High-Tech Habitats for Hamsters and other Small Friends

In the "good" old days, hamster and mouse cages were made of metal, and hamster playthings consisted of cardboard tubes from the inside of toilet paper or paper towel rolls. The wheel, being metal, squeaked as it turned. Hamsters, being nocturnal, got into it at night. You, as a result, got very little sleep.

But things have changed. Over the last several years housing for hamsters, mice, gerbils and other small rodents has gone high-tech and is made of polymer plastics in translucent colors. The basic cage is passé. Housing for these pets has gone pre-fab. You buy your basic housing unit with all the necessities – feeding dish and water bottle as well as a hideaway cube, a solarium, and quiet plastic wheel. Then, when you're ready to move up, you can add, say, a playroom, a tree house, and perhaps a ladder and slide. And finally, you might decide to add a second home, say a villa with a sky tower. Your hamster needs a vehicle so you might want to buy a dragster or turbocycle. Your hamster goes into the little wheel of the vehicle and when he turns the wheel the vehicle allows the hamster to scoot around the house safely by his own power.

Hamster or mouse or gerbil power is nothing to sniff at. While these little animals sleep a great deal, when they're awake they're in constant motion, by at least one reckoning, adding up to some 3 miles a day. Anyone who owns one knows that most of that motion is put into burrowing in his cage litter, stuffing his cheeks full of chunks of food and taking it under his litter. The word hamster itself comes from the German for "hoarder."

Let Your Animal Burrow

The new hamster and mouse habitats are designed to take advantage of your animal's natural urge to burrow. Taking a page from the old ant farms, which made the complex maze of the ant farm visible, the new habitats allow you to watch your hamster run through his daily paces. When you show people your pet, he's no longer a raised lump of wood shavings. The pets get exercise and you get entertainment without having to take your pet out and risk him vanishing beneath the refrigerator.

A few companies make these prefabricated habitats and additions. The basic units are connected by tubes through which the animal "burrows." The tubes are connected by different shape connectors – T-shaped, cube-shaped or round. Constructing the extended setup brings into play all the same genius that you used in putting together your electric trains, Erector® set or Lego® blocks. The basic units sell for around $30 to $40 and the various attachments and accessories sell for anywhere from $2 on up. The modules of three companies, S.A.M., Safari and Habitrail, are interchangeable so you can attach S.A.M.'s Crittertrail tubes to Habitrail modules so your hamster can get to the Crittertrail tidy toilet that may be located in the Safari thatched-roof chateau made of real woven grass.

Bedding Is Important

The plastic is non-toxic and the rounded edges give some protection from gnawing. Your pet still needs a layer of bedding, and even this is much easier to get without shredding your newspapers. Since pine and cedar shavings have been found to contain oils that are toxic to hamsters, gerbils and other rodents, use ash shavings if you want to stick to wood. Otherwise, good alternatives are compressed cotton with wood chips, which come in a pad that you put into the cage and let your hamster shred by himself, or pelleted recycled newspaper. These setups still need to be cleaned regularly, but they're easy to wash. You can always let your hamster stay in the solarium while you clean out his suite.

For smaller animals such as dwarf hamsters and smaller rodents, you can buy narrower tubes to allow the animal to do his burrowing. Also be sure to add some wood for your animal to chew – perhaps one of the new wood chew toys that come in the shape of apples or carrots.

If you don't want to spend the money on the basic setup and you are lucky enough to have an old aquarium, these companies make plastic covers to fit aquariums. The covers are made to accommodate tunnels and attachments.