Choosing the housing for your hamster is an important decision. The general rule of thumb is to get as big a cage as you can possibly afford. Keep in mind that the hamster cage may look big when you first buy it in comparison to your hamster, but after you've put in a food bowl, toys and an exercise wheel, it will start to look pretty cramped. Hamsters that don't get enough exercise can develop cage paralysis (see General Hamster Care for more details).
There are several different kinds of cages available. There are three basic types to choose from: conventional wire cages, plastic aquariums and plastic tube cages. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. How often you will clean depends on which cage you choose. You will find that you will need to clean a wire cage at least once a week. Plastic tube cages will require cleaning more often because they have little ventilation.
Conventional Wire Cages
Conventional wire hamster cages are available at most pet stores. Some stores have even put together hamster 'starter kits' to make it easier on you. All you have to do is choose your hamster. Hamster cages with bars are not ideal for dwarf hamsters. They are the smallest of the hamster breeds and barred cages are usually designed with the larger breeds (such as the Syrians) in mind. The smaller dwarf hamsters can often squeeze through the bars of the wire cages. You may come home to an empty cage or a hamster that got stuck between the bars during his escape attempt and he's often in bad shape. The advantages of these wire cages are their low cost, relative durability, light weight and easiness to keep clean. Many of them have a detachable wire frame that can be removed from the plastic base making cleaning easy. The disadvantages of wire hamster cages are that they can be rather drafty and the above mentioned chances of the hamster escaping or being caught between the cage bars in escape attempts. Some of them also have shallow trays which allow your hamster to kick shavings outside the cage in his efforts to burrow. These are the cages we recommend the least.
One of the disadvantages to plastic aquariums is that they are more difficult to clean than wire cages. This is because the only access you have to clean is through the top of the cage. Wire cages allow you to attach a water bottle to the side of the cage, thus freeing up more space within the cage. Plastic aquariums don't allow this advantage so you will need a bigger aquarium to allow room for a separate water dish. Condensation can also be a problem in plastic aquariums if you have a solid top. A wire lid is an alternative, but some hamsters find these easy to pop off. The advantages of using plastic aquariums as hamster cages is that they block out any drafts, you can see into their burrow and your hamster can't get stuck in the bars. Dwarf hamsters seem to house well in these.
Plastic Tube Hamster Cages (pictured at top of page)
Plastic tube hamster cages - at first glance, these types of hamster cages scream 'fun filled play paradise for hamsters'! But if you are determined to give your pet hamster this entertainment paradise, be prepared to do a lot of cleaning - a lot of these plastic tube hamster cages are a nightmare to clean out. Larger Syrian hamsters and pregnant hamsters have been known to get stuck in some of these tubes so fun filled wonderland may turn into death trap pretty quickly. The other thing to note is that many of these tube hamster cages have little ventilation ie they will get smelly a lot quicker and condensation could be a problem. As with most plastic cages, they can get scratched with time. Some hamster cages on the market have a mix of wire on one side and other plastic tubing to combat the ventilation and condensation problem. Advantages are they are draught proof, they afford great entertainment for hamsters (provided they don't get stuck) and they give you hours of viewing pleasure watching him/her crawl through the different compartments.
Once you decide on your cage, you will need to get other supplies to keep your hamster happy as well. You can start with bedding material. Wood shavings are the most common. Avoid the fine wood shaving as it can get in your hamster's eye and cause irritation. You'll also want to avoid the scented shavings because they will irritate your hamster's nose. Hamsters in the wild live in burrows so you will need to provide your hamster with plenty of bedding to burrow and hide. You can also give them undyed and unscented toilet paper to make a nest with. Tear it into strips before placing it in the cage. Your hamster will also love hidey holes made out of toilet paper tubes. This is a cheap way to entertain him. He will gnaw it into bits over time so you will also want to get him more permanent ones made out of plastic.
Hamsters are very active need a variety of toys and other items to provide opportunities for exercise, exploration and play. You will need to provide with a variety of toys to keep them entertained, healthy and happy. Hamsters need toys that they can gnaw on to keep their constantly growing teeth in good condition. Wooden chew toys are a good choice. Stay away from cedar or evergreen woods and make sure that they are pesticide and chemical free. Willow balls, rings and tunnels that are marketed for rabbits come in smaller sizes that you can use for your hamster. There are also a variety of climbers, houses and huts designed for hamsters that you can add to your housing. Wood ladders and climbing blocks are fun for hamsters. If you can't find any in the hamster section of your pet store, check the bird section. Keep in mind that these wooden items are bound to be chewed and will need to be replaced over time. Most hamsters also love plastic tunnels or tubes. Be sure that your hamster isn't chewing on the plastic, though. If he is, simply remove it from his cage and replace it with a toilet paper tube or wooden toys.
To add the final touches to your hamster cage, you will need a water sfource and a food source. You water source will depend on which cage you chose. If you have a wire cage, you will want a water bottle that adheres to the side. A plastic aquarium will need a ceramic dish. Keep in mind that dishes will get fouled by your hamster's food and wood shavings so you will need to clean it often to keep your hamster healthy. You can either purchase a second dish for your hamster's food or sprinkle it on their bedding material. The latter option gives your hamster extra mental stimulation of having to find its food like he would in the wild. However, the uneaten food isn't easily cleaned up and it is hard for you to determine how much your hamster is actually eating. We recommend using a ceramic bowl for food with occasional sprinkling onto clean bedding material. This way your hamster gets the best of both worlds.