Cleaning the Enclosure/How to Clean a Natural Hamster Cage
The enclosure above is 8ft x 2ft x 2ft, and one of the most common reactions I get from when people see my hamsters enclosures is "how on earth do you clean that?!". Cleaning an enclosure of this size may seem daunting when in actuality, it's straight forward and arguably less labour-intensive than cleaning a smaller, store bought cage.
What many don't realise is the larger the cage and the deeper the bedding, the less need for regular full cage cleans there is. The more bedding you have, the longer the cage can go without undergoing a full cage clean (if ever requiring one at all). A species appropriate enclosure (that is; one of an appropriate floorspace and depth) should never require a full cage clean if housing an otherwise healthy animal. Spot cleaning alone (sieving sand baths, removing soiled handfuls of bedding and replacing them with fresh, clean substrate) will suffice in a cage like the one pictured on the previous slide. In smaller cages (such as those in line with bare minimum requirements) with minimum bedding depths, they can be maintained by regular spot cleaning and with doing 1/4-1/3 bedding changes approximately every 6-8 weeks if needed (I always say: use your eyes and your nose when cleaning. If something is not dirty, don’t clean it for the sake of cleaning it!). So while initially filling a larger cage can be expensive, you'll use less bedding over time compared to someone with a much smaller, shallower enclosure thus actually saving you money. Not ever doing a full, complete cage clean may sound gross to anyone unfamiliar with natural set ups but did you know that full cage cleans are actually possibly detrimental to your hamsters health?
A study published by Professor Gattermann in the 1990's studied the effects of stress on golden hamsters (Mescocricetus. auratus). One of the stressors measured involved studying a Syrian hamsters heart rate in reaction to a full cage clean. It was found that conducting a full cage clean raised the animals heart rate by ~150bpm (beats per minute) taking them almost an hour to completely calm down, which is comparable to the stress Syrian hamsters undergo in group housing (where the hamsters heart rate increased by ~180bpm). A stressed animal is more susceptible to illness and as such, conducting a full cage clean on a regular basis - especially given how often small enclosures and/or those with very shallow substrate depths require full cleanings - may be detrimental to your pets health (stress = weekend immune system!). This also includes cleaning toys (removing scent) and completely rearranging cage layouts. Hamsters have very poor eyesight and rely heavily on scent. To put it into perspective; imagine if you left your house, only to come back to find that it's no longer where you left it and when you finally do locate it again, all your rooms have changed location and all your furniture has been rearranged. Now add the fact that your vision is impaired on top of that. How disoriented would you be? This is more or less what your hamster experiences during full cage cleans. As such, cage accessories should only be cleaned if needed to be (i.e. if the animal has urinated on it) and if a rearrangement of the cage layout needs to be done, if possible they should be slight changes done over time rather than all at once, or at the very least all main enclosure items (such as water, house, and wheel) should be kept in the same location, and if possible should not be done during or shortly after larger cleaning sessions to minimise the stress experienced by your pet as much as possible. It is also advisable to conduct cage cleans when your hamster wakes up on their own terms, as this has shown to lower the stress they experience during cage cleans tremendously. Overall, changes within their environment should be kept limited and should not be extreme if it can be avoided (i.e. moving house or upgrading an enclosure are both entirely different scenarios to completely changing your hamsters enclosure to match a ‘theme’ every couple months - this should be heavily discouraged on the basis that it is causing your pet unnecessary stress, your hamster is not a room accessory!).
"But what if my hamster is bored of their layout?"
I find that in most situations, providing the animal has ample enrichment and a large enough enclosure, this is not a problem we would typically encounter. Additionally, play pens are a great way to provide your hamster with a change in scenery which should furthermore reduce this being a problem. However, if you find your hamster is not happy with how their enclosure is set up, you should make subtle changes within their enclosure but do not change the bedding at the same time, and keep their main enclosure items (being their hide and water, and if possible wheel) in the same location to at least attempt to minimise stress and confusion.
Further cleaning advice:
To eliminate the need for a full cage clean and drastically reduce the stress experienced by your hamster, it is advised that you follow the cleaning plan mentioned previously: regular spot cleaning 1-2 times a week with removing approximately 1/3-1/4 sections (cage size & depth depending) on average every 6 weeks. Oftentimes you may find the latter step (removing larger sections of bedding) unnecessary if you keep up with regularly removing & replacing soiled handfuls of bedding and you find your hamster to be a particularly clean individual: it’s entirely case-by-case dependent, and these are just general guidelines. For example: I house a Winter White hamster in an iKEA kallax unit, of which only a 400”2 area is filled with substrate (the other 400”2 is sand). I have never found large partial bedding changes necessary, and I am able to maintain all of my hamsters enclosures (which include a Kallax, Detolf, and larger 8ft x 2ft enclosure) with just spot-cleaning by sieving sand baths & replacing soiled handfuls of bedding approximately 1-2 times a week.
To make spot cleaning easier, you can also provide your hamster with dedicated toilet corners. Hamsters have a general preference for using corners as a bathroom. You can purchase ceramic corner bowls and fill them with a different substrate to the one used in the main cage such as chinchilla sand (note: it must be sand. Bathing dust is dangerous to a hamsters sensitive respiratory system.) or paper-pellet litter. 1-2 times a week, these areas should be freshened up with clean substrate as required. If you use sand, you can pour it through a sieve and re-use the clean sand as the soiled areas are easily sifted out and removed. This makes maintaining a species appropriate enclosure easy and cost-efficient.
Choosing An Appropriate Substrate + A Discussion on Softwood - Is It Really The Devil?