Natural vs Plastic Cage Items
female Winter White dwarf hamster, 'Sterling', overlooks her enclosure
Hamsters have very poor eyesight and as such brightly coloured, flashy objects provide no sense of stimulation for them. For this reason, when deciding on what enrichment to provide your hamster, focus on items that provide a multi-sensory appeal. This includes (but is not limited to) textured items like bamboo roots or grapevines, in addition to those that have several nooks & crevices such as cork flats & rounds.
"But how do I clean natural cage items?"
Cage items do not need to be cleaned unless they are physically dirty or the animal is sick or has parasites. In these situations wooden items & cork can be scolded and/or scrubbed down in hot water (in the case of illness a pet-safe disinfectant may be added to the water) and/or boiled for 3-6 minutes, or baked in an oven at 90-95C/180F for 30 minutes-3 hours depending. If you choose to bake your decor, please ensure you check on them on regular intervals to ensure they do not completely dry out or you risk burning them. Items made out of hay or similar grass materials cannot be cleaned or sanitised, and so must be thrown out once soiled or if used with a sick hamster.
The crevices in cork rounds also make great places to hide food for your hamster to forage, and provide a form of stimulation engaging the brain and the senses.
It is for this primary reason that natural items are a much better source of enrichment for hamsters than plastic, for the simple reason being that all plastic items tend to have the same smooth surface, lacking any form of stimulation for your pet. It is also important to consider that hamsters have a tendency to chew on cage decor (often when you are fast asleep and not around to intervene). This is a natural behaviour and in a natural set up, is nothing to be concerned about. However if plastic cage items are chewed, they can not only potentially injure mouths and delicate cheek-pouches, but if ingested they can cause blockages or puncture organs. This is incredibly dangerous and will result in a hefty vet bill coming your way, or even deceased hamster.
Plastic hideouts are also not advisable, for chewing hazard and also several other potential areas of concern. Unlike wood or cardboard, plastic is not a breathable material therefore any condensation your hamster creates cannot escape their hide and instead collects on the roof of the plastic hut. This condensation build up will then drip back down onto your hamster and any feed stores in that area, creating a soggy mess that will mould and harbour bacteria growth resulting in the nest having to be disturbed more frequently than would otherwise be required, adding stress to your pet. In a wooden or cardboard hide, this moisture is able to pass through the material and out into the environment, creating a much more sanitary and comfortable sleeping area for the animal.
Small plastic igloos are not suitable hamster houses. Instead, larger wooden (or cardboard) houses are preferred, and are a much more hygienic and safer option for your pet.
In addition to problems with condensation build up, many plastic hides are made of a partially translucent material that is easily penetrated by light and given the nocturnal & crepuscular nature of hamsters, this is a cause for concern. Similarly to how most humans can only get a good night's sleep in a dark room, hamsters also enjoy a dark hide for an uninterrupted slumber. In a translucent hide (which is the case for most plastic hamster houses available on the market), this is impossible to achieve due to both artificial and natural lighting easily passing into the sleeping quarters. Could you imagine trying to sleep with all the lights on in your room? This is the kind of sleeping environment plastic hides create for your hamster. Because of this, a wooden or even cardboard hide is a much better option to consider for your hamster.
Plastic wheels may be used for sanitary reasons (as many hamsters will urinate on their wheels) so long as you monitor the wheel for chew marks, but otherwise plastic items are best avoided.
Want to read more about choosing the best hide for your pet? Head on over here.