Litter is what you put on the base of the cage: bedding is what the hamster uses for his nest/bed (some science papers confuse the two). In laboratories, they sometimes use wood shavings for both purposes. But pet hamsters are usually given litter for the bottom of the cage and then some bedding as well. We know that hamster prefer solid floors which have litter on them rather than being bare plastic (Arnold & Estep). Hamsters enjoy burrowing so give deep litter and lots of bedding (Goodman 2002)
LITTER. Do not buy sawdust or wood shavings from your local carpenter. Sawdust or wood shavings from treated wood or cedar or pine cause health problems. Research with rats and mice with litter used also as bedding shows they prefer litter with bigger pieces than sawdust anyway (Blom et al., 1996). Never use cat litter – this can cause internal blockages. Avoid dusty litter which gets into a hamsters eyes. The safest way to get litter is to buy it in a pet shop. Safe litter should be dust free and made from paper, chopped straw, wood pulp, or dried plant material.
Hamsters need to dig, so spreading a thick layer of litter of a kind they can dig or even tunnel into will be good for them, if the cage design allows this (Hauzenberger at al., 2006). A minimum depth of 40 cm litter, to allow digging, or better still a depth of 80 cm which with the right litter allows burrowing, enhances their welfare (Hauzenberger et.al, 2006). If your cage doesn’t allow deep litter, then make up for this by being lavish with the bedding. With good bedding for a nest, litter is less important to hamsters (Lanteigne & Reebs 2006).
Changing soiled litter can be done once a month if there is deep litter, or once a week if not. It is very stressful for hamsters (Kuhnen 2002). Hamsters do a lot of scent marking from their glands on their flanks, vaginas and ears, as well as scent marking by urine and faeces (Johnson & Bullock 2001). New litter will be unmarked and smell strange rather than homely, which stresses them out. So always leave some of the old litter behind in the cage so it still smells like home. With deep litter and a used litter tray it may be possible just to clean out the litter near the food or water or bed area rather than throughout the cage (Hauzenberger at al., 2006). Use common sense: some hamsters are messier than others.
BEDDING. This is even more important to hamsters than litter. Hamsters make themselves a nest and they will work hard for bedding because they find it so rewarding (Guerra & Ades 2002). They enjoy working for it and it is good for them to have something to do and some exercise in foraging for it. So supplying something which they have to process into a nest is a good idea, rather than just giving ready-made bedding. Kitchen roll paper or toilet paper, and a handful of hay (which can also be nibbled) are good materials for them to work with. Better still, put the hay into a toilet roll so they have to work to pull it out.
If you buy ready-made bedding, always check what it is made of. Never buy bedding made of nylon, cotton wool, or fluffy bedding (RSPCA 2013). It can cause internal blockages or constipation if the hamster swallows some (Adby & Neill 2002). Red coloured bedding occasionally causes contact allergies.
When you change the bedding (which if they urinate and defecate in it, you may have to do weekly) leave some of the old bedding behind so it still smells like home. Hamsters do not like new bedding (Veilette & Reebs 2010)
Hamsters should be kept at a temperature between 19 – 23 degrees centigrade. If the temperature drops below five degrees they go into pseudohibernation, but heat, rather than cold is more dangerous to them (Wolfensohn & Lloyd 2003).
Adby, S., & Neill, D. O, (2004), Hamsters in Sickness and in Health, Milverton, UK, Capall Bann Publishing.
Arnold, C. E. & Estep D. Q., (1994),’Laboratory caging preferences in golden hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus),’ Laboratory Animal, 28: 232-238.
Blom, H.J.M., Van Tintelen,G., VanVorstenbosch, S. J. C. H., Baumans, V. & Beynen, A. C., (1996), ‘Preferences of mice and rats for types of bedding material,’ Laboratory Animals, 30, 234-244
Goodman, G., (2002), ‘Hamsters,’ eds: Meredith, A. & Redrobe, S., BSAVA Manual of Exotic Pets, Fourth Edition, Quedgeley, UK, BSAVA, 26-33.
Guerra, R. G. & Ades, C., (2002), ‘An analysis of travel costs on transport of load and nest building in golden hamster,’ Behavioural Processes, 57, 7-28
Hauzenberger, A. R., Gebhardt-Henrich, S. G.& Steiger, A., (2006) ‘The influence of bedding depth on behaviour in golden hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus),’ Applied Animal Behaviour Science 100 (2006) 280–294
Johnson, J. E. & Bullock, T.A. (2001), ‘Individual recognition by use of odours in golden hamsters: the nature of individual representations,’ Animal Behaviour, 61, 545–557
Kuhnen, G., (2002) in eds. Reinhardt, V., & Reinhardt, A., Comfortable Quarters for Laboratory Animals, Animal Welfare Institute, 1-5s. Available at http://www.awionline.org/pubs/cq02/cqindex.html Accessed 14 July 2013.
Lanteigne, M. & Reebs, S. G. (2006), ‘Preference for bedding material in Syrian hamsters,’ Laboratory Animals, 40, 410–418
RSPCA (2013), ‘Hamster Home Cages,’ RSPCA Hamster Care Advice. Available at www.rspca.org.uk. Accessed July 7 2013.
Sherwin, C. M., (2007), ‘Validating refinements to laboratory housing: ask the animals,’ National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research, 1-13. Available at www.nc3rs.org.uk. Accessed: July 10 2013
Veilette, M. & Reebs, S. G., (2010), ‘Preference of Syrian hamsters to nest in old versus new bedding,’ Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 125, 189-194
Wolfensohn, S. & Lloyd, M., (2003), Handbook of Laboratory Animal Management and Welfare, Third edition, Oxford, UK, Blackwell Publishing.
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All normal safety precautions should be taken when dealing with animals. The advice in this section should be taken only at the owner’s own risk. All sick animals should be seen by a vet.
General advice of the kind found in this website is no substitute for an individual consultation with a vet or qualified behaviourist working on a vet’s referral.