Housing Your Hamster

A hamlet is a small village, but a hamster hamlet is always a village of one. Your pet is a solitary creature and needs to live by himself. A golden hamster cage should be no smaller than one foot square, but your hamster will be much happier in a cage twice that size. He needs room to exercise, a thick layer of shavings as bedding on his cage floor, and a quiet place to sleep away the day.

Hamsters are largely nocturnal creatures. During the day, wild hamsters sleep in elaborate burrow systems that can be up to 30 feet long. A hamster's feet are adapted for quick digging and burrowing, and you will find that your domestic hamster still has a strong instinct to tunnel through the bedding in his cage. They are also adept at maneuvering through small holes and tight corners, so respect your hamster's strengths as an escape artist.

The Cage

Most hamster cages available at pet stores have a solid plastic dish for a base and an upper cage made with closely spaced metal bars. The cage may have one or more interior levels with wire ramps or ladders to allow your pet access to the "loft" spaces. You can also keep your hamster in an empty aquarium but be careful about ventilation. Hamsters can't handle high humidity, so you may want to replace the standard aquarium lid with a top made from 1 cm. by 1 cm. wire mesh. Be sure that the top fits snugly against the sides of the aquarium: Your hamster is an excellent escape artist and may be able to squeeze through a very small gap in the wire.

Do not store your hamster in a cardboard or wooden box. He can easily chew through these materials and get out. Deluxe hard plastic structures with prefabricated tunnels and chambers may look appealing but they can be very difficult to clean. When possible, pick a cage with a large door opening or a lid that lifts off. This makes cleaning easier and also makes for less drama when you're trying to take your pet out of his cage.

Cover the bottom of the cage with a generous helping of shavings or sawdust – at least two inches of absorbent bedding that's not too dusty. This material serves as floor covering but also ends up in your hamster's mouth when he's building his nest or rearranging his food stash. Stay away from cedar shavings that may cause respiratory damage in small rodents.

Nest Box

Hamsters are more active during the night than the day. Since you will likely keep your hamster's cage in a room that gets daytime traffic, it's a good idea to give your hamster a nest box to sleep in. Some cages come equipped with a 6-inch-by-6-inch box on one of the upper levels, but it is easy to "add on" if your cage doesn't have one. You can buy a separate nest box, build one out of a durable wood, or simply turn a small coffee can over on its side in the cage. Give your hamster some soft bedding, like shredded tissue paper or hay (not straw) to build his cozy nest. Never give him cotton, wool or shredded newspaper that has colored ink on it – these products may be hazardous to your hamster's health.

The Routine

Keep your hamster's cage out of direct sunlight and away from the radiator. A temperature range from 65 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal for hamsters. You will need to supply the cage with a water bottle but a ceramic food dish is optional. Most hamsters will immediately collect the food you give them and hide it away in secret pockets in their nests, negating the role of the dish. When you clean your hamster's cage (at least once a week) you should put some of the excess seeds or grains back where you found them, taking care to remove any rotting food. Be sure to empty and clean the nest box when you are cleaning the rest of the cage.

A Note on Dwarf Hamsters

Housing a dwarf hamster is slightly different than housing a golden hamster. Dwarf hamsters are small enough to slip through the bars of a standard hamster cage, so you may want to buy a mouse cage instead. Dwarf hamsters are also more social than golden hamsters, so you can often keep more than one dwarf in a cage. Pick two hamsters that are the same species and approximately the same age and size. To avoid unwanted babies, have the person who sells you the hamsters check the sexes of your pets and buy a same-sex pair.

For more information on dwarf hamsters, please see the related story "Choosing a Dwarf hamster".