On The Topic of Kapok: An Informal Discussion
Kapok is a natural fibre harvested from the kapok tree. It is commonly marketed as a nesting material for small animals as an alternative to 'hamster wool', as it has short fibres so does not pose a risk for limb entanglement.
However, while some are willing to accept that the kapok cannot tangle limbs, many are still insistent that it is "just as dangerous, if not worse!" and a whole list of arguments are given in defence. But just how accurate are these arguments, and are they even true?
Commonly Used Arguments to Deem Kapok Dangerous:
1."Kapok absorbs water, and therefore will dry out a hamsters cheek pouch."
Bedding (be it shavings, or paper based substrates) are also designed to absorb moisture. Toilet paper, widely regarded as safe, is also designed to absorb moisture. Natural wool, a product hamsters have been observed using as a nesting material in the wild, is capable of absorbing moisture. The ability of a product to absorb moisture is not a genuine cause for concern, and cannot be used as an argument to deem kapok dangerous.
2. "On the contrary, kapok has water repellent capabilities and is therefore incapable of being digested and will cause blockages if swallowed".
There is this odd 'standard' possessed by some in the hamster community that if a material does not dissolve in water, it is therefore dangerous and unsuitable to provide a hamster. Fur, which your hamster (if not hairless) will ingest while grooming, is also not digestible. Leaves & plants have a natural waxy coating, which is why they don't dissolve like cotton candy every time it rains. Sheep wool, a nesting materials used by many wild hamsters, also has water repellent capabilities. Moss, widely regarded as a safe nesting material, has incredible water absorbing capabilities. Kapok is not tasty. It is not attractive for your hamster to swallow in large amounts. Of course, while transporting it to their nesting site, they may swallow some fibres - but anything that is not broken down will be expelled from their body, and not just be 'stored' in the stomach over time. Let's actually look at what kapok is made out of:
Kapok is water-repellent due to the waxy cutin coating the fibres. "Water repellent" does not mean anything when we are talking about an animals digestive system - which is hydrochloric acid, not water. The claims that 'because kapok is insoluble in water means that it is unlikely to be easily digested' are completely illogical. Cutin is "a waxy water-repellent substance in the cuticle of plants, consisting of highly polymerized esters of fatty acids". It is a component of practically all plants, including vegetables and fruits you feed your hamster. Kapok is deemed dangerous by some because it's practically impossible to soak in water... but so are fresh kale leaves for example, because they have that same waxy coating as kapok. Ever buffed an apple to make it more shiney? That's because the skin of an apple has that same waxy cutin. Have you ever worried about your hamster being essentially 'impacted' by kale or apples because of the waxy coating? It's probably never even crossed your mind - and it shouldn't because again, your hamsters digestive system isn't relying on water for digestion.
Furthermore, if we look at the breakdown of Kapok fibres, they are composed of 64% cellulose, 13% lignin and 23% pentosan. There is nothing here that is going to cause a blockage in your hamster, and ALL of these components can be found in every day feed items you give to your hamsters (vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes!) AND throughout your pets enclosure in wood. Anything that isn't digested simply passes through the digestive system. 'Indigestible' doesn't = impaction. It's like corn & humans: corn is indigestible to us... this doesn't mean that it sits in your stomach forever, or clogs your stomach should you eat more than a typical serving. It just means you can't digest it, so it just passes through your digestive system. Additionally, a further study observed the effects of feeding kapok fibres to rats. No rats had to be pulled from the study to obstruction - the kapok simply increased the weight of their stool, indicating that it simply passed right through the digestive system.
In short, there is absolutely no evidence that accidental ingestion of kapok poses a risk hazard in terms of causing 'blockages' in your hamster. Your pet would have to ingest quite a significant amount for it to be problematic - but, this risk of being problematic when ingested in large amounts is also posed by toilet paper. Again, your animal has no desire to swallow a quantity that would be enough for this to be a health concern... it would be practically unheard of for this to happen. To state kapok as dangerous on this factor alone is just complete exaggeration.
3. "when shoved down a straw, kapok blocked most of the water from coming through demonstrating its ability to cause a blockage in your hamster"
Water, first and foremost, is not an accurate representation of a hamsters digestive system as we discussed previously. Neither is a plastic straw. Secondly; if you roll toilet paper in a ball, shove it down a straw, it will have the same effect. This experiment does not prove anything other than the fact if you clog a straw with material, it will block water. It is like claiming toilet paper is dangerous because it can clog your drain. This is an incredibly flawed experiment, an incredibly flawed argument, and takes absolutely not a single aspect of the animals digestive system into consideration.
4. "but I saw someone claim their hamster choked on kapok!"
And I can show you claims of owners who say their hamster choked on toilet paper. I can show you claims of hamsters who developed and died of respiratory infections even though they were housed on paper bedding their whole life. Isolated cases do not deem a product dangerous. Flukes happen - but they are called flukes for a reason. Claims of hamsters dying from choking on kapok are about as common as cases of hamsters choking on toilet paper. For the amount of owners who use both products, ill effects reported are few and far between. It does not prove them to be dangerous at all.
5. "Kapok caused respiratory issues in mill workers."
It has also been suggested that because of the higher incidence of respiratory issues in kapok workers compared to other industries, that there must be something exceptionally dangerous with kapok compared to other nesting materials, or even beddings. This is because there was a high incidence of mill fever and chronic bronchitis noted amongst kapok workers. The study used in reference of this argument is an 'investigation into the health of kapok workers' in Sri Lanka. So, let's take a look at this study:
Almost immediately, we are told that these facilities investigated were located in old buildings, with poor ventilation:
Then we are told that the grinneries which observed high incidence of chronic bronchitis had workers working during the off-season during which they were processing poor quality kapok with very high dust contents:
Not only that, but a common factor with workers who developed chronic bronchitis were working in 1) dusty atmosphere with 2) not just inadequate ventilation, but also 3) without appropriate face protection. Though face protection was provided, many workers were opposed to wearing them.
Furthermore, the study then goes on to state that in ginneries which did not have workers processing low quality kapok during the off-season apparently protected the workers from developing chronic bronchitis - indicating that this a problem likely only associated with processing poor quality kapok:
In terms of incidence of mill fever; again, these people are working in the same poorly ventilated facilities with large volumes of product:
It's does not appear at all that the higher incidence of respiratory issues were caused by 'something obviously dangerous about kapok compared to other materials' that many try to argue.... rather, it would appear that higher incidence of mill fever and chronic bronchitis are directly related to the environment these people are working in: poor ventilated facilities, without appropriate face protection, and dealing with massive volumes of product - including very poor quality kapok. This is like quoting a study that observed respiratory issues in wood workers exposed to large volumes of dust, and then using that to deem all wood shaving substrates dangerous on the basis that it is literally impossible to have a wood shaving bedding that is 100% dust free when the issues wasn't caused by any & all levels of dust and was only observed in those exposed to high volumes. The dose makes the poison. To use an occupational hazard as an argument just doesn't work. It's a very flawed argument to use. Just because an issue is observed on an industrial scale does not necessarily mean that it will translate the exact same way under completely different circumstances. You cannot equate the risks posed to an industrial worker to us, or our hamsters, when the conditions are not the same.
6. "it will tangle limbs."
Kapok has very short, thin fibres that break easily are literally impossible to tangle. Limb entanglement cannot be used as an argument to deem kapok unsafe.
Some claim that some kapok fibres differ in length, so the risk of limb entanglement is still there. To put it kindly, this is frankly grasping at straws. Kapok fibres are incredibly short, thin, and easily pulled apart & broken. There is no risk for limb entanglement with kapok. There is risk for limb entanglement (and choking hazard) with products like hamster wool, as the long fibres do not easily break or pull apart - but this is not the case for kapok, which is a completely different product.
7. "it can spontaneously combust!!!!!!!!!!!!"
Hay, hemp, and paper - all products deemed safe for hamsters -are also capable of spontaneously combusting. Let us not over-exaggerate the risk of this happening in your hamsters enclosure. Spontaneous combustion occurs when literal massive amounts of product are incorrectly stored. This is of no concern for a hamster owner, only a huge cargo company. Stating that kapok is at risk of spontaneous combustion in a hamsters enclosure is over-interpreting science.
8. "but there are things that can cause spontaneous combustion in our hamsters enclosures!!!!!"
Because the TIS is quoted as a source to prove kapok dangerous for its ability to spontaneously combust, I am also going to refer to the TIS in regards to the ability of hemp (a well regarded safe substrate & nesting material) to spontaneously combust.
“Spontaneous combustion may, however, occur as a result of exposure to moisture, animal and vegetable fats/oils, oil-bearing seeds/fruits, copra and raw wool.”
^ this is the exact same argument used to deem kapok dangerous on the basis of spontaneous combustion. Again, this is only a concern when literal massive amounts of product is incorrectly stores. If it does not concern you for hemp (it should not), why does it concern you for kapok?
Actual, accurate concerns for Kapok:
Some kapok can be very dusty. Kapok directly from a pod can often be especially so, and I would personally advise you avoid kapok pods entirely - the pods themselves can also be very sharp. But, this is just my personal preference. Additionally, kapok in mattresses has shown to break down over time and produce large amounts of dust however this not necessarily mean that it will pose the same risk for a hamster who is significantly smaller and lighter than a human, and so will not be putting kapok under the same amount of stress.
“okay, so it can be dusty. that means it’s bad then, right?”
No, not necessarily. Just as some kapok can be dusty, wood shavings - and even paper bedding - can also be dusty. This does not mean that all wood shavings are bad on the basis that some can be dusty. The issue we need to stress is quality. While kapok pods are often dusty (and sharp), already packaged, loose kapok can have a low dust content. Many who use kapok often commend mixerama for having a high quality product.
The point I want to stress with this discussion is that the issue of kapok is not a black and white issue as it is often treated. It is all shades of grey in-between. However, many of the arguments used against kapok are over-exaggerated & often simply just outright wrong. It is important that we do not over-interpret science and to not pick and choose what we want to believe, and that we remain open minded on a topic that is far from clear-cut.
If you are not comfortable with using kapok, don't use it. If you are, choose a quality brand. Yes, even quality brands can have a bad batch; it happens with practically everything. Exercise common sense and care. Ultimately this is a topic that is a matter of personal preference. You are not a horrible pet owner if you choose to not use kapok, and you are not a horrible pet owner if you do.
This is an opinion based post, just like all my other posts, based off my own experience and research. I personally use kapok and am comfortable doing so, but as a pet owner it is your responsibility to do your own, independent research into a product prior to using it and I will not be held responsible for any issues you experience with any product mentioned on my blog. I am a firm believer in no products being risk free, with kapok being no exception. This post is simply to discuss the concerns with kapok and to aid in the dispelling of some rumours associated with its use. In no way, shape, or form do I ever claim any of my posts to be used as your sole source of information and I will always encourage independent reseRch
https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1271/bbb.58.1613 (study on kapok fibres fed to rats)