Many years ago, hamsters resided in small cages that held only a wheel, a house and a food bowl. Today, hamsters have many options to choose from, ranging from multi-storeyed cages to tunnel habitats. Home-made or store bought, there is much to choose from. Cages can be quite expensive but most cages come with equipment included, such as water bottles, food bowls, and exercise wheels. Home-made houses require some DIY and may be cheaper.
The type of hamster you have will influence your decisions in how you would like to house them. Where it is relevant, I will mention how suited certain methods are to certain types of hamsters. If you are buying a home, use some common sense, ask yourself is there any way your hamster can escape from that cage. Hamsters are Houdini escape artists and they are not shy about using their talents. Dwarf hamsters will fit between bars if given a wire cage more suited to a Syrian so be aware of that. In general, choose the biggest housing you can afford as the bigger the home, the better the quality of life.
I will begin by going through a variety of cages, some of the popular brands and then I will talk about some home-made methods you can adopt. I will finish off with a short paragraph about placement of cages.
This is the traditional housing method for hamsters. Wire cages have a wire frame and a plastic tray base. They vary on the amount of floors and some come with tunnels attached. Wire cages are usually easy to assemble and because the wire is metal, it tends to last longer than some plastic cages. They also cost cheaper than some of the hamster habitats. A basic wire cage example looks like this. My hamster had three wire cages. It sounds rather excessive but I bought Coco when I was in the final year of university. He had a cage at my uni residence and he had another cage at my home address so when I visited home, I would take him with me. The cage at university had a tunnel attached to the wire frame and was tedious to clean so when I finished university, I changed to the basic wire cage (2 platform floors) that I had at home. I only bought a third cage when that one broke (one of the bars detached and the 2cm gap was enough for Coco to escape). The last one was a wire cage with 2 platforms.
Here are some features you may find in wire cages:
· Several floors provide more space in a wire cage. There is no point in a wire cage that is high without adding in floors and ladders. It is quite fun to see a hamster navigating up and down the cage. Only con is that it is bit fiddly to remove platforms for cleaning once you have them in. My solution to this is to wipe with a wet cloth instead of removing. Your hamster is likely to choose a corner at the base of the cage for a toilet so the other floors are unlikely to be very dirty. This Samba House cage was the last cage I got. The accessories were below standards but I only wanted the cage to replace the last broken cage so those were all discarded. As the floors felt quite far apart to me, I used a sturdy grass mat and created a floor in between for stepping down purposes. I then took away the ladders as the extra floor made all that unnecessary. The platforms slid about so I tied those down. This cage is not one I would suggest as it is far from perfect but with some renovating, it worked for my hamster. When choosing a cage with platforms, check the heights of each floor as if they are too high, your hamster may become injured jumping off.
· Tunnels imitate a wild hamster’s habitat and occasionally, wire cages will have a tunnel component. These are made of plastic and are fitted using a series of connectors. My first cage had a tunnel, Savic Peggy Metro Deluxe. My hamster really enjoyed going into these tunnels and at first he would make his home in the tunnel by dragging his bedding in and then his food. This would be fine if the tunnels didn’t become filled with condensation from his breathing. He also had a short period of time where he used one of the tunnels as a toilet and that was messy. Tunnels are fun and a nice addition to cages but if you have a dwarf variety, avoid cages that have vertical tunnels unless they are made to be a size suitable for dwarf breeds. Syrian hamsters have no trouble manoeuvring up a vertical tunnel but these tunnels may be too wide for smaller hamsters. The main disadvantage to using tunnels is the cleaning and dismantling that will be necessary.
· Hamster cage bases will usually be a plastic tray. The deeper this tray is, the less mess you will find outside the tray. It doesn’t seem like an important thing to look out for but if you really do not like wood shavings etc. on your floor, then you should keep an eye out for deeper bases. Oh, my hamster used to be able to pee over the edge of his last cage so that’s another reason why deep bases are useful. The plastic used for the base should be quite hard; I’ve never had a hamster chew a hole in the base!
· I thought I might just mention this as it was a big criteria for me when it comes to choosing a cage but that’s because my hamster had a special requirement. I used to let him free run in the room after hamster proofing it and he liked to go back in the cage when he was tired or needed a drink. To enable him decide when he wanted to go home and when he wanted to come out, I needed a door that was on the side as opposed to being on the top of the cage. Practically all cages have doors on the top and occasionally, a cage will have a side door. However, side doors that are poorly made might not last against a strong hamster. I used this Home Sweet Home Penthouse cage and it was great, Coco loved it until he managed to break one of the bars by the side door and escape.
Wire cages are better than other cages in several ways. They are cheaper than buying a habitat and simpler to put together too. If you are not very good with DIY, a wire cage would be a better option than building a home. Wire cages are hardier due to the metal. They also offer the most ventilation for a cage. Whilst hamsters do not smell themselves, their urine can be quite strong smelling. It is important to not let urine levels build up in a cage as ammonia increases and can make a hamster ill. Ventilation will prevent smells from building up but you will still need to remove soiled litter or shavings regularly. Wire cages can also be quite interesting for hamsters that like climbing up the cage bars. Cleaning wire cages are usually easier and require less work. They come in such a huge variety of shapes and sizes; you will be spoilt for choice. Cages usually come with a home, wheel, water bottle and food bowl so you will not have to buy new equipment if these suit you fine. However, they are not always the best for your hamster so check out the equipment article for more information on that. Be sure to check bar spacing for wire cages. Wire cages provide less protection from draught so you will need to think carefully about cage placement.
Hamster habitats are more expensive and tend to look nicer. They are usually made of plastic and may consist of a network of tunnels. They are very colourful and have clear sections where you can observe your pet clearly without the restriction of bars. They are built with a hamster’s natural habitat in mind and tend to reflect the living conditions found in the wild, lots of tunnels with rooms to rest and play in. Habitats usually give owners the ability to customise and design their hamster’s home. Owners can also change the design of a habitat if they grow old of an original layout. I will discuss some of the popular habitat brands.
· Habitrail/Habitrail OVO– This is a well known brand and is extremely colourful, perfect to capture the attention of children. Habitrail consists of one main room with the options of adding tunnels and extra rooms. The idea behind the habitrail is to match a wild hamster’s habitat. Hamsters have separate places where they sleep, store food and use the toilet. The ability to add rooms enable a hamster to live in a way to imitate their wild counterparts. The main unit will have a plastic bottom and some areas where there is wire for ventilation. The OVO series has a more sleek and modern style and has no metal wire sides like the general Habitrail series. Instead, the OVO has a metal grille at the top for ventilation purposes. There are also holes in the plastic of the tunnels to allow air in. The original Habitrail has a door on the side where there is wire. The OVO series has a front and back door that slides open and shuts with a clasp.
Example of an original Habitrail habitat
Example of a Habitrail OVO Suite for dwarf species
Example of a Habitrail OVO Loft for Syrian species
It should be noted that some of their habitats are slightly small for the larger Syrian species and that the tunnels might be slightly too wide for smaller dwarf species like Roborovski hamsters when placed upright or vertical. To make more room, you can combine the OVO series in a variety of ways. Your imagination is really the limit (and also how much cleaning you are willing to do). Some ideas are to combine two main OVO Suite rooms or to combine an OVO Suite main room with the OVO Loft main room. I have used the Habitrail OVO Suite (with extra main room) for an adopted Campbell’s hamster and I found it easy to build and the connectors were simple to use. Rather than push into place, these had a lock mechanism where you twisted it. A bit fidgety to begin with but once you understand it, it is easy.
A while ago, there were concerns that round cages may have a negative effect on a hamster’s mental state. I doubt there is any truth in that as my sister in law’s Chinese hamsters and my Campbell’s hamster seemed sane enough using the OVO Suit.
· Crittertrail – this looks slightly similar to the original Habitrail habitat in that it has a combination of wired sides, plastic tunnels and the ability to combine many parts and several habitats. There is a larger variety of habitats to choose from and as it has more wired sides, it offers more ventilation than the Habitrail range. Like most habitats, standalone, it is a bit on the small side but by joining other parts together, you can create something large and interesting for your hamster.
Example of a Crittertrail habitat – there is a video on that page that gives you a good idea of what you can do with the Crittertrail range.
Crittertrail has vertical tunnels that are compulsory. These will be difficult for smaller breeds to navigate safely so keep that in mind when choosing a home. Crittertrail habitats have an extra room at the top of the habitat called a ‘petting zone’. This is particularly useful if you need to clean the cage as you can keep your hamster in there for a short period of time. It isn’t very big so do keep an eye on the clock if you leave your hamster in there.
Some of the habitats have wheels located externally. I have heard people saying that these are a pain to remove and clean should your hamster decide to use it for things other than running. I understand that hamsters do not always use their toys in the proper way and this can occur in any cage and not just Crittertrail habitats. However, the main issue was due to some having this external wheel which meant that if a hamster used it as a toilet and then used it as a wheel… well, you can use your imagination there. I used to own an adopted white Campbell’s hamster and he insisted using his wheel as a toilet and exercise wheel at the same time. Luckily, it was an internal wheel.
· Rotastak Cages – these cages are very child friendly as they are made to certain themes. They look fun and will definitely captivate a child’s attention. However, due to the number of components one can expect from a Rotastak cage, the cleaning is really a job for older children and adults. Cages are colour themed and you can choose a theme to suit a child.
All of the Rotastak range is compatible so you can mix and match. Some of the cages have metal wire bars. The other ones that do not have bars may have a condensation problem. Once again, this cage may not be very suitable for small breeds and many of the Rotastak products have wide vertical tubes. I have never owned a Rotastak or know anyone who has so I cannot comment on how easy to clean or use the cage is. I can say that it looks like it has many pieces and may take some time to build.
There are probably more different types of habitat cages but I only mentioned the 3 more popular ones. In general, these habitats are pleasant on the eyes and allow a level of customisation not gained in wire cages. They allow easy expansion but they also cost more. Habitats with poor ventilation will need more regular cleaning and cleaning a habitat will require more time due to the dissembling and reassembling of the product. Also, bear in mind that if a certain item breaks such as an exercise wheel, depending on where it is placed e.g. external, you may need to contact the manufacturer to buy a replacement that fits into that spot. The size of your hamster is an important factor when choosing a habitat as some are unsuitable for small breeds and some tubes may be tight for a Syrian. When my Syrian hamster Coco grew to his full size, he sometimes struggled to turn in a tunnel, and trust me, he was not fat. He never got stuck but it was always something I feared.
DIY Hamster Homes
Making a home for a hamster allows you to design and create something that suits your taste and needs. It is often cheaper as you may find you have equipment around the house that can be converted into a cage. I have never made a hamster home before as I do not have the tools that are necessary to make one, however, I will discuss some ideas I have come across or heard about and where possible, direct you to sites that have tutorials. There are plenty of tutorials about so if none of the information I put up here meets your needs, do look around as there is bound to be something that matches what you have in mind.
· Bases – most DIY homes are made using either one of these bases. A plastic transparent bin/storage box or a glass aquarium. With some imagination, you can probably find something else to use as a base but the most important features is that it has to have enough floor space and it has to be high. If you are a hardcore DIY enthusiast, you can probably change old furniture like small bookcases into a hamster home. Glass aquariums are sturdier and last longer but they are also heavier to move around and you will not be able to drill ventilation holes in it. Plastic bins are lighter but if somehow your hamster was able to chew the sides (unlikely, but depends on how the bin is made), they will be able to create a hole. However, you can drill holes for ventilation and it is more versatile to add things on.
· Lids – You will need to make a lid and at the simplest level of DIY cages, this lid will be a door. To reach your hamster, you will lift off the lid. Lids will have to have lots of holes for ventilation, especially if you are using an aquarium. If you are using a storage bin that came with a lid, you can cut out the middle of the lid, leaving a few inches of the outer part as a frame and attach a mesh grid on for ventilation. That way you will have both ventilation and a lid that fits on the storage bin perfectly. Mesh will provide you with the most ventilation but you will need to choose a mesh that has holes too small for your hamster to fit through.
This example has kept the original lids and stacked each bin on top of each other. For ventilation, she has cut away an entire wall and added mesh. There is a nice picture and a set of instructions which you can follow.
· Water bottle and wheels – you will need to find a way of hanging your water bottle. If you have mesh on the side, you can attach a bottle the way you would with a wire cage. Using sturdy wire, you can hang the bottle inside the cage and have the wire hook underneath the rim. Or like the link above, you can drill 3 holes in an upside down triangle formation and slide the spout into the bottom hole and pass wire through the top two holes. Try to leave as less gap as possible between the perimeter of a hole and the items you pass through in case your hamster tries to widen the hole. If you choose an aquarium, you will have to hang the water bottle inside the cage. Some exercise wheels can be standalone so will not require any modification to be done to a storage bin and an aquarium will require one of these as holes cannot be drilled. Drilling a hole can enable you to add a wheel.
· Tunnels and other levels – Storage bins can be connected with the use of tunnels. This can further expand space and enable you to add rooms, rather like a habitat would. The tunnel pieces you get from habitats can be used but you will need to measure the hole to cut very carefully. You can also add another level to the home. This tutorial here has an ingenious method to add a new level. Don’t forget to add a ladder if the level is beyond the climbing reach of your hamster. You can add shelves too but once again, all this is only possible if using a storage bin.
I believe that it is safe to say that a storage bin has more possibilities than an aquarium in terms of customisation. They are also cheaper too. If you have the power tools and the DIY know-how, this could be an ideal project for you. Even if you do not have the tools, you can try asking a friendly neighbour to see if they are willing to lend you some tools. There are lots of other tutorials online to choose from and there is no right or wrong way to making a hamster home. Just remember to make it safe by ensuring there is no sharp edges on anything, that there is adequate ventilation and that there are no holes for a hamster to escape.
Placement of a hamster home
By allowing some careful thought when placing a hamster cage, you will enable your hamster to be healthier, both physically and mentally.
· Some cages are more susceptible to things like draught due to the gaps the cage might have. Wire cages are more at risk. As draught can make a hamster seriously ill, it is essential that you place your hamster cage away from areas where draught is likely to occur (windowsills, hallways, behind doors). Draught can seep under the gaps between doors, particularly if the window in that room and another room are opened at the same time. For that reason, it is not a good idea to place a cage on the floor. If you have assessed the area and found no evidence of draught then it is fine.
· As hamsters are nocturnal, they spend most of the day sleeping. If your home is likely to be noisy during the day, it may be better to choose a space where there is less noise. This will allow your hamster to rest in peace and be mentally fit when it is playtime in the evening. Areas where there is a lot of activity during daylight hours, such as hallways where people may be running around a lot can be stressful for hamsters.
· It is alright to place a hamster cage in a bedroom provided that the person wh0 owns the room does not catch a cold. As colds are not always avoidable, be sure to relocate the cage if anyone does fall ill as hamsters can catch the human cold virus.
I hope these pages on hamster housing have been helpful in choosing a method of housing. Your hamster might not be very big but the more space you can offer them, the happier they will be.