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How to set up a hamster cage

Child feeding hamster in cage
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Learning how to set up a hamster cage is one of the first steps to becoming a responsible small-pet owner. And the good news is, once you’ve invested in one of the best hamster cages, you’re already halfway there!

Despite appearances, hamsters need a good amount of space to run around and have plenty of things inside them to keep them occupied and entertained. The best hamster cages are those which offer a maximal amount of space, while the best hamster toys will provide them with plenty to occupy their brains (and their teeth).

There are a few key things to consider when you are setting up a hamster cage - especially for the first time. In this guide, we’ll talk you through some of the basics to help you get started. 

How big should a hamster cage be?

The first thing you should consider when researching the best hamster cages to buy is the size (and shape) of the cage. You should also think about the space that you have available to put the cage. 

Although hamsters are small, they are creatures who like to burrow, dig and run around, so you should plan for as big a cage as is practically possible - in terms of available space, budget and your ability to keep it clean.

For more detailed information on why the size of a hamster’s cage is important, read our guide to how big should a hamster cage be

How much bedding should be in a hamster cage?

Inside the cage, you’ll need a couple of different layers of bedding, and different types. Throughout the cage’s main areas, you should have a base level of “substrate” material, which acts a bit like the cage’s carpet.

Lots of hamster owners go for sawdust here, as it’s cheap, easy to burrow in and absorbent. You want to include a nice thick layer to give your hamster plenty of capacity to burrow, and to provide a nice warm base for the cage. 

You should also include a different type of bedding that your hamster will use for sleeping. There’s lots of different types of material that you can use for this, but generally you should avoid anything that is fluffy or prone to separating in a tangly way (such as cotton wool) - in case your hamster’s limbs get caught or stuck. 

If you’re wondering do hamsters hibernate - the answer is, yes they do. But it’s not good for domesticated hamsters to do so, as it’s usually sign that they are too cold. To avoid this, you should make sure that their cage is lovely and warm, has plenty of bedding, and is kept somewhere away from draughts.

Can you use toilet paper for hamster bedding?

Lots of online forums and advice sites suggest that using toilet paper is a good idea for hamster bedding. But before you use it, make sure that it’s ripped into strips so that your hamster can nest with it appropriately. You should also avoid using dyed or coloured toilet paper as this can be harmful to your hamster should they stuff it in their cheeks (which many hamsters will do if they fancy moving their bed to a different area). 

You should also note that human toilet paper is not designed to eliminate odours in the same way that bedding designed specifically for small pets often is. In short, while you can use it, using specifically designed hamster bedding is usually a better and more convenient option.

What hamster accessories should I buy?

Hamster in cage

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Once you’ve settled on a cage - or at least the type of cage you want to buy - you should also have a think about the accessories you will need to make sure your hamster is a happy one. 

There are many hamster accessories you can buy, but the basic essentials are the following:

Wheel

Making sure your hamster gets plenty of exercise is very important. Choose a wheel that fits in your cage properly, and make sure it’s the right size for the type of hamster you have. Look for those which are designed specifically for hamsters by breed.

Food Bowl

Although your hamster will invariably move, burrow and hide their food, having a centralised bowl to put it in is helpful to monitor how much food they’re taking. Keep an eye on any secondary food sources to make sure it’s always clean and freshly replenished. If you’re not sure exactly what to feed your hamster, check out our piece on what can hamsters eat

Water Bottle

Obviously your hamster needs to have fresh drinking water available all the time. A bottle is a good idea since it ensures that the water doesn’t get contaminated with food, bedding or other matter. Look for those which clip on to the side of the cage with an opening inside it. Make sure you change the water daily.

Hamster Toys

As well as a wheel, giving your hamster plenty to play with is a great way to keep them occupied and stimulated. You can pick up plenty of the best hamster toys, but you can also use things like old kitchen roll or toilet roll tubes as budget- and eco-friendly alternatives. 

Chew Sticks

Hamsters and other rodents need to chew to keep their ever-growing teeth in check. Many hamsters will take the opportunity to chew things that they shouldn’t, or aren’t that healthy for them - such as cage bars. Try to minimize that problem by giving them toys and sticks which are specifically designed for chewing. 

Cage Extensions

If you opt for a modular hamster cage, then adding tubes and extensions to the main area is a great way to give your furry friend somewhere new and interesting to explore. Just make sure that all the pieces fit together (usually by buying the same brand) and keep on top of regular cleaning. 

How to stop a hamster cage from smelling 

Once your hamster cage is all set up, and your hamster is in situ, you might be wondering how to keep it nice, fresh and clean. 

Essentially this is all down to knowing how to clean a hamster cage. Also make sure you include plenty of substrate bedding (such as sawdust) to mop up any odors, and if you find it to be particularly problematic, consider looking out for bedding specifically designed to reduce, eliminate or minimize smells. 

Amy Davies

Amy Davies is a freelance writer and photographer with over 15 years experience. She has a degree in journalism from Cardiff University and has written about a huge variety of topics over the years. These days she mostly specialises in technology and pets, writing across a number of different titles including TechRadar, Stuff, Expert Reviews, T3, Digital Camera World, and of course PetsRadar. She lives in Cardiff and has two dogs, Lola, a rescue miniature dachshund and Raven, a black Labrador who thinks she’s the same size as Lola.