, from wood arches to plastic huts, to full wood lodges for your hamster. You can also use everyday cardboard items, such as empty tissue boxes, or similar small cardboard boxes. The hamsters will enjoy to use them and to chew them up! Please see our nest areas wooden, and nest areas plastic article for more details.
Your hamster will love to come out of its cage to play, but you must keep an eye on it as they can get through the smallest spaces and can get lost very easily. A play box is a good idea and a cheap one can be made from a plastic water tank, storage box, or an even cheaper one from the boxes televisions come in. If you get such a box, cut it down to about 30cm high and toys can be put inside, but remember do not leave the hamster alone for too long as it will chew its way out. You can then fill this play area with toys just for this space, or ones from the cage.
A bath can be a great place for the hamster. Make sure it is perfectly dry, maybe line it with towels, then either place in toys etc to create a secure playpen, or use it as a place a small child can play with the hamster in a secure environment. Being in the bath with the hamster the child can learn how to hold and handle the hamster in safty, while the hamster explores and climbs over the child getting used it its smells and ways.
Playballs /floor balls /exercise balls can be used for exercise or a place to put a hamster in while you clean the cage, but do not leave them in one for more than a few minutes at a time. They come in a variety of sizes, and as with wheels, the correct size needs to be bought for your hamster. The back of the hamster should not bend when running in the ball. For syrians a medium sized ball is often sufficent, but you may need to get a larger one designed for bigger rodents. Dwarfs usually find the smaller size ball acceptable, but can usually use syrian sized balls without any issues.
Cages should be cleaned once a week to ensure that your hamster is healthy and happy. In the end, whatever type of cage you use and whatever type of toy, please remember to handle your hamster and, above all, enjoy your pet.
For more information, please see our article on Toys and Accessories
Wheels will always be a controversial subject when it comes to "toys" in a hamster's cage but a young hamster does enjoy a wheel. The spoked type can lead to problems with legs slipping and breaking and plastic spoked wheels do tend to be chewed and then they drop off the spindle. A little trick to try on this type of wheel is to fix some cardboard around the outside of the wheel - the legs can no longer slip through but the hamster can get a grip on the spokes.
The solid plastic type is safer, the larger and wider the better. Wheels can be a problem with long-haired hamsters, as the hair catches around the spindle and can be pulled out. Keep an eye on your hamster and its wheel, if you see it marking the fur or if it is a big hamster and its back is really bent when running on the wheel, tie the wheel so it cannot move, or remove it from the cage. If the hamsters back is bending try a larger sized wheel. For more information please see our article on Wheels.
Unlike Syrian hamsters, Dwarfs can live together. Russian Campbells may be kept in single sex pairs or groups; Russian Winter Whites seem to prefer to be in pairs. Chinese hamsters again can be kept in pairs or groups, as can Roborovski. In all cases do not mix males and females unless intending to breed. Do not mix the species, as fighting will break out.
Dwarf hamsters do require different housing to Syrians - because of their small size they can squeeze through the bars of normal cages. They do live very happily in moulded plastic cages, glass tanks with wire lids (small gauge mesh) are also a good option. They may be kept in the 'cat-litter tray' type of cage provided the barred top has spaces of no more than 1cm between the bars. If living alone, then some of the moldular cages with inter-connecting tubes can be suitable. If in the latter, ensure that any vertical tubes are lined with wire mesh so the hamster can grip and travel along them. For more information on cages please visit our article Hamster Home Review. Underbed storage boxes can be converted as normal boxes were as homes, though a dwarf will be as happy in the normal box as an underbed storage box, though obviously one provides more height. For more information on how to make these, please visit our article on How to make a Storage Box Home. Like Syrian hamsters, dwarf hamsters are great escape artists, so do ensure that any home for them is secure!
The cage should be prepared as for the Syrian hamster, but dwarfs love to burrow, as in the wild, so do give them a deeper layer of substrate - some 5cm to 7cm. Normal or smaller water bottles may be used, and special hanging bottles can be bought for use in glass tanks. Again, remember that the hamsters will climb up these, so the lid must be secure. Small cardboard rolls, cardboard boxes etc. will be very welcome to play and hide in. Cages, tanks etc. should be cleaned out once a week or fortnightly, as for the Syrians.