What Size of Cage Does My Hamster Need?

by Britt
Photo credit: Mary Swift / Shutterstock.com

Do you want your hamster to be happy? If so, it’s time for pet parents everywhere to trade in those tiny wire cages for something bigger.

As we learn more about our pets, we discover that the gear that was once widely accepted may not be in their best interest. We see this with the evolution of pet nutrition, the development of new toys, and, of course, the perfect habitat for small animals like hamsters.

This article will delve into the latest discoveries and science behind creating the best quality of life for your furry friend, starting by setting up the ideal cage or habitat. From the best size of hamster cage to must-have cage accessories, you’ll find everything you need to set your hamster up for success.

How Big Should My Hamster’s Cage Be?

If you walk into any large-scale pet store, you will likely discover shelves of wire cages and plastic tubes, all marketed as the ideal setup for your new hamster. However, small animal experts, veterinarians, and animal rights groups warn that these products don’t offer enough space to meet the minimum requirements for your hamster’s health and wellness.

The exact size recommended varies from organization to organization. It also depends on the breed of hamster, with Syrian (or Golden) hamsters needing a larger habitat than Dwarf hamsters (understandably).

At a bare minimum, your hamster should have access to at least 24” by 12” of floor space (288 square inches), with many organizations recommending an even more extensive setup. This does not include tunnels, tubes, or added compartments extending from the main enclosure. While those can add additional space to place, assuming they are sized right for your hamster, they should not be viewed as a replacement for a large enough main habitat.

What Style of Habitat is Best?

If the plastic and wire cages in the pet store aren’t sufficient, what cage style should you provide for your pet? Is there a specific type of enclosure that would create the best home for your hamster?

The two most popular options are larger wire cages or aquarium-style enclosures.

When shopping for a wire cage, the first concern is the distance between the cage bars. While it isn’t challenging to find a larger cage, those made for larger animals like rabbits may not be secure for your small furry friend. You want to ensure your hamster can’t slip between the bars and escape when you’re not watching.

Additionally, some hamsters obsessively chew on surfaces like the bars of a wire cage. You may be able to prevent this by providing your hamsters with other enrichment opportunities (more on that below). However, for some hamsters, that isn’t enough. Further complicating this decision, there is no way to know in advance if your hamster will likely fall into that category. For this reason, many experts now recommend the use of an aquarium.

Aquariums are virtually chew-proof, with no surface available for your hamster to gnaw on (except the top, which should be out of their reach). These glass tanks will keep your pet safely contained, assuming they are fitted with a secure lid that your hamster can’t slip through or push open. The top will need to allow plenty of airflow when the sides of the enclosure are solid.

Another benefit to using an aquarium is that it makes it easier to provide your hamster with plenty of bedding to burrow into while keeping the mess contained. The bedding must be at least 1-2 inches deep. In a wire cage, that may mean the bedding is high enough in the plastic base that it is kicked out of the cage, creating a mess in your home.

The biggest downside to a glass aquarium is the work required to clean your hamster’s habitat properly. Wire cages are designed to come apart while aquariums are fixed. But if you are willing to put in the extra effort for your pet, they are a great option.

Do Hamsters Like 2-Level Cages?

Multi-level cages are a great way to give your hamster more opportunities to explore and enjoy their space, taking advantage of vertical space to extend the available area. However, it shouldn’t be considered an alternative to a cage with a large enough basic floor level. Consider the additional levels as an added bonus, helping you enhance their lives.

There are a few essential factors to consider.

First, keep in mind that while your hamster may climb up and explore these bonus spaces, most will spend the bulk of their time on the ground level. This means that the main level needs to offer all the basic necessities.

Second, be aware of the distance from one level to the next. A large fall could lead to severe injuries or even death. If you add a second floor to your hamster’s cage, keep it relatively low and close to the main floor area. Make the access (stairs or ramp) easy to navigate and wide enough that they can easily move up and down without slipping or falling.

Some cages offer a protected second layer that prevents hamsters from jumping off, only offering the ability to move between levels on the designated ramp or stairs. This is the best way to avoid problems.

If your additional levels incorporate tunnels or small additions, ensure they are large enough for your hamster to move through comfortably. Many of the tunnels sold in pet stores are suitable for dwarf hamsters but not Syrian or golden hamsters due to their larger size.

Photo credit: AlexKalashnikov / Shutterstock.com

Can a Hamster Cage Be Too Big?

With so much attention placed on offering enough floor space for your hamster, you may wonder if a cage can be too big. It’s a fair question, but the short answer is – No.

Hamsters thrive with a larger cage and plenty of space to move about. A cage that is too small can trigger stress and anxiety. Anything above or beyond the minimum recommended cage size is a bonus, allowing more room to run. The only limitation on how big your hamster’s cage can be is the limitations of the space you have available.

Should I Leave a Light on for My Hamster at Night?

Hamsters are nocturnal animals, meaning they often sleep through the day and are most active at night. To help them maintain their natural schedule, they prefer darkness during the nighttime hours.

If you need a night light in the room, consider putting up a barrier or blocking the light from your hamster’s habitat to provide complete darkness. This can be done by placing a blanket over part of their habitat. But be careful not to cut off airflow and ventilation entirely. Also, if you have a wire cage allowing your hamster to reach the blanket, you may wake up to find they have ripped or shredded their cover come morning.

Are Hamsters Sensitive to Noise and Activity?

Yes, hamsters are very sensitive to loud noises, especially high frequency. Setting up their habitat in a loud, heavy-traffic area of the home could cause unnecessary stress and anxiety. This doesn’t mean your hamster must live in a room with complete silence. However, if you have young children running and screaming in their playroom with the television constantly running, that will not be a good location to set up your furry family member. Instead, consider placing the cage in a separate room or quiet corner of the house.

What Does a Hamster Need in its Cage?

Now that we have established the proper cage size and ideal location, let’s discuss what should be found inside your hamster’s cage. What are the basic necessities? How can you best provide physical and mental enrichment? Here are a few items you should consider:

Plenty of Clean Bedding and Nesting Materials

To sleep comfortably, hamsters need to be able to burrow down into their bedding. For this reason, the provided bedding and nesting materials should be at least 1-2 inches deep. The once-popular wood chips trap smells and odors, creating an uncomfortable and unsafe atmosphere. Plus, wood chips are known to be dusty, which can be hazardous for your hamster’s respiratory system. For this reason, most experts recommend fiber or paper-based bedding.

Of course, with use, your hamster’s bedding will get dirty. Daily spot cleaning of the habitat should involve removing any soiled nesting materials with a full cleaning of the bedding once a week.

Places to Hide and Explore

Enrichment is necessary to keep your hamster happy and healthy. This means including different features within their habitat that encourage them to climb, hide, and explore. There are several options for incorporating this, from budget-friendly items around your home to premium and highly aesthetic products. This will help to prevent boredom while also providing feelings of safety and security with their hideaways.

If you are trying to set up a cage on a budget, empty toilet paper tubes and cardboard boxes are great options. Not only do they create new areas to explore, but your hamster can also enjoy shredding these items.

There are several popular and safe options for hamster hideouts available. Coconut shells (or husks) are a fun, unique option, like the SunGrow Coconut Shell House. A more budget-friendly solution, plastic hideaways like the Kaytee Igloo Habitat Hideout are available in a wide variety of shapes, styles, and colors. If you want something more entertaining than a basic hideaway, consider purchasing a multi-room hideout like the Niteangel Multi-Chamber Hamster House.

A Properly Sized Hamster Wheel

While most hamster lovers or enthusiasts recognize the benefits of an exercise wheel, many are unaware that not all wheels are created the same. Some exercise wheels can even introduce a risk of serious injury.

When selecting a wheel, ensure that it is large enough that it can be used without causing your hamster to bend their back awkwardly to fit. You also don't want to provide a wheel that is too large, meaning your furry friend can't keep up with the pace of the wheel. A good rule of thumb is a diameter of at least 6 inches for dwarf hamsters and at least 8 inches for Syrian or Golden hamsters. However, some experts will suggest that 9-11 inches is the better option for larger-sized critters.

Check the surface of the wheel. Are there any holes or openings where your hamster’s leg can slip through? If so, keep searching. Cross supports on the side of the wheel can also create a similar risk. The best wheel options are a fully enclosed surface, free from cross supports, to prevent this type of accident. Some great products include the Kaytee Silent Spinner Wheel and the Niteangel Super-Silent Hamster Exercise Wheel.

Safe Chew toys

Like most rodents, hamsters must chew to maintain their constantly growing teeth. If a safe option isn’t made available, they often will resort to chewing on cage bars and other questionable items. Alternatively, if they are in a habitat with no option, they may experience overgrown teeth, requiring medical care.

There are several chew toy options on the market. Like people, each hamster has their own personality and preferences. Providing a selection of chew toys of different materials and textures allows your furry family member to pick the items they like most. Popular options include pesticide-free fruit tree branches, pesticide and chemical-free wood chews, rope-style chew toys, and mineral blocks.

A few highly recommended options include:

Access to Fresh Water and Daily Food

Of course, you should ensure that your hamster always has access to fresh water in the main level of their cage. While this could be offered in a small bowl, they are often spilled, making a mess of the habitat, or filled with bedding, soaking up the water and leaving your hamster thirsty until you realize what happened. For this reason, the preferred option is a hanging water bottle.

If your hamster is in a cage, there are bottles that will hang off the side. However, if they are in a plastic pen or glass aquarium, you may have to use a free-standing bottle.

Hamsters should be fed once a day with fresh food, allowing a few hours before removing the food from their habitat. While commercial pellets are convenient, experts recommend including fresh vegetables. A ceramic or porcelain dish is heavy enough to prevent tipping and sturdy enough to withstand chewing without being destroyed.

Final Thoughts: The Best Hamster Cage Setup

When setting up your hamster’s habitat, consider the floor space available. They are active and energetic creatures that need to be able to run, demanding more freedom to move than is often available in the overly hyped commercial cages. Instead, ensure the cage offers at least 24” by 12” of floor space on the main floor. Several cage styles are available, including wire cages, glass aquariums, and plastic pens.

If you want to extend their habitat with a second floor, be cautious about the risk of injury. A long fall can be catastrophic.

Include all necessities on the main floor of your hamster’s cage. This includes plenty of bedding to burrow into, clean hay, chew toys/enrichment opportunities, an appropriately sized exercise wheel, and access to fresh food and water.

A proper habitat is the foundation for a happy, healthy life for your furry friend!

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Britt Kascjak is a proud pet mom, sharing her heart (and her home) with her “pack” which includes her husband John, their 2 dogs – Indiana and Lucifer – and their 2 cats – Pippen and Jinx. She has been active in the animal rescue community for over 15 years, volunteering, fostering and advocating for organizations across Canada and the US. In her free time, she enjoys traveling around the country camping, hiking, and canoeing with her pets.

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