Choosing the Best Hide for Your Hamster
Many of the hides available in pet stores that are marketed for hamsters are not actually best or even necessarily suitable for hamster use. This is for an array of reasons (further discussed over here) but also due to the size. Many hamster houses that you can find in pet stores are small, single-room hides but these can encourage a variety of unhygienic nesting habits.
In the wild, hamsters will construct burrows consisting of multiple chambers. These will include separate chambers for sleeping, to use as a bathroom and to store the hoard. In the small hides commonly marketed for hamster use, it is not possible for them to allocate a separate area for sleeping, storing food or urinating and as such they can develop unhygienic nesting habits such as urinating in the nest or even on their food storage. These kind of abnormal nesting behaviour can bring with them a list of concerns from urine scald to creating breeding grounds for potentially harmful bacteria. In addition to this, if your pet is urinating where they sleep or where they store their food, the nest has to be destroyed more frequently than would otherwise be required adding stress to your hamster, which alone can be incredibly detrimental to such a small animals health.
Many hamster houses available on the market are much too small for the hamster to keep their food, bathroom and nest separate. If you cannot buy a multi-chamber hide already made for you, you can DIY one using poplar plywood or even simply cardboard can work quite well.
It is for this reason that when considering what hide to provide your hamster with, it is important that you take the size into consideration. Hamsters are very clean animals and just as you would not want to sleep and eat your dinner in your bathroom, your hamster does not want to either and so they should be provided with an appropriately sized hide to demonstrate natural nesting habits. The minimum house size for all dwarf species is 30cm x 20cm. For syrian hamsters, it is 30cm x 30cm. Remember: a minimum is just a guideline to draw a line at what is considered acceptable, it is not restrictive and you can absolutely go bigger than this if you wish. These minimums are just to give the animal enough space to keep their food, toilet and nest separately. The house must be made out of a breathable material, such as poplar plywood or cardboard. The lid must be untreated (varnishing or waterproofing will drastically limit the breathability, thus creating problems with condensation build up) and easily removable to give you access to the toilet & food chambers without having to lift up the house itself to cause minimal disturbance to the nest. The house should also be level with the substrate, bottomless and placed in an area with deep bedding. This is to replicate the natural burrow system, and to give the hamster the option to dig down and expand their chambers if desired.
Showing chamber house of female Campbell's, 'Reuben', before she has moved in. 2 bedroom areas are offered, giving her the option of 5 other chambers (excluding the main entrance) to use as she pleases. This house is shown with the lid removed for photo purposes.
Not all hamsters will use hides, but it is highly encouraged to at least give them the option of using one. Some dwarf species, like the Campbell's & Winter White, have even been observed inhabiting the burrows of other animals and have shown a tendency in inhabit pre-constructed nests. Because of this, it is important to give them the option of a multi-chambered hide so that they can use one if they so wish.
Read more about the impact that cage cleaning (which includes destroying or disrupting nests) can have on your hamster over here.