Like all pet rodents, hamsters need to be provided with good quality, safe beddings and substrates. However, when choosing the best bedding type to give our pets, we need to take into account the particular needs of the species.
This article was co-written with Beri Instone, small rodent wrangler extraordinaire (and custodian of many hamsters).
Table of Contents
Substrate is the bedding material we put in the base of the cage for our pets to live on and dig in. For many common pet rodents like mice, rats and guinea pigs, the main thing we have to think about is absorbency of urine. However, in the wild, hamsters are adapted to live in dry, desert areas which means their bodies use water very efficiently; they don’t make a lot of pee, and their poos are dry pellets.
For hamster substrates the most important thing to consider is how the material will enrich the pet’s life, and provide them with the opportunity to enjoy natural behaviours. In the wild hamsters create complex burrow systems underground, and so providing a set-up filled with materials that let them mimic that, without the burrows collapsing, is important.
Animals that don’t pee much have another advantage, and that is that their bedding doesn’t need changing every week. That means that bedding types that might be too expensive for large and enthusiastically peeing animals like rats can be a practical and affordable option for a hamster cage, despite the deep depths of substrate required for burrowing.
Good substrate options for hamsters include…
Paper and cardboard bedding
Paper bedding options are very affordable for hamsters, and are nice and soft for them to interact with (they’re more sensitive to texture than other rodents). The disadvantage is because paper is so soft, any tunnels a hamster makes are likely to collapse. So, it is best to mix it with another sort of substrate with a different texture. It is important to choose a paper bedding that is not dusty, and is unscented. A complementary bedding is cardboard squares or strips. These are heavier than paper, but have better structure for holding tunnels – if Beri had to choose a single bedding for her hamsters, she’d choose cardboard strips.
Heat-treated wood shavings
Wood shavings have a bad reputation in rodent keeping, because raw softwood shavings can be dusty and contain chemical compounds that irritate rodents’ sensitive respiratory systems. However, heat-treated and dust extracted wood shavings, originally developed for horses, are increasingly available and can make a good substrate option. Longhaired Syrian hamsters can sometimes have issues with the coarse edges of shavings getting stuck in their coats, but for the majority of hamsters, safe shavings are light-weight for the animal to dig in, but hold together structurally, allowing burrows and tunnels to be created.
This is becoming a more popular substrate option, as it allows for a more naturalistic set-up. However, it is important to note that most coir (which is sold for gardening and reptile-keeping) is moist in the bag, which is detrimental to hamster health. Therefore, if using this, it is important to dry the material out properly before putting it in the cage. A mixture of dry coir and safe shavings can work well to create a substrate with lots of engagement for the hamster.
Using more than one substrate is the best way to create a digging environment that will provide good structure for burrows and textural interest for enrichment.
Hamsters love to dig – it is an important behaviour for them and it is essential that their cage set-up allows them plenty of digging opportunities. Ideally, they should be able to dig anywhere in their cage base, but if it isn’t possible to make that substrate deep enough, then they’ll also need a special digging area.
How do you tell if the substrate is deep enough? Imagine three hamsters stacked on top of each other. Could you bury them in the substrate? If so, it’s deep enough. If the top imaginary hamster would stick out, you need a digging area.
There are three different options for creating a digging area. What they all have in common is that they need a good-sized footprint, so the hamster can tunnel horizontally as well as vertically.
- Provide a deeper digging box in the cage, similar to a rat digging box, but with hamster appropriate depth and substrate.
- Sectioning off some of the base of the habitat and have it very full at one end. This is easiest to do in a tank, but if you have a barred cage without a deep enough base, it’s possible to fix vinyl flooring or corrugated plastic onto the bars to contain the substrate.
- Providing a ‘booster’ on top of the main substrate in the form of long-strand dust-free hay/ straw.
Of course, there is no reason not to go to town and do all three. A good sized cage can have a main base with areas of different substrate thickness, boosters of hay, straw, paper strips, and also a digging box higher up in the cage.
Hamsters create 3D nests, often with a proper tunnel entrance (imagine a warm igloo). Some people prefer to give hamsters rigid beds filled with bedding in the way you might with other species. However, it is actually better and more natural to give your hamster a huge pile of nesting material to create their own nest. Having that control over their nest space makes them feel more secure in their surroundings. Providing some artificial bed options is fine, but don’t be surprised if the hamster doesn’t use them for sleeping in.
Hamsters are very clean and generally can retain the same nesting material for months as they don’t wee and poo in it. When you do change their bedding material, or if you are going to deconstruct the nest to check for food that’s been hoarded, then save some of the old nesting material and return it to the cage with the new. Their bed/ nest is very important for hamster mental wellbeing so don’t disturb their beds too often as it will stress them out.
What are the best materials for hamster nesting?
We want substances that will allow enormous igloo / volcano nests to be constructed. That means long strips of bedding rather than short / heavily chopped up fragments. Beri likes using long newspaper strips, hay, and safebed for hamsters. Using a mixture of nesting materials is better than just one, as it provides more enrichment for the hamster, allowing them to make decisions and construct more complex structures.
Hamsters are clean animals and will pee and poo in one corner of their cage. Some hamsters can be litter trained to your choice of location, but the majority prefer to pick their own place. As hamsters don’t pee or poo in their bed, it’s likely that they will choose a location near to their nest (no one wants to go far when getting out of bed to wee!). Many hamsters prefer to toilet in a semi-enclosed location so a little house with no floor can give them feelings of privacy while still being easy for the owner to clean.
It’s important to remember where your hamster likes to toilet when you clean and layout the cage so that one area is consistently the toilet. That makes spot cleaning the area much easier and reduces the overall cage cleaning needed.
The most absorbent litter is paper cat litter, which is recommended for species like rats and mice. However, some hamsters will avoid it because it is too hard and blocky. One option is to put the paper litter under a layer of their normal substrate, but they may prefer a different material altogether. Options include sand, soft paper substrates, or maybe a bit of fine chopped straw. These are obviously less absorbent than paper cat litters, but this is less of an issue with hamsters as they only produce a little urine.
Hamsters don’t wash by licking themselves as this wastes precious water (this is one of their adaptations to being a desert species). Instead, to clean their fur and skin they have sand baths. This stops skin oils (both their own, and any human ones from handling) making their coats greasy and keeps them fluffy and healthy. You can tell hamsters that don’t have access to sand just from photos and initial handling. Providing access to a sand bath is vitally important to hamster welfare, but it is something that is frequently overlooked.
Some people don’t like to give sand baths in the cage because hamsters will sometimes use them as litter trays. If your hamster gets regular free range you can give daily access to a sand bath in their free-range area instead, but it’s best care practice to provide 24/7 access to sand in the cage. External access needs to be for at least 30 minutes every day, so providing this can become quite labour intensive.
The simplest option is to provide two sand baths in different parts of the cage. That way if the hamster does decide to pee and poo in one, it will keep the other for bathing. Hamsters have good hygiene and won’t mix the two up.
It’s important to use actual sand and not dust. The cheapest way to do this is to buy sand sold as children’s play sand, and bake some in a bread tin in the oven to evaporate water but be careful, hot sand is very hot – do not touch it! For a simpler but more expensive option, many petshops now sell chinchilla sand.
To provide the sand in the cage, there are various options, including sand bath containers sold in pet shops. The best way is to section off a bit of the cage base and have a sandy area for walking in. High sided baking trays can help contain the sand and stop it getting dispersed through the rest of the substrate. If that’s not practical then big dog bowls can work. For something more enclosed, a side opening glass cookie jar is good, although some species of hamsters may need a wooden bridge in the entrance to help them get in and out.
How often should you clean a hamster cage?
Hamsters don’t need to be cleaned out very often. An ethical minimum cage size of 4000 cm sq (620 sq inches) can be easily left for a month, if toilet areas are spot cleaned as needed. Setups that are bigger still can last 3-6 months between cleanouts depending on details of the size and layout. However, if a cage is to be left that long between cleans, it is important to regularly check it to make sure it’s okay (e.g. there is no rotting food, any damp corners are removed, that there are no problems with stashes / caching behaviour etc.).
When the cage is fully cleaned, it is important to leave at least ¼ of old substrate to sprinkle back around the cage. This keeps the hamster’s home smelling familiar to them, and stops them getting stressed.
When cleaning the cage, or even checking it over, make sure you first remove the hamster to a secure carrier to make sure they don’t get stressed or escape.
So, there are our preferences for hamster substrates, based on Beri’s research and years of experience. If you have a question, let us know in the comments!