How to Set Up a Natural Enclosure
1 - Wheel.
Appropriate wheel size depends on which species of hamster you plan on keeping. As a general rule, the minimum wheel size for the 5 domesticated species are as follows; Roborovski - 20cm, Winter White & Campbells dwarf - 22cm/25cm, Chinese dwarf - 27cm, and Syrian - 32cm. Wheels must be of a solid surface, and not be barred or mesh. Plastic wheels can be used for hygienic reasons so long as they are regularly inspected for chew marks/damaged, rough edges. Read more about how to choose an appropriately sized wheel over here.
2 - Water bowl.
I recommend the use of water bowls over water bottles, and my reasonings for so can be found over here. Water bowls allow the animal to drink more freely and unobstructed, in a much more natural drinking position. They must be shallow, and of small diameter. Small tealight holders are a popular choice.
3 - Digging pit.
Is not necessary, though a great way to provide added enrichment. A list of suitable substrates for digging pits can be found over here (8 Enrichment Ideas for Hamsters).
4 - Grapevine.
Grapevines make awesome addition to hamster enclosures. You can hang veggies from them, your hamster can climb and naw on them, or you can hang treats from them. They are a must have in all my natural set-ups!
5 - Racetrack.
Is not necessary, though can make a great addition to many enclosures - particularly larger enclosures as they create a shaded area underneath, which can provide a sense of security for prey animals like hamsters. The idea behind a racetrack is to allow the animal to run at full speed without any obstructions blocking their way.
6 - Multi-chamber hide.
A multi-chamber hide is a must-have in any hamster set up; natural or not. They should be placed partially submerged within the substrate, but should not be touching the bottom of the enclosure. This is so that the animal, if they choose to make the multi-chamber hide their home, can dig down and expand the chambers with their own created burrows. I have further details on all the benefits a multi-chamber hide provides over here; Choosing the Best Hide for Your Pet.
7 - Sand bath.
Sand baths are a necessity in every hamster set-up, be it for a Syrian or Dwarf, all species benefit of their use. They are essential for allowing your hamster to properly clean their coats, and additionally provide a form of sensory enrichment. For sand bath size guidelines on each individual species, check out my other post over here.
8 - Foraging opportunities.
Sprays such as wheat sprays, flax sprays, and oat sprays make great additions to your hamsters set-up. They allow your pet to forage and collect their own food, and an awesome way to engage their brain and keep them occupied and entertained. Additional foraging items you can provide your pet include hazelnut & apple branches, dari cob, varieties of millet, grasses, etc. A list of commonly used sprays can be found over here. Sprays can be provided 24/7 or replaced 2-3 times a week; it really depends on the hamster, and whether or not they are one to ravage everything in one sitting.
9 - Deep substrate.
Deep substrate is essential in every hamster set-up, whether you plan on a natural set-up or not. There is a very interesting study on just how beneficial the providence of deep substrate is to your hamsters mental & emotional health that I discuss over here at Choosing the Best Cage for Your Hamster (and an additional link to the full study can be found there too). Mixing hay (i recommended softer hays, like meadow - not timothy) in between layers can also aid with burrow stability, acting similarly to how roots would aid in burrow stability in the wild. Additional reads on how to properly provide deep bedding can be found over here.
10 - Leaf litter.
Leaf litter can really tie a natural set-up together, and in my opinion, it is really the 'piece de resistance' if you will. It makes foraging for food more interesting and also provides your hamster with additional nesting materials. Furthermore, it provides enrichment in the form of giving your hamster different textures & scents to explore. Want to know what leaves you can use for your hamsters set-up? Check out my other blog post over here.
11- Cork tubes.
One can never have enough cork tubes. Cork tubes have several uses in a hamster set-up; they make fun tunnels to run through, you can hide food in the nooks & crevices to make foraging more fun, and they can be half-submerged into the substrate to encourage burrowing and can even act as a hide. Syrian hamsters especially are known to prefer pre-established entrances to expand their burrows off of, and this is a behaviour commonly observed in wild populations. In captivity, cork tubes are a really easy way to replicate this and can aid in encouraging hamsters who have previously never shown interest in burrowing to start doing so.
12 - Ceramic hides.
Ceramic hides aren't necessary of course, but can make great additions to all hamster cages. They are chew-proof, so do not carry the same risk as plastic houses. Additionally, they provide a great hideout for your hamster during the warmer months as the ceramic provides a nice, cool area for your hamster to cool down. Please always check the dimensions of entrances before providing them to your hamster.
13 - Moss.
If you wish to use moss in your hamsters enclosure, please ensure that it is a 100% natural product as it is unfortunately not all that uncommon for some companies to dye moss green. Moss not only looks great in natural set ups, but it's also a great way to provide your hamster with a variety of nesting materials to choose from.
14 - Hiding & burrowing opportunities.
Hamsters are prey animals, and should not have barren set ups with huge, open spaces as it often stresses them out and may cause them to not take full advantage of the space given. Cork tubes half-submerged within the substrate not only can encourage burrowing behaviour, but they also provide your hamster with an easily accessible hiding spot should they feel the need to use it. This is especially useful to more nervous individuals, particularly Roborovski & Chinese dwarf hamsters but can be appreciated and offered to any hamster.
15 - Different textures.
As discussed in a previous post (that can be found over here: Natural vs Plastic Cage Items), hamsters have very poor eyesight and rely heavily on sensory enrichment. One very easy way to provide this is with a variety of different textures in their cage and that includes the use of different woods such as grapevine, driftwood, or bamboo root as shown in the photo example.