Cage cleaning is a very important issue for hamsters. As in - not too much of it and not too much all at once. Yes we need to clean hamster cages but our human instinct is to clean the whole lot in one go and have everything new, clean and fresh. While that might work in our house, for us, this is an extremely stressful thing for a hamster. And stress can lead to illnesses and behavioural issues. So the best way to clean a hamster cage is to not clean everything at the same time. It's not as bad as it sounds - it's just an ongoing process of a little bit now and then.

The main thing people think about, when cleaning a hamster cage - is replacing the substrate. It's not necessary to do this very often, providing you have enough substrate in the cage to start with. As recommended in the substrate article, hamsters should have at least 6" depth of substrate. The more there is, the longer it lasts basically, as the bottom half usually stays quite clean and dry (with exceptions). And you can "spot clean" the substrate now and then.

Spot cleaning and managing hoards

Spot cleaning is - removing a handful of soiled substrate, replacing it with a clean handful and mixing it in a bit. The only smelly or unygienic aspect is the hamster's pee. Other than that they are quite clean little things who groom regularly and like to busy themselves sorting out their nest, hoard and house. Their poops are not really unhygienic unless they start taking over in a big way. This is partly because they are quite firm and dry - they have two different types of poop as well and one type they can actually eat - which they sometimes do, and this is normal. They might even hoard some poops in case there's ever a food shortage. Poops can be spot cleaned out as and when needed.

Hamsters have two stomachs and can redigest nutrients and vitamins etc from their poops. They hoard food and eat poops instinctively as they are hard wired to be prepared for food shortages. They can also become quite anxious if their hoards are removed, so when spot cleaning the cage, it's best to leave the hoard alone - unless it's pee'd on or has grown very large - then it can be "pruned" - but always try and leave some of the original hoard behind, that's clean and dry - and if you have to remove it, or most of it, if it's been pee'd on, then always put a handful of new food back in the same place. When changing the substrate, pruning out the bottom half of a large hoard is a good idea as that is the oldest food, leaving the top part in tact.

Litter trays keep the cage clean and dry

With spot cleaning and the use of a litter tray (almost all syrian hamsters will use a litter tray if you put it in their chosen pee place) the cage can stay quite clean and dry for really quite a long time. And it only be necessary to change the substrate and clean the base of the cage every 2 to 3 months or even longer. While dwarf hamsters may not use a single litter tray like Syrians, they often will use one if it's inside a multiroom house. They seem to like having an ensuite toilet!

When changing the substrate

When it's time to change the substrate though, it's best not to clean anything else in the cage at the same time, apart from the cage base, so the rest of the cage contents still smells familiar. And also to replace some of the old clean substrate, so it still smells familiar. Either keep the clean half and mix it in with the new. Or keep some of the old clean substrate back and spread it on top of the new. This top layer will then gradually get spot cleaned out.

Overcleaning causes stress

The stress caused to hamsters by cage cleaning is because they scent mark everything. Partly this is to claim it as their territory, and partly it's because they really don't see very well. So they leave scent trails which help them know where everything is and follow their routes in the cage and find their way around. So if all their familiar scent is removed in one go - they are lost - and feel anxious that their territory has been invaded (fear - they are prey animals) and can also develop abnormal behaviours - such as peeing on everything to scent mark it even stronger, or peeing on their hoards to deter invaders from stealing it. And if very stressed by a cage clean they can start bar chewing or trying to chew their way out of the cage. Wanting to escape the changed environment.

So when doing a substrate change and cleaning the base of the cage, resist the temptation to want to clean everything else at the same time. The wheel can be done a different week, and any other cage items as and when needed at a different time again. Food bowls and water bottles should always be cleaned regularly though.

More about litter trays/potties and where to put them

Hamsters really are clean little things. So back to the litter tray. You can get corner litter trays. Syrian hamsters usually choose a corner of the cage as a toilet - that's how clean they are - they like to keep their toilet away from their sleeping area and food (usually!). If you put the litter tray in the corner/area where the hamster usually pees, they will use it. After you've spot cleaned out the pee'd on substrate in that area - just pop the litter tray there (chinchilla bathing sand in it works well and soaks up the pee). The first time, keep back a tiny bit of the pee'd on substrate and put it on top of the sand/litter tray so the hamster knows it's still their toilet area. From there, you just need to empty the litter tray once or twice a week and the rest of the cage stays clean and dry. Another reason you don't need to do the substrate changes too often.

If a hamster has a large house/nesting box or multiroom house, they will almost always move their chosen toilet area inside the house - away from the nest. This is why multiroom houses work so well. A corner toilet can be placed in one of the rooms. In a large open house, the best place to put a corner toilet is at the door end at the back - this is because hamsters will invariably nest at the end furthest away from the door as that is the darkest place.

Where to put the hamster while cleaning

When spot cleaning, it can help to do it while the hamster is in the cage. This depends on the hamster! Mostly it's best to do it that way - the hamster may follow your hand around in a slightly worried way to see what you're doing, but it means they are adjusting to what has been done and are keeping an eye on things. It can be less stressful for them than if it's done while they're out of the cage and they come back and find things have changed. What can happen then is they start guarding the cage and not wanting to come out again. Over time however, hamsters tend to get used to the routine and are less bothered by the spot cleaning.

When doing a substrate clean though, it's necessary to have the hamster out of the cage in a secure area. Some hamsters will happily go to sleep in a pet carrier while you do it. It helps if you put the pet carrier in a different room though or they can get a bit stressed hearing and smelling you doing things to their cage. They know you are messing with their cage! And it can make them anxious. If a hamster isn't happy being left in a pet carrier, you might need to have a spare cage to put them in (a smaller cage can be fine for this temporarily). It's not really safe to leave them in a playpen without supervision. So if someone else can supervise, then leaving them in a playpen while you sort the cage is ok too.

What to clean the cage with

The other important thing is to not use anything unsafe or strongly scented for cleaning the base of the hamster cage. Hamsters can be very affected by scents - they have sensitive respiratory tracts and a much stronger sense of smell than humans have. It isn't really necessary to use pet disinfectant for a general cage clean - that's only necessary if there has been illness or disease. All that's needed is soapy water - eg a bit of dishwashing liquid in water and wipe it over. But important to rinse it off well too or it can leave residue or scent. If there has been illness or disease then use a pet disinfectant suitable for small pets. The two best known ones are by Johnson and Johnson and Beaphar. These have a mild scent but not overpowering. They say they don't need rinsing off, but it's still a good idea to rinse them to remove any scent residue. A lesser known one (if still available) is Safe4Pets - they do an unscented one.

Keep the layout the same

This makes sense. Just as we wouldn't like to come home and find someone has rearranged the furniture, hamsters also don't like things changing, it's also important to put everything back in the cage in the same place. Or they can become quite disorientated and also get stressed for a while. It is their territory and home and we need to respect that. There are times when you will need to change things in the cage possibly - adding a new house or wheel and a certain amount of rearrangement to do that - but that's why ideally you get the set up all sorted before the hamster moves into the cage and then don't have to change too much. If some changes are needed, they usually adjust within a few days, but it's best not to do that too often. Hamsters seem to like and accept new items being added - and be curious about them - providing it doesn't mean moving things around or taking an old familiar item away. Replacing a wheel is usually accepted if needed.

Protect the nest

When cleaning the cage, try and leave their nest as it is - their nest is their most precious thing. For a toilet trained hamster the nest is usually very clean and dry and well kept. It is often kept clean and refurbished by the hamster who will add and remove bits of nesting material as needed. They will sometimes chuck bits of old nest out of the house door for you to remove! If the nest is pee'd in then it will need removing but try and leave a little bit of old dry nest behind, and then put a new pile of nesting paper in the cage, so the hamster can forage for it and rebuild the nest. Hamsters don't usually pee in their nests once they're not babies any more, but very young or baby hamsters can do until they get good habits!

Check the hoard for off food

When doing a substrate clean, or during an occasional spot clean you can check the hoard to see if anything has gone off. They don't usually hoard fresh food providing you only give very small amounts of fresh veg. Eg about 1cm cubed size daily (it doesn't have to be cube shaped!) and half that for a dwarf hamster. They tend to eat that straight away and not hoard it. So again it's just if the hoard is pee'd on. See above! It can become a catch 22 - if the hoard is removed then they pee on it more to deter thieves! There are ways to break this cycle though - usually by putting the replacement hoard (the new food) in a slightly different place, but nearby the old hoard.

Weekly full cage cleans aren't necessary - providing you have enough substrate in the cage and use a litter tray. If their cage is big enough and they have enough substrate, cage cleaning can be easier for both hamster and human.

Photo by Ricky Kharawala - Unsplash