8 Enrichment Ideas for Hamsters
Enrichment for hamsters is anything that involves stimulation - be it simply stimulating the senses, or having the hamster engage and act like a hamster. So what does that mean, exactly?
Well, like we've already discussed previously, hamsters have very poor eyesight thus they are instead stimulated via sense of smell and touch vs visual appeal. This includes items of various textures like cork rounds & grapevines or various different substrates like coconut fibre, along different scented items like a variety of dried flowers & herbs. These items provide a multi-sensory appeal, and so provide a sense of stimulation for an animal with such poor eyesight. Engaging the hamster in exhibiting natural hamster behaviours would include scatter feeding instead of bowl feeding to make them forage for their food and providing an appropriate bedding depth so they have the opportunity to construct burrows like they would do in the wild.
So now that we've clarified what enrichment for hamsters means, we'll move onto some good enrichment ideas to provide your pet to help alleviate or even eliminate boredom related behaviours:
female Campbell's dwarf hamster, 'Reuben', foraging for food.
1) Scatter feed
Scatter feeding is one of the easiest sources of enrichment that there is. Hamsters are foragers by nature and by scatter feeding your pet, you are
stimulating the brain and their senses by making them actually be a hamster. Animals who are bowl fed do not get this opportunity and so scatter feeding is strongly encouraged. Don't worry about smaller seeds sinking into the substrate; hamsters have a very keen sense of smell and this just adds to the fun for your pet, encouraging them to further use their senses to find their buried snacks.
2) Provide an appropriate substrate depth for the species
Hamsters are burrowing animals and so deep substrate is of a high importance and has shown to help alleviate boredom related behaviours. Species depending, this ranges from 15cm-30cm at a bare minimum. It must be a substrate that is actually capable of withstanding burrows, beddings like CareFresh or Flaked Aspen are often not good burrowing substrates. Examples of more suitable burrowing substrates include birch shavings or shredded aspen or paper based beddings like Uber, Kaytee & Boxo. The bedding must be tightly compacted and not fluffed up. Mixing hay in between layers can also aid with burrow stability and half-submerging and/or burying cork tubes can help encourage animals who have previously shown no interest in burrowing to get their burrows kick-started.
Grapevines can be used placed down on the cage floor to give your hamster something to climb over and explore. You can also hide food in the cracks that some grapevines may have, making your hamster work for their food. They can also be used to give a boost to another platform, or can be used standing up to hang vegetables or healthy treat sicks from the branches. This makes your hamster work harder for their vegetables, instead of them being easy to grab straight from the bowl.
4) Cork tubes
Cork tubes are a must have in every hamsters set up. They can be placed directly on the cage floor to be used as a tunnel, or they can be stacked to form a fun 'mountain' full of various nooks & crannies for your pet to explore . Cork tubes can also be partially submerged and pointed down into the substrate; this can often entice hamsters who have shown no previous interest in burrowing to start doing so as in the wild, entrances to their burrows are often found under flat rocks or roots. You can also hide their food and/or treats in the cracks & crevices of many cork pieces, providing additional enrichment for your hamster.
female Winter White dwarf hamster, 'Sterling', foraging for food.
5) Provide an array of different substrates
Hamsters are stimulated via touch and so providing an array of different substrates is a great form of stimulation for them. These different substrates are often provided in containers known as 'digging boxes'. The objective is just to provide the animal with a different texture and so depth is not important (in fact depth is often dangerous, as these are often substrates that are not capable of withholding burrows without collapsing). Suitable beddings for these digging boxes include: Coconut fibre, corn cob, granule bedding, chinchilla bathing sand, reptile digging sand, peat moss, beech or aspen chips or coconut bark. NOTE: It is important to note that many of these beddings are used almost strictly in digging boxes because they are otherwise unsuitable to use in the main enclosure. This is either due to their tendency to easily collapse if burrowed in (posing a crushing risk if excess depth if provided) or their tendency to easily mould. Because of this, these beddings are suitable to use in a contained, shallow area only where they can be easily monitored & changed as needed.
male Chinese hamster, 'Siggi', exploring a digging box filled with peat moss
6) Foraging toys
In addition to scatter feeding, you can DIY some simple foraging toys using toilet paper rolls shown in the diagram below. These can be stuffed with some of your hamsters main food, healthy treats, or even fresh veggies. This makes your hamster have to work a little harder for their food, thus keeping them occupied and mentally stimulated.
7) Dried herbs & flowers
Not only do they serve as a tasty snack for your hamster to nibble on if they so wish, dried herbs & flowers offer a variety of new scents for your hamster to explore, and so also serve as a form of sensory stimulation. They can be scattered throughout the enclosure floor to allow your pet to rummage through them. Don't know what flowers & herbs are safe for your hamster or where to get them? A list of hamster safe herbs & flowers and sources to buy them in Europe, America & Asia can be found over here.
8) Various plants
Along with providing an array of dried herbs & flowers, dried plants also make great addition to any hamsters cage by encouraging the hamster to forage and actually be a hamster. Examples of common items provided include Dari/Sorghum, Flax, various types of Millet, Canary seed, Oat sprays, Wheat ears along with fruit & nut tree branches like Apple & Hazelnut (which can be offered either dried of fresh providing no pesticides have been used). A list of hamster safe plants & sources to buy them can be found over here.