How to clean large, natural cagesI often get asked "OMG, how do you clean this?". Most people who ask this question come from a hamster keeping culture where hamsters are kept in cages which are significantly smaller than the cages on this blog. They typically clean their cage once a week and prefer plastic toys/hideouts and water bottles as more hygienic. Well, it's different with large, natural cages and some of what is common belief is actually a myth.
Hamster stress response to cleaningA full cage cleaning is very stressful for hamsters. Many people notice that their hamsters are more aggressive or more shy after the "evil cage cleaning day". Prof. Gattermann did studies on syrian hamsters measuring their heart rate in response to several stressful situations. One of those situations was a full cage clean/cage change. His results showed that the heart rate increased by 150bpm(!) and it took the hamster almost an hour to calm down if this was done during the day. During the night the situation was a lot less stressful for the hamsters - their heart rate increased only by about 25bpm and the hamsters calmed down after about 15mins (Georg Leithold has done a short write-up of Gattermann's results which can be found HERE). Many people also switch toys or the cage layout at the same time as the cage clean - this exacerbates the problem. Never do a full clean and toy change/layout change at the same time - it is extremely stressful for the hamster
How often to clean a large cageBasically, the larger the cage, the less dirty it gets. Eg. a Savic Cambridge cage can contain at best about 25liters (~6gal) of bedding if you really fill up the tray to the brim. In comparison, even the smallest cages on this blog - tanks with 100cm x 40cm with a bedding height of about 20cm (~8in) contain a whopping 80liters (about 20gal) of bedding. It's easy to see how you can have a lot longer cleaning intervals when you have almost four times the amount of bedding. It's sufficient to spot clean the obviously dirty spots every couple of days and do a larger partial cleaning where you exchange one half or one third of the bedding every 4-8 weeks (depending on size).
The most important thing you have to take care of is hamster pee because large patches of wet bedding (wood shavings or paper-based bedding) would be a breeding ground for bacteria. So the best way to keep the cage clean is to toilet train your hamster. Hamsters are very cleanly animals by nature and usually learn very quickly to use a toilet bowl with sand for their pee. Simply check the cage for the favorite pee corner of your hamster, put some of the peed-on bedding into the toilet bowl and clean out the rest of the dirty bedding. If the hamster subsequently chooses another corner then put the toilet there until he accepts the bowl. Hamsters accept a toilet bowl more readily if it is offered inside their hideout or house - just like the toilet chambers they have in their burrows in nature. If you can't find a commercial hideout that's big enough to offer a toilet bowl inside then build one yourself (see eg this easy tutorial HERE). Dwarf hamsters often like to pee in their wheels or sand bath. Simply sieve the sand to remove the pee clumps and clean the wheel regularly - the rest of the cage will stay mostly clean.
Poop is not really a problem - poop dries and becomes basically inert. Clean out any obvious poops regularly (some hamsters even pile them up in one place) and don't worry if there might be a couple that you overlooked. 3 poops lost somewhere in 80+ liters of bedding is clean, not "filth".
If you use a substrate such as terrarium earth (eg. as shown in this cage) replace the top 1-2cm (~half an inch-inch) about every 4 weeks (depending on how dirty it is). You can use eg. a cheap ladle to shovel out the upper layer.
If you use corn cob bedding in part of the cage (eg to hide food so the hamster has to work to collect the food) check for mould - especially if you live in a humid climate. Corn cob bedding can mould easily if wet - better use shredded cork substrate instead.
How to clean a large cage
Such large cages are not tipped out and then brought to the bathroom to be cleaned in the tub as you might do with a small cage. Instead, you leave the cage in place and shovel out the bedding you want to replace. If you feel that you need to be more thorough (depending on how dirty the cage is or in case you need to do a full clean because of parasites or after the death of your hamster), vacuum up what you can not shovel out and then wipe down and/or disinfect the cage where it stands. Bring a bucket of water to the cage instead of bringing the cage to the bathtub.
Yes, such a big cage will need a lot of bedding when filled for the first time (see also: How much bedding to buy?). But if you clean it as described here, you'll actually use less bedding in the long run than an owner with a small cage who does a complete cage clean every week
Plastic vs wooden toys - and how to clean themPlastic should be avoided as much as possible in hamster cages. Many types of plastic will splinter if the hamster gnaws them - especially the transparent and semi-transparent types which are usually Polystyrene (PS, Recycling code 6). Ragged edges or swallowed splinters can cause injury to your hamster. Wheels made from Polyethylene like the WodentWheel are fine, though. Plastic hideouts may seem hygienic at first glance but have the disadvantage that they are not breathable. Moisture from the hamster's breath will make the air in the hideout damp and warm - an ideal breeding ground for bacteria. The same goes for hamsters nesting in the tubes offered with many cages or in the smaller "nesting ball" attachments. This is one reasons why plastic tubes are considered unsuitable in the German-speaking area (Germany, Austria, Switzerland).
Also, many hideouts are semi-transparent which makes them totally unsuitable - a hamster should be able to enjoy his sleep in a nice dark hideout just like you don't want to sleep with light shining into your bedroom. Wooden houses are breathable and dark - if you can't buy a suitable one then build one yourself (which will also give you the opportunity to include a toilet chamber).
Wooden toys can not be washed like plastic ones but they can be scrubbed down or scalded with hot water (Be careful with hot water! Ask an adult to help you if you are under-age.). Wood does not immediately get water-logged. Give your wooden toys a quick scrub and then blow them dry with your hairdryer. If you need to be more thorough (eg in case of parasites) you can first spray your wooden toys with a pet-safe disinfectant, then scrub them down / scald them and then put them in the oven and bake them at about 80°C (176°F if my math is correct) for half an hour or so.Put a little bowl of water in the oven to prevent the wood from drying out too much.
Toys made from cork are water-resistant but often have a lot of cracks which are difficult to clean. To thoroughly clean cork first wash/scrub and submerge in water, then bake like wooden toys.
Grass nests and tunnels can not be washed at all, you can only bake them to disinfect them. If in doubt (eg after a hamster has died from a strange illness), replace the toy.
Wooden surfaces that are in danger of getting dirty - eg. the roofs of houses where you place the bowl for fresh food or the wheels for dwarf hamsters - can be painted with pet-safe paint or treated with butcher block oil to protect them.
Be aware, that this is not perfect protection. While wooden toys can last for several hamster lives they do not last forever, even when protected (eg if you have a diabetic dwarf who pees a lot in his wheel better get a wheel made from plastic. Such is life, get used to it.
How to prevent parasitesYes, you can catch parasites when you buy a lot of natural materials. Here's a couple of tips to avoid this:
- don't buy in pet stores that sell live animals
- if there are no stores without animals, check the conditions - is the store clean? Are the animals on display clean and healthy looking? Does the store keep toys and hay right next to the cages or in another area? Do not buy from a store that's filthy and stores it's natural toys and hay right next to sick-looking animals.
- clean and bake the toys as described above
- some people swear by freezing their hay for a week in the deep freezer. If you want to do this, make sure you pack the hay air-tight (many hay packages have air holes) and completely thaw the closed package before unpacking the hay. Otherwise the hay can get mouldy due to condensation. In winter you could put the hay packet into the trunk of your car when it's parked outside in freezing temperatures.