I first cleaned out a hamster over 20 years ago. With just a few pet care books available at the library I had to work out how to clean him out myself. Perhaps that’s why I was a little surprised to find there are now many webpages and videos devoted to ‘how to’ guides on cleaning a hamster cage. Since I first started I’ve had a lot of practice – a full clean out here is a bit of a mission – so I thought I’d share my thoughts on the subject.
I have a general approach which I vary according to the needs of the hamster. I’m a firm believer (as you may have noticed in my previous blog posts) that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to hamster care.
Generally I do a full clean out every 1-2 months with spot cleaning regularly between. Some hamsters may need more frequent cleans, e.g. those with diabetes. I check nest areas regularly between cleans for a build-up of fresh foods and for any signs of ill health. Some hamsters are fine with a full cage clean, others prefer partial cleans. For pairs/groups of dwarf hamsters I only do partial cleans to preserve the group scent.
I start by getting all my cleaning kit together. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting half way through a cage and finding you’ve run out of substrate to refill it! This is my clean out station all ready for the next cage.
- Nesting material
- Bin bag
- Food and water
- Treats (if needed)
- Cardboard boxes and tubes
- Spare toys (if needed)
- Bottle brush
- Kitchen roll
- Disinfectant spray
- Playbox or carrier to secure the hamster
Empty the Cage
First I take the hamster out of the cage and put them in a secure area, for example the playbox or a carrier. I don’t take long cleaning each cage so usually I don’t add a water source to the box or carrier, unless the hamster is diabetic.
I then take out all the toys, nest boxes, wheels and food bowls. I set those to one side and empty the substrate and nesting material. I do have a check of the nest area and a little look through the substrate for any signs of ill health or anything else unexpected (as well as buried toys and bowls!)
For smaller cages I just tip them into the bin bag. For larger cages and heavy glass tanks, I scoop the substrate out with a tub and then use a brush to sweep anything left. I know other people use a vacuum cleaner for cages, but it can be quite hard on the machine and make it prone to breaking.
Clean and Check the Cage
Next I check the structure of the cage for any damage or weak areas, including base, bars, shelves and mesh. Bars can become attached, shelves/plastic bases can be chewed, metal components develop rust or mesh become detached. I make any repairs needed to keep the cage secure before moving on.
I then wipe out the cage base and shelves. There are various options of what to use to wipe out a cage and the choice depends on your situation and preferences. Always make sure what you are using is safe for small pets, and avoid overly scented products.
- Just water
- Vinegar (must be well rinsed, can leave odour)
- Bleach (must be very well rinsed and aired. Need to wear gloves)
- Pet-safe disinfectant from pet shop (avoid scented ones. I like the Beaphar blue coloured one or the green Johnson’s clean and safe)
- Virkon (comes powdered or in tablet form, needs water adding. May need gloves)
If you have an unwell hamster or when using a cage for a new occupant I would always recommend using some form of cleaner and not just water for infection control purposes.
Refill the Cage
When the cage is clean and dry you can put a good layer of substrate over the base of the cage. There are many different substrates available all of which have their pros and cons. Do put as thick a layer of substrate as possible – hammies do like digging. Do check that the water bottle and wheel can still function properly with the amount of substrate though.
I then look at the pile of toys, wheels and bowls that I put to one side earlier. I check them for any damage and clean them thoroughly. Then comes the fun bit – putting all the bits back in the cage and making it look nice.
Don’t forget to put in nesting material. I favour plain white unscented toilet roll. It’s safe, readily available and makes it easy to spot health problems. Avoid the fluffy bedding as it can wrap around limbs and cause problems if swallowed.
Food and Water
The last things I do in the cage are add the food, treats and water. Mostly I scatter feed my hamsters; only a few have food bowls. I also use enrichment feeding to keep the hams occupied – my favourite way is to put the food in a small cardboard box and close the flaps back up. The hamster has to find his/her way in to get their dinner.
To make up for ruining my hams’ cages that they’ve just got nicely dirty, I put treats in at clean out. Dog biscuits are usual, and sometimes they also get dried grass mixes.
The final thing I clean is the water bottle before I refill it and replace it on the cage.
Finally I pick the hammy up out of the playbox or the carrier and give him/her a health check. I then have one last look at a lovely clean and tidy cage before putting the hammy back in – where s/he usually goes straight to work making it look a mess again!
I take this opportunity to ensure that the cage is secure. If wire doors have become looser over time, I use a bulldog clip. Some lids on glass tanks may need velcro/duct tape to prevent hamsters pushing them up or off.
Now I’ve finished cleaning the cage, I tidy all the cleaning equipment away, sweep the floor and dispose of the waste according to local services. Sadly in my area, hamster cage waste isn’t permitted in the garden waste so it has to go in the general waste for incineration.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in November 2016. It has been updated for clarity in May 2019.