Choosing the Best Wheel for your Hamster
Hamsters travel for miles in a single night, and have even shown to use wheels even when provided with large enclosures. As such, a wheel is viewed as a necessity to provide your hamster regardless of enclosure size - but not all wheels are created equal.
The Importance of a Smooth Running Surface:
Barred & meshed wheels present an increased risk of bumblefoot. The heightened risk is caused by the fact that these wheels have rough running surfaces that can cause injuries to the foot. Given that most hamsters go to the bathroom on their wheels, these wounds can easily become infected causing bumblefoot. Risk of bumblefoot aside, the holes in mesh wheels in particular present the risk of torn nails and broken limbs as tiny nails, toes & limbs easily fall through the gaps. This latter risk, that is the risk of broken or injured limbs, is also posed by barred wheels. As such, barred & mesh wheels are largely frowned upon and should not be used.
However, it’s equally important to avoid solid surface wheels that have raised rungs as when your hamster is running, these raised rungs not only increase their risk of tripping but they also put uneven pressure on their joints and could potentially lead to the early onset of joint issues (inc. arthritis). To put the danger of these wheels into perspective; imagine if you were running on flat terrain and every couple seconds your foot landed with all your body weight on a massive rock - your joints would be messed up in no time.
Additionally, these wooden wheels with raised rungs are notoriously poor quality and often will splinter. I’ve attached a photo of when I used one of these wheels for my past Syrian, Keiko, and woke up one morning to blood splatter; I can’t recall exactly if it was caused by a splinter or caught nail in the rung, but I digress; they’re dangerous. (I used it not knowing of the dangers at the time, because nobody ever talked about it!).
The ideal running surface should be as smooth as possible. Cork is often preferred, because the idea is that it acts as a shock absorber (and is therefore kinder on their joints). But, with hamsters who use their wheel as a bathroom, smooth plastic is also perfectly fine.
Only wheels with heavily raised rungs with very large spaces between them are considered dangerous. The running track seen on the above example of a plastic Trixie rodent wheel, for example, are perfectly safe.
The Importance of a Upright Running Wheel vs Flying Saucer:
The reason for why I will discourage the use of flying saucers for anything other than very short term usage or supervised playtime fun is not because their backs may curve; it’s because they are a sloped, circular running surface. Some of them are so heavily sloped that the human equivalent would arguably be equal to you running diagonally up the side of a mountain. Not just once every now and then, but every single time you went running. Now add that you’re favouring running clockwise around the mountain on top of all that. It is the perfect recipe for poor muscle development and joint issues.
Flying saucers, if you wish, are perfectly fine for the occasional playtime fun and if used this way, won’t cause your pet any harm. But they should not be provided without limitations, and/or used in replacement of a traditional, upright wheel. With the slope many of these wheels create, their muscles and joints on the inner perimeter of the wheel are taking the brunt of their exercise, having to work harder to maintain posture, and hitting the ground harder every time. Even the flattest of flying saucers are still a circular running track and that alone is enough to cause concern for potential imbalances of muscle development given that many hamsters will overly-favour running in one direction.
One marketing target used by the companies who create these wheels is that it allows for a ‘more natural running posture’. In the wild, hamsters would of course encounter all sorts of different terrain; but running on a sloped terrain 24/7 (especially one that is hard, and to the extent of a slope that the majority of these style wheels create) in a circular motion is not natural for them, in the slightest. Because of these concerns, flying saucers should never be used in replacement for an upright wheel & I do also not recommend you provide them to your pet without limitations (i.e. I do not recommend giving your hamster unlimited access to a flying saucer in their enclosure, even if you provide them with the option of an upright wheel too, given that some hamsters may overly favour running on the saucer - I, personally, view them acceptable for playtime use only).
Choosing An Appropriately Sized Wheel:
So, we've talked about the importance of a smooth running track, and the importance of providing an upright wheel - what is also an equally important factor to consider is wheel size.Your hamster should have a large enough running surface as so that their back is perfectly straight and not curved, with their head level & not being carried above the shoulders. With Chinese hamsters, their tail should not be forced into a curled position - remember, the tail is your pets spine!
A very easy, quick method of determining minimum wheel size for your pet is to measure their body length, and then multiply this by 2 - however, I personally only use this for Syrian hamsters. Particularly as it relates to dwarf hamsters, I personally advise you instead multiply their body length x 2.5 for optimum wheel size. Dwarf hamsters often lose control on smaller wheels, and tend to flip & can be thrown out of their wheels - this can be dangerous, and if your hamster is constantly flipping out of their wheel, please consider upgrading to a larger wheel to offer them more control. I also feel like multiplying by 2.5 gives you a better idea of wheel size for dwarf species too, and I've frequently encountered the problem of diameters being 2 x their body length just being a tad too small for my personal liking - not always, but it's happened. Despite multiplying their body length x 2 being the general guideline, I feel obligated to mention that I personally only use this guideline as it relates to Syrian hamsters and instead choosing to multiply x 2.5 for dwarf hamsters, and I advise you to do the same (I have factored in this when creating the minimum wheel size guide attached below - but, some individuals may be larger examples of their species!).
I'll attach an easy to understand photo guide I have created to aid you in determining whether or not your wheel is the correct fit for your pet:
In the case of a wheel being too small, the following image is what comes to most peoples minds:
However, a wheel being too small isn't always so obvious as we will see with the next example:
Remember: your hamster should be able to run perfectly straight. If they cannot run straight (head being constantly carried above the shoulders, or curvature of the spine), or in the case of Chinese hamsters, their tail is being pushed upright, the wheel is too small and must be upgraded.
General wheel size guidelines are as follows:
These are general minimum guidelines. Many Syrian hamsters may require 30cm wheels or larger, and many Roborovski dwarf hamsters may also benefit from 22-25cm wheels or larger as it often gives them better control over the wheel, and can reduce the risk of them from losing control and flipping in their wheels. With Chinese hamsters, please keep in mind that their tail is an extension of their spine when determining whether or not your hamsters wheel is an appropriate size: the tail does not have to be perfectly straight, but if their tail is being pushed to an extreme upright, your wheel is too small. Once again, these are just general guidelines per species. To assess your hamster as an individual, it is advised that you measure the length of your hamster and multiply it by 2. This will give you an accurate size to go by to aid you in choosing a minimum wheel size for your pet. On a personal note, I prefer to multiply by 2.5 for optimum wheel size for dwarf hamsters: I have found this works better as they have a tendency to flip/lose control on smaller wheels and overall I feel as though it just offers a better fit.