The first and most important thing to remember about hamsters is ONE HAMSTER ONE CAGE. Although a hamster will almost always be gentle and loving with you, well meaning people think they are lonely, but put two hamsters together and before long fighting will take place. This could result in serious injuries or even death
All of our hamsters are kept in commercially made cages. These comprise of a plastic cat litter tray with a wire top clipped to it. This measurers approx. 35cm long x 25cm wide x 23cm high and this is the smallest size which we feel is suitable to keep a hamster in. If you can afford a slightly bigger cage of the same type, perhaps with two levels so much the better. Beware of the three level cages with young hamsters as incidents of them falling the total height of the cage are not unknown. There are also on the market the all or nearly all plastic cages notably Rotastak and Habitrall, these are nice and will stop draughts but can be expensive to buy if a suitable size is used. In our opinion they can be awkward to get the hamster out of, either to play or clean, as the cage may have to be taken apart to get at the hamster. These cages do, however, come into their own if you also own a cat or dog as the hamster is protected against claws.
Glass or plastic aquariums can also be used but a lid made with 1cm x 1cm wire mesh is required, as the standard hood has little or no ventilation, and so condensation can form. The lid can be made by making a wooden frame that just fits inside the tank and fixing the wire to this. Remember if you have anything hanging in the tank, the hamster is liable to climb this and push the lid off if it is not secured in some way. You can of course make your own cages, as we did when first starting to expand, but if you are only keeping one or two hamsters we personally do not think it worth while.
When you have your cage you must then set it up ready for your hamster. Sawdust or shavings should be spread on the base of the cage to absorb the urine, sawdust we have found is the better of the two but it is a personal choice. If you are keeping a long haired hamster then we would suggest that you do use sawdust as shavings tend to tangle the long hair. NEVER, NEVER, NEVER , as suggested in some books put newspaper under the sawdust, as chewing this could lead to poisoning. The sawdust should be changed weekly. You now need to provide your hamster with a nest and for this you should use either shredded paper or hay (NOT STRAW) . We use shredded paper. There are on the market some types of bedding that look similar to cotton wool. We are very apprehensive about using this as we feel it could cause intestinal problems if eaten and it does tend to be expensive. The bedding need not be changed weekly but when changing the sawdust take the bedding and gently shake it to remove any old food and waste.
Whatever type of cage you buy or make you must provide water for the hamster and the best way is to use a commercially made water bottle. Dishes can be used but they tend to be filled up with sawdust in no time at all. The water should be changed regularly.
Food dishes can be bought and used but normally the hamster will pouch the food and then put it in its store, so some people just put the food in the sawdust. As this does not look tidy most people use a dish and because hamsters chew if you use plastic dishes they slowly disappear and another has to be bought. We use the plastic top from coffee jars, which still get chewed but can be replaced when we finish the next jar. We have never had any trouble with them chewing plastic but if you want to be very careful you can buy pottery or stainless steel dishes. When cleaning place a little new food in its store and remove all the old food.
Care should be taken when positioning the cage as this is most important. Do not place in direct sunlight or draughts. The cage can be kept in the house or in a frost free shed or garage but if kept in the latter more bedding must be provided. If kept indoors do not put near radiators or fires as extremes of temperature are harmful. As long as there is no sudden change in temperature the hamster will be safe. If the cage is kept in a bedroom spilt sawdust can be a problem but if you get a cardboard box about 5cm bigger than the base of the cage and cut it down to about 10cm high this will catch most of the sawdust.
Wheels will always be a controversial subject when it comes to "toys" in a hamsters cage and we can only advise. The spoked type can lead to problems with legs slipping and breaking and plastic spoked wheels do tend to be chewed and then they drop off the spindle. A little trick to try on this type of wheel is to fix some cardboard around the outside of the wheel, the legs can then no longer slip through but the hamster can get a grip on the spokes. The solid plastic type is the best in our opinion' the larger and wider the better. Wheels can be a problem with long haired hamsters as the hair catches around the spindle and pulls it out. Keep an eye on your hamster and its wheel, if you see it marking the fur or if it is a big hamster and its back is really bent when running on the wheel, tie the wheel so it cannot move or remove it from the cage.
Many "toys" can be bought for your hamster including sea-saws, tunnels, climbing blocks and ladders, but a lot you can make yourselves. Cardboard rolls can be hung on wire in the cage or if you take a plastic squash bottle and cut the top and bottom off this can be hung up. A wooden shelf can be put in most cages for them to climb on and groom themselves It is nice if your hamster can come out of its cage to play but you must keep a eye on it as they can get lost very easily.
A play box is a good idea and a cheap one can be made from a plastic water tank or an even cheaper one from the boxes televisions come in. If you get such a box cut it down to about 30cm high and toys can be put inside but remember do not leave alone for too long as they will chew their way out. Playballs can be used for exercise or a place to put a hamster in while you clean the cage but do not leave them in one for more than a few minutes at a time. In the end what ever type of cage you use and what type of toy it has, please remember to handle you pet and above all enjoy your hamster.