Hamsters are wonderful “pocket pets” and remain a firm favourite among British pet owners. They have a reputation for being an inexpensive child’s pet, but hamsters are interesting and active animals whose needs deserve to be met to ensure they live a happy life. Although hamsters are an inexpensive pet to buy, the cost of suitable housing should not be overlooked.
How much space do hamsters actually need though? Hamster cages available in pet shops vary hugely in size, and design; so what should you be looking at when considering cage size and type?
Hamsters commonly kept in the UK are:
These are the largest species. Syrians are large hamsters who must live alone.
Winter white, Roborovski, Campbell or Chinese dwarf, these species vary in size but are all smaller than the Syrian hamster. The dwarf species can sometimes live in pairs or small groups if care is taken to provide enough space and resources.
Cage or enclosure requirements
For some time, there has been a commonly quoted size of 80cm x 50cm minimum cage dimension (length and width) for a Syrian hamster and 70cm x 40cm for a dwarf hamster. However the RSPCA have moved away from an official size recommendation due to lack of evidence, stating only the cage should be as large as possible.
Many cages readily available in pet shops and online are significantly smaller than 80 x 50cm, though it is now increasingly possible to get larger enclosures. When considering floor space, this is usually measured as continuous, meaning that ledges, or compartment capsule type cages do not provide large continuous floor space. However, the recommendation of continuous floor space rather than being composed of compartments appears to mostly be anecdotal, rather than based on research.
There is limited evidence to guide how much space a hamster really needs. However following the recommendation to buy a cage that is as large as possible is sensible. Many cages available for sale are very small, and this restricts how much enrichment can be added.
Despite the popular perception, hamsters as a rule benefit from more floor space rather than a tall multi-tiered cage. This is because hamsters have poor eyesight and can get injured when falling from high platforms or levels. It is preferable to have a bigger single level cage or one low platform level, rather than the commonly found 3 or 4 level tall cages with a small base size.
The larger the cage the more enrichment or items of interest which can be added. If there is a large area of floor space these toys or enrichment items can be moved about periodically to change the environment.
Aside from ensuring that your hamster has the largest available space what can be done to allow natural behaviours?
Enrichment is a very important way of allowing the hamster to behave in normal ways and provide stimulation.
Hamsters are a burrowing species, so ideally the cage design should allow a deep bedding layer. Facilitating this natural behaviour is very important to keep your hamster happy and stimulated. Food and treats can be hidden within the bedding to encourage digging.
Scatter feeding rather than just putting food into a bowl encourages the hamster to forage for its food as it would in the wild.
A wheel for exercise is important to allow the hamster to keep fit and active. Hamsters in the wild will cover very large distances at night whilst they forage for food. The wheel should be large enough for the hamster to run on it without arching its spine.
Chews to allow gnawing behaviours, as a hamster’s incisors are constantly erupting and benefit from wear.
Tubes and tunnels replicate the natural burrows which hamsters live in and are enjoyed by hamsters.
A nesting box to provide a comfortable cosy area for the hamster to sleep.
What signs of stress or boredom might indicate a problem?
Bar biting can be a sign that your hamster is bored and may need further stimulation and or space. Excessive grooming may also highlight a problem or show a stressed hamster.
Female hamsters, especially female Syrians are anecdotally reported to be more active and benefit from a large cage with adequate enrichment.