All about Chinese hamsters. All in one place.
Chinese Hamster Library
All about Chinese hamsters. All in one place.
Housing your Chinese hamster involves several elements: the water supply, substrate, nesting material and the cage. Enrichment is a vital part of this, so important that it has its own page.
You can provide water in different ways. A common way is using a water bottle. This has the advantage of always providing clean water but the spout can become blocked, for example by a hamster pushing their substrate up against it. You should make sure the bottle works on a regular basis, and make sure that your hamster can reach it.
Water bowls are another option. You should place these on a platform area. Hamsters will bury them or put substrate in them if you put them on the floor of the cage. A downside is that bowls hold less water than most water bottles. A large bowl is not suitable because a hamster, especially one who is old or unwell, may drown.
A compromise between bottle and bowl is a water dispenser, like this water well intended for reptiles. They hold a reservoir of clean water which dispenses into a bowl using gravity. Do not use electricity-powered water fountains or waterfalls in your hamster’s cage. They will chew the electrical wires, and the flow of water can make the cage too humid.
Substrate is what you put on the base of your hamster’s cage. Sometimes it is called bedding, but that’s also what people call the nesting material. It’s purpose is to absorb urine and allow a hamster to exhibit natural behaviours, such as digging.
There are a wide variety of substrate types. You may choose to use one, or provide several either in separate areas or mixed together. Whichever you choose, give your hamster as deep a layer as possible. Deeper bedding is associated with reduced stress in hamsters. It also means you can clean out less frequently, further reducing distress to your hamster.
You can use plain toilet paper or soft hay. Some substrates are suitable to use as nesting also.
Never use fluffy cotton-wool type nesting materials because these can injure your hamster
There are an increasing array of housing options for your hamster, including commercial and homemade ones.
Traditional wire cages have a plastic base and wire top. They are easy to clean and require no DIY skills. However, they can be messy and the base is often too shallow to provide a deep layer of substrate.
Tank cages have solid sides and base with a ventilation grill, usually in the roof. They allow a good amount of space for burrowing and keep the mess inside while usually being easy to clean. On the other hand, ventilation and cage placement need care because they can get hot in warm weather. A tank can be bought ready-made for hamsters, be a repurposed vivarium, or a converted fish tank, plastic storage box or even piece of Ikea furniture. Depending on the type of tank, they can require no DIY or quite a lot.
Modular cages are plastic units connected with tubes. These cages are not ideal. The tubes make care tasks such as cleaning and handling hard. They are also poorly ventilated and limit enrichment opportunities.
What bar spacing?
For most adult Chinese hamsters, 1cm spacing of bars or mesh is fine. Young or small Chinese hamster may be able to squeeze out of this. Therefore these hamsters should have spacing of around 5mm.
If you find a tank cage you really like but the spacing of the bars is too wide, you can attach mesh to the ventilation panel. Because Chinese hamsters are adept climbers, all tank cages must have a secure lid with appropriate spacing of bars or mesh.
Chinese hamsters still have poor eyesight even though they climb well. This means that tall cages risk hamsters becoming injured from falls. That said, cages should be tall enough for a hamster to stand up. Therefore the absolute minimum height of a cage in all cases is 17cm high. A taller cage will allow space for platforms and an upright wheel.
This is the tough question. There is much debate about the ideal cage size. In the end, you need to make your own housing choice based on the hamster you have in front of you.
Scientific studies have looked at cage size and its effect on physiological and behavioural stress responses. These have looked at cages from 200cm2 to 10,000cm2, but only with Syrian hamsters. They noted that stress responses reduced with increasing cage size. Wheel running was not influenced by cage size. Although bar chewing was less in the largest cages, hamster growth was less and thigmotaxis (staying close to the walls and avoiding the centre of an area, a marker of anxiety) was increased. In conclusion, there are no clear answers from the literature.
Anecdotally, Chinese hamsters especially can find large cages difficult. They show this with changes in behaviour: freezing, staying close to the edges of the cage (especially when combined with remaining under the substrate), uneven and flighty movements. A Chinese hamsters can live in a large cage, if it is the right cage for that hamster. They may need to work up using gradually increasing sized cages, especially if they are young or if they show behaviour changes. Some Chinese hamsters may never like a large cage; indeed some extreme individuals can become physically unwell in a larger cage.
Vectis Hamstery suggests most Chinese hamsters from here live with at least 50cm x 40cm floor space. Larger is often better, but not in all cases. Each Chinese hamster his an individual and has their own housing preference. Remember that no matter how large the cage is, enrichment is essential.