October 21, 2009
Choose your hammie's cage wisely
There are several hamster housing options, each with pros and cons. To find the right one for your hammie, consider factors such as species type, safety, maintenance, budget, and above all, size.
A rule that you must always follow: Syrian hamsters cannot be housed together! They are territorial, solitary animals and will fight and inflict serious wounds to each other if not kept apart. They can, however, be kept near each other in separate housing. Dwarf hamsters MIGHT be kept together in same-sex housing; read more below.
Size it up
In the wild, hamsters have separate chambers in their burrows for sleeping, eating, and eliminating, and they tend to observe the same customs in their cages. One corner will be the bathroom, another will serve as the pantry for storing food stashes, and another will be his bedroom.
Room to spread out (and to burrow and nest) is important. When selecting a cage, keep in mind that your hamster will spend most of his time in this contained space. Bigger is better when it comes to hamster housing!
Once you've selected the right housing for your hammie, you'll need to determine where in your house your hamster will live. Here are some factors to consider:
- The ideal temperature range for hamsters is approximately 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit. Hamster housing should be located away from strong heat sources such as direct sunlight, wood stoves, or fireplaces. This is especially important if your hamster is kept in an aquarium or modular unit, both of which have poor ventilation and can heat up quickly.
- Don't put your hamster's cage in an unheated room, breezeway, garage, or other cold location. When the temperature falls below 60 degrees, your hamster's activity level will decrease, and temperatures below 50 degrees are likely to prompt hibernation. Temperatures below freezing can kill your hamster.
- Place the cages in a draft-free area (e.g., away from doors and on an elevated surface).
- If you're a light sleeper, remember that hamsters are active at night and you may not want the cage in your bedroom.
- Don't keep your hamster's cage in the kitchen since dirty bedding may be kicked out of the enclosure and contaminate food preparation areas.
- Make sure your hamster's cage is safe from other pets who may see him as prey.
- If you have young children, put the cage in an area where you can control access and supervise child-hamster interactions.
Read about the different types of cages, and the pros and cons of each.
This popular option features a coated wire cage over a detachable plastic base. These cages often include different levels for your hamster to explore, but very tall ones can be dangerous. Hamsters have poor eyesight and depth perception, and they can be seriously injured in a fall from the upper platforms.
Size: Minimum of two square feet.
Look for: A half-inch or less of space between bars to prevent escape (hamsters can squeeze through very small gaps; if their heads fit through an opening, their bodies will easily follow).
Solid platforms and ramps: wire flooring can be uncomfortable on small paws (you can easily modify wire surfaces by covering them with cardboard, ceramic or vinyl tiles, or mats available in pet supply stores).
Price: $35 and above for an adequately sized cage for hamsters.
Good housing for: Syrian hamsters (the most common type of hamster; also known as golden or teddy bear hamsters). They're larger, so spacing between bars shouldn’t be a problem. Remember that Syrian hamsters should only be housed one to a cage.
Wire hamster cages may not be appropriate for dwarf hamsters, depending on the spacing between the bars. Wire cages designed for mice or rats may be good choices, but cages designed for rabbits, ferrets, guinea pigs, or birds won’t be right for hamsters.
Pros: Good ventilation, easy to clean, platforms at different heights provide variety in the hamster's environment, available in a range of styles.
Cons: Openings between the bars of the cage may allow smaller hamsters (particularly dwarf species) to escape; children can stick fingers between bars; cats and dogs can get noses and claws through them.
If you have young kids or other pets, keep the cage in a safe place, or consider using an aquarium, bedding material often gets kicked out of wire cages, particularly if the base is shallow, so cleanup can be more involved; falls from overly tall platforms can seriously injure your hamster.
Aquariums typically have a solid glass or plexi-glass base and sides. It's important to include a well-fitting mesh cover over the top.
Many pet supply stores don’t market aquariums specifically for hamsters, but you can usually find them in the fish and aquatic sections of these stores or online.
Regular cage cleaning is important for any type of housing, but it's especially critical for aquariums. Their poor ventilation means that odors such as ammonia from pet urine can build up quickly. At best, these odors reduce your hamster’s quality of life; at worst, they cause respiratory problems and other health issues. Even if your hamster’s aquarium looks clean, bedding material such as recycled wood pulp has a tremendous capacity for absorbing urine and water. The bottom line? Clean the cage thoroughly on a weekly basis and spot clean more frequently as needed.
Size: Minimum 24 inches long and 12 inches wide; 10-gallon aquariums are too small. Consider not only size but shape—a long aquarium is better than a tall aquarium with unused height.
Look for: Well-fitting cover with durable wire mesh (hamsters are varsity-level chewers who can easily gnaw through thin screen)
Price: $45 and up for a basic 20-gallon aquarium; the mesh covers are often sold separately
Good housing for: Dwarf hamsters. Aquariums have no open bars for the small guys to get through. Unlike Syrian hamsters, most dwarf hamsters can be kept in same-sex pairs or small groups. Just remember that the more hamsters you plan to house together, the larger the aquarium should be.
Pros: Solid siding can thwart escape artists and prevent unwanted or inappropriate attention from young children or pets in your household, good for dwarf hamster breeds, transparent siding allows easy viewing of hamster activity.
Cons: Poor ventilation (aquariums need to be kept in well-ventilated areas), harder to clean, can be boring environment for hamsters; you will need to provide increased enrichment
If you're having trouble deciding between different housing options or want to provide your hammie with more room, consider getting an aquarium and adding a tank topper. A wire cage attaches to the top of the aquarium, creating a two-story duplex. The upper level provides climbing opportunities and good ventilation, while the base (aquarium) holds ample bedding for digging, burrowing and nesting. Although some owners don’t like removing the wire cage attachment to coax out a hidden hamster or clean the aquarium, many others find that tank toppers provide the best of both worlds.
These brightly colored plastic cages are appealing to the eye and have been widely marketed as the preferred hamster housing option. But many hamster enthusiasts have turned away from these cages because of their lack of ventilation and the difficulty in cleaning them. Although some models provide better air flow by incorporating sections of wire siding, the small size of most “habitats” and their hard-to-clean nooks and crannies still present major drawbacks.
Size: Habitats generally have smaller base units than wire cages or aquariums, but they often have sections that extend vertically or horizontally to increase the hamster’s room to roam. However, very few models are comparable in overall size to wire cages or aquariums.
Price: Larger units typically range from $35-$65. Many of the hamster starter kits are exceptionally small and should be avoided.
Good housing for: Dwarf varieties. Modular housing units aren’t a good choice for Syrian hamsters since they can get stuck in the tubing.
Pros: Solid siding can thwart escape artists and prevent unwanted or inappropriate attention from children or pets in your household, easily expandable because of the modular design, may include tunnels for burrowing and different levels to explore.
Cons: Poor ventilation leads to odor; numerous small parts make cleaning difficult, promoting bacterial growth; hamsters tend to make nests inside tunnels; cage size may be smaller than needed; larger hamsters may get stuck in tubes; darker-colored siding and small openings can make it difficult to locate and remove your hamster.
Reviewed by Linda J. Siperstein DVM, staff veterinarian at the VCA Wakefield Animal Hospital in Wakefield, Mass.