Aside from ​the main basic essentials on the Starter List page additional substrates and items can be included in the habitat to create extra opportunity for natural exploration and variety. However, any additional substrates should not replace the main ones (paper bedding and sand).







- COCO PEAT      

- HAY       

- DIY HAY       




- STONES     


- SAFE WOODS       



- FABRIC       


******IMPORTANT TIP ******

It is always a good idea to freeze natural substrates, except for those that are baked in your own oven, for at least 48 hours before use to ensure that most ganonies and nits will be killed (if you have a large freezer, you can even store it permanently in those conditions). This is particularly important for any commercial substrates since one doesn’t know what has crept into any of the other seemingly “immune” products in facilities during manufacturing, packaging, and storage. Natural products can also harbour bugs, so should be treated accordingly, where advised.

It is a lot easier to freeze your substrates than it is to treat your hamster and cage for mite infestation!


BEDDING TOPPERS / FORAGING MIXES are made up of herbs, flowers & plants, and some even include little treat foods. Hamsters  are natural foragers and these mixes are great enrichment additions in sections of the habitat, or scattered over the bedding. These particular brands are safe and even nutritional for the hamster to nibble on, as well as providing a natural extra enrichment within the habitat (pick out any thin seriously hard stalky bits that are found in some).

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treats - rosewood natures summer harvest


Similarly, if you're a keen gardener, "DIY TOPPERS" (herbs & flowers) can also be easily grown and dried at home and mixed in with the DIY Hay. Grow any or as many safe plants from seed or seedlings, and use the leaves and flowers.

Obviously, with anything you grow for your critters, care needs to be taken to grow as organically as possible:

This would mean no pesticides or harsh fertilizers during the growing process, particularly 2 or 3 weeks before harvesting. A good quality compost  and/or "worm tea"  should be all the nutrition required for your hamster garden.

A clean area away from dogs & cats (urine & faeces) is preferable. Bugs should be picked off by hand or a natural repellent used. Marigold and peppermint is known to be rather good at repelling, so may be useful as companion planting, whether you are going to use these in your mix or not.

* Bear in mind that MOST CULINARY HERBS ARE VERY POTENT and tend to be a bit much for their sensitive noses, as well as possibly causing stomach upsets. So, when making a mix, go very easy on these and concentrate on maximising the flowers content instead. The stronger herbs can rather be fed in fresh form as occasional treats.

Sticky pollens on flowers should also be avoided. 

Good video to watch about dried herbs and flowers:



  • Alyssum, Asters.

  • Barley Grass, Basil leaves, Blackberry & Blueberry leaves.

  • Calendula, Cannabis leaves, Chamomile flowers, Chickweed, Cornflowers, Cress.

  • Dandelion roots/leaves/flowers, Dill leaves.

  • Echinacea

  • Fennel leavesFlax/Linseed.

  • Hemp leaves/seeds/stems/flowers, Hibiscus flowers.

  • Marigold petals, Michaelmas Daisies.

  • Nasturium petals, Nettle roots & dried leaves.

  • Oregano.

  • Pansy (Swiss Giant-Viola Hortensis), Parsely stalks & leaves, Peppermint leaves (SMALL AMOUNT only; not for pregnant females), Pet Grass, Phlox, Plantain roots & leaves.

  • Raspberry leaves (not for pregnant femailes), Red Cover, Ribwort, Rose petals, Rosemary.

  • SageStinging nettle roots, Sunflower petals, Sweetpea petals.

  • Thyme (small amount, but not around pregnant hamsters).

  • Wheat Grass.

UNSAFE common herbs/flowers/plants:

  • Acorns, Arum Lilies

  • Bindweed, Bluebells, Bulbs, Buttercups (plants/flowers)

  • Carnations, Catmint, Catnip, Chervil, Chilli, Chives (all types & parts), Chrysanthemum, Clematis, Coriander seeds, Crocus

  • Daffodil, Deadly Nightshade, Dianthus

  • Elderberry leaves, branches & flowers, Evergreen plants

  • Ferns, Freesias, Fuchsias

  • Garlic

  • Iris, Ivy, Ixia

  • Laurel, Lavender, Lemon Balm, Lemon Grass, Lemon Verbena, Lilies

  • Mustard

  • Oak (acorns, leaves, branches, etc.)

  • Ragwort

  • Snapdragons

  • Succulents (vygies, cacti, etc. - not much known about the safety but the general message is to rather avoid these)

  • Tomato leaves & flowers


flowers and plants -flax.jpg
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flowers and plants -cornflower.jpg
flowers and plants -marigold.jpeg
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flowers and plants -nettle roots.jpg
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flowers and plants -rose.jpg
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You need to be really careful about what plants you use, as some are toxic, and others will have toxic parts that will deem them dangerous or would require careful maintenance. Your habitat should also be REALLY well ventilated as plants make moisture/humidity. Too much humidity in the habitat can easily result in mold growth and an increase in bacteria, leading to health and respiratory issues. 

Please note that bringing in a plant from outside should be washed (roots & leaves) and re-potted (and preferably "quarantined" indoors for two weeks if from a nursery or you aren't sure of the garden it came from).

Growing mediums (SOIL) will also need consideration as fertilizer, manure, and fumigation is dangerous. We are still investigating brands of commercial potting soil in SA for the "cleanest", but washed coco peat is currently safest.

Good video to watch about using soil in the habby:


NATURAL PLAY PEN: How to grow a safe "garden" for your hamster to play in :

Please note there are too many risks in letting your hamster play in the great outdoors!


Here's a really good YouTube vid, for those who would like to set up a natural theme. Also, particularly good clarification about using a Spider Plant (sometimes called Hen 'n Chicken in SA):

If you are considering using FAKE PLANTS (plastic/silk), please monitor that your hamster does not nibble on these. Chewed off bits of plastic will be harzardous if ingested, and dye on fabric plants could be toxic. Some hamsters will not show any interest, while others will and, in the case of the latter, please remove immediately and opt for dried safe plants. 

Another important caution about plastic plants is that some spiky replicas have really sharp hard points, which could cause injuries. In this case, you could trim the sharp points with a pair of scissors to make them more blunt and smooth them further with sandpaper.

A simple alternative to get the greenery theme that you may be craving in your natural habitat is to use a picture at the back of the habitat (preferably behind glass due to toxicity of colour inks, should your ham start ripping at it). If you look at this pic of Kevin Campbell's tank, he has used dried plants and grasses and the greenery is only in the backdrop picture. 

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enrichment - spagmoss2.jpg

Sphagnum MOSS appears to be the nicest and safest moss to use in your hamsters habitat for some natural texture, and to cover certain items to make them look pretty or fill in gaps.

You do need to freeze it for at least 48 hours, or bake in the oven before using, to remove any insects, eggs or bacteria before putting it in the cage. Freezing seems to retain the colour nicely, but baking may unfortunately remove much of the green that you may have been hoping for (but will still provide a pretty texture).

Available from many shops and online shops that deal in reptiles and hydroponics, and even from some local nurseries (used for bonsai and orchids...check for additives).

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A 650g brick will give you about 7-8Lt of usable substrate. (R30)

COCO PEAT / PALM PEAT makes fabulous additional bedding that can be used in place of, or surrounding, a sandpit. It is also a nice warmer alternative to a sandpit during cold winter months (note: a sand bath for toilet use should still be provided).

Coco Peat can be purchased as compressed bricks from nurseries and some reptile shops – not to be confused with coco husk, which tends to be somewhat splintery, or coconut fiber with long strands that poses a tangling risk (although the fiber isn't entirely dangerous since the ham could easily chew the stuff to free itself, it may not think clearly while in a panic and could still gnaw it's own foot or leg off instead).


Start preparing about a week before you want to use it because it takes REALLY LONG to dry, unless you're prepared to run your oven for several hours:

  • Soak the brick in a large bucket of water. Takes a few minutes for the water to penetrate and then it's easy to break it up.

  • Swirl it to let the dust fall to the bottom as a sludge.

  • Squeeze out as much water as you can from the top floating matter. Squeezing the water through a muslin/mutton cloth is helpful and easier to get out the maximum amount of water.

  • Line a crate or large tub with newspaper and place the damp peat into this. Leave it in a sunny place to dry out, agitating regularly to churn up the damp lower layers, and replace the newspaper every day to absorb more'll take about 5 to 10 days to dry, depending on the weather! (Make sure it's not in wind or it'll blow away as it dries....if your car stands in the sun, that's an excellent place).

  • When it is almost all dry, give it a final blast in the oven to remove the last bit of moisture, and in order to properly sterilize and kill off any live organisms. Keep an eye on it so that the dry parts don't burn! 

OR,  if you let it completely dry naturally, you can give the oven a miss and freeze it for 48 hours instead before putting into the habby.

  • If you're in a hurry, and are willing to use a lot of electricity to dry it, bake in SHALLOW layers in oven dishes at 180degC until dry. Stir regularly and DON'T LET IT BURN as it dries (and be careful not to burn yourself on the hot steam that it emits as you stir it!).

Loose coco peat is also available in buckets in some nurseries and this would also need to be swirled in water to remove the dust and treated as above.

Ready-washed coco peat or spider peat is available in some reptile and exotics sections of shops. A little more expensive than the brick but will save you the laborious task of squeezing out the water.

It is damp in the bag and will simply need to be dried in the oven, per the instructions above.


Online shop:

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If you aren't up to all this effort, CHIPSI SUPER GRANULATE is a good, easier, faster option (see bedding page).

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~ Picture courtesy of Wagon Wheel Farm ~


FINE HAYGenerally, the "2nd cut" or "3rd cut" hays are softer and more preferable, if you have the option, than the courser "1st cut" hays. Fine hays, can be used to either mix with the main substrate, or to make layers between substrates, or to provide additional insulation around nesting areas, especially during winter. If you are going to use hay, use the finest hair-like hay you can find, or pick out ALL hard stalky pieces to prevent injuries.

Beware of those hays that have obviously been standing in warehouses for many months, if not years, since the quality would have deteriorated quite radically. This is usually quite obvious by the very dry brown colour. The product should still have some green tone to indicate freshness.

CAUTION: Hay, even if frozen prior to use, has a tendency to attract mites if used as an abundant main bedding substrate. It also breaks down quickly, creating a fair amount of dust, isn't very absorbent, and will therefore need to be changed at least once a week. Not highly recommended as a main substrate in the habby.

"DIY HAY" - PET, BARLEY & WHEAT GRASS can be easily grown and dried at home. This is lovely and stalk-free. Simply purchase pet grass seeds from your nursery, or wheat grass/barley seeds from a health store or farmers' co-op, grow it in a tray/s of clean soil and coco peat, cut it back when it gets to 10-15cm height (let it re-grow), place in a 150degC oven until dried (about 20min), cut it up slightly if you want to. You should be able to get 3 harvests from the growing tray before having to plant new seeds.


Ordinary lawn grass, dried, tends to bring out the sneezes, so avoid this. However, you can feed a few fresh blades to hamsters.


STONES: Hamsters love digging in between stones and climbing over them, so a section in the habitat or in the sand/coco pit, or as little pathways would add some extra adventure. These also help to keep the nails trimmed. Cleaned fist-sized river stones, flat rocks, or similar, are ideal. You don't want very small stones that the hamster may squeeze into a pouch and possibly find difficult to get out, nor very sharp ones that may scratch, cut, or can be uncomfortable for the feet. If you decide to make a pile of rocks, make sure that they're all quite securely placed so that none will shift and possibly trap/squash a little foot or leg.

TIP: To properly clean/sterilise stones, terracotta pots. tiles, bricks, etc. simply give them a good scrub in hot soapy water and rinse. Then place in a pot of clean cold water, bring to boil and let them bubble away for 20-30 minutes, depending on thickness (or soak them, like Erin does:

Let them cool and dry thoroughly before placing in the habitat.

CAUTION: Some people have been known to experience a rock/stone exploding while boiling, so do be careful, but certainly never put a cold stone directly into boiling water!


DRIFTWOOD, LOGS and STICKSThese look wonderful in the hamster's habitat, but are also great for keeping nails trim as they scramble over and climb these natural sculptures. Good entertainment too!

However, some of us may think it's just an old dried out piece of hard wood, but apparently not all are safe. Many of the pieces we buy, or pick up, mostly still contain tannins and toxins (particularly where they are not safe woods), so it is important to treat any piece properly before putting into the habby:-

  • Soak it for a few days (5), changing the water every day until any/most "colour" leaches out (if you have a toilet cistern that you don't put any cleaning aids or loo fresheners in, that is a good place to soak it since the water gets regularly flushed and refreshed).

  • Give it a good scrub with a hard brush (or toothbrush for crevices).

  • Then boil it for about 20 minutes to sterilize, and let it dry. If the piece is too big for your pot, place it in the oven at about 180degC until dry.  

  • You could also dry a boiled piece in the oven to dry faster and double-sterilize.



Note that these are in solid form as logs, driftwood, planks (shelves), toys, etc. and NOT in the form of shavings as bedding.

Any loose piece of wood picked up or bought should be treated as described above, even if you know that it's a safe wood....keep in mind that, aside from tannins & toxins, dry wood lying around in a forest or on the beach may also have bugs and "pollution" in them (among who-knows what else). Similarly, quite a few stashes of driftwood in pet shops are often covered in spider webs, dust, and other bugs crawling over them. Therefore, it is best to be cautious and treat any "wild wood" as suggested and, certainly, it is best to look for the safest kinds of wood for hamsters instead. 

Interesting to note that most pet shops do not know what kind of wood their driftwood stock is, but that these are usually MOPANI WOOD, which is not a safe wood. However, it is apparently safe as a piece in the habby IF intensely treated via the soaking and boiling/baking method, but It is your decision if you still want to use it or continue the search for another genuinely safe type, like sandblasted grapevine.

Some of the woods listed are not necessarily South African or available here but, since importing and online shopping is on the increase, we have kept them on the list for referencing. 


  • Apple

  • Ash

  • Arbutus 

  • Aspen 

  • Acacia Erioloba/Kameeldoring

  • Bamboo (NOT "Lucky Bamboo")    

        - Caution! Bamboo splinters easily.

  • Birch (White)

  • Black currant 

  • Chinese Dogwood 

  • Crabapple

  • Cottonwood

  • Cholla (not true wood)

  • Chinese gooseberry

  • Chinese fir

  • Dogwood 

  • Elm

  • Grapevine

  • Hawthorne

  • Hazelnut

  • Horse apple 

  • Kameeldoring (Acacia Erioloba)

  • Kiwi

  • Loquat

  • Longan

  • Lychee 

  • Magnolia

  • Manzanita

  • Mulberry

  • Pine (not freshly cut)

  • Poplar

  • Pear

  • Pecan

  • Quince

  • Ribbonwood

  • Sicklebush (Sekelbos)

  • Sycamore

  • Willow : -

          - Goat, Weeping, or Pussy Willow

          -  NOT White Willow

It is always best to use and treat wood that is already dried out.

PINE CONES are quite cool for hamsters to play with, and to dig treats out of. However, you should still sanitise them if you've picked them up off the ground, to get rid of resins, seeds, and any ganonies that may be lurking.  

Here's how:



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We are starting to see this product in shops and online in South Africa now. This can be used in a similar way to the coco peat pit, as an additional texture within the habitat. Apparently because of it's loose/fine texture, it does not allow for burrowing and tunneling and you should therefore still provide another zone of Carefresh Bedding or ordinary Kaytee Clean n Cozy Bedding. 

Also available online:



FABRIC AVOID ALL FABRICS! For similar reasons to the fluff, the risks are too great due to the fluff that they scratch up from fabric, as well as the resulting threads when they nibble and tear it up. Hamsters will instinctively try to make nesting material out of anything soft, so please don't give them any kind of fabric....use softened cardboard sheets if you want to make hammocks.

meds-pouch popped.jpg

Please see the topic of POUCH PROBLEMS on the Health & Medical page

if you are still adamant to use fabric, wool and fluff in the habitat!



Your hamsters will enjoy playing with, investigating, chewing, and exploring various items, other than an empty toilet roll and a wheel! Try to provide as many things as you can.  Remember that your hamster does not mind clutter....the more interesting objects you can provide, the better his life will be within the confines of his habitat. 

Look at the DIY Stuff page for things you can make yourself.

Terracotta plant pots or ceramic beer mugs on their side in a sand/peat pit, or among the bedding, will be good adventure places and are also great for keeping cool in hot weather. Woven grass hides too.

Other ideas: Champagne corks (real cork), gnaw sticks, hard seed gnaws, forage boxes, mazes, sterilised pine cones (see topic about woods), etc. 

Objects made from natural materials are always great and far safer than plastic. Please avoid anything sold with Chinese writing, due to certain toxic materials and coatings that are mostly used. 

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