SUBSTRATES -  SAND, TOILETS (potties) & SAND PITS

Your hamster will need at least three different substrates within its cage/habitat for comfort, natural behaviour and cleanliness.

You may of course provide more than one, but the must-haves are

(1)    BEDDING    and    (2)  NESTING    and    (3)  SAND/LITTER

(Bedding and Nesting are dealt with on a separate pages)

Click to go to:    

Importance of sand    Bath & Potty containers    Sand Pits    Recommended Sands    Harmful Sands    Cleaning Regime    Potty Training   Shampoo

 

IMPORTANCE OF PROVIDING SAND/LITTER

  • Never bathe a hamster in water because they can quickly catch a cold and may die as a result, but sand baths provide an alternative method for them to clean themselves without risking their health. Aside from the health risk, hamsters do not like getting wet! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uDw3DmTvHNM&t=7s 

  • Since hamsters are naturally clean animals that groom themselves on a regular basis, sand baths are designed to replicate the effect they would have in the wild but in a cleaner, more sterile setting, to maintain a healthy level of cleanliness in captivity. The function of the sand is to remove excess particles from the fur, due to the abrasion created when your hamster rolls in it, and to absorb excess oils and moisture from the skin and coat.

  • Hamsters that are not afforded the opportunity to clean themselves can be at higher risk of getting mite infestation and other skin disorders.

  • Scratching in the sand helps to keep little toenails trimmed down. Nails that get long will cause great discomfort to the hamster and can eventually impair proper mobility. A trip to the vet will be needed for clipping.

  • A sand bath will assist in keeping the cage and other substrates clean from urine once the hamster is potty trained, therefore reducing odour and frequency of deep cleaning the habitat. (See potty training tips page).

 

  • The odd hamster will not enjoy rolling in the sand as much as others will, but it is important to provide one for when s/he instinctively decides that s/he needs it on the odd occasion.

  • Dwarfs are usually very vigorous in their sand baths or pits, while Syrians are more sedate about the activity and rarely toss themselves about, preferring to scratch and have a little dig.

See the different types of recommended and not recommended sands further down.

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SAND BATHS & POTTIES

 

A sand bath can provide two uses: Bathing and Toileting. Hamsters usually potty-train themselves to urinate in the sand bath and they tend to do this in one corner, leaving the rest for bathing and digging. It is therefore important to provide a suitable sized container for them to achieve both actions. Some hamsters will prefer a smaller potty purely for urinating and another larger container (or a sandpit) just for bathing and digging.

 

  • The ideal BATH SIZE should be APPROXIMATELY:

          - Dwarf 20x20cm (sand depth 5cm or more)

          - Syrian 25x25cm (sand depth 10cm or more)

         (give or take a few centimeters at width or length, whatever fits your space best)

  • The POTTY SIZE can be smaller than the bath, but generally AT LEAST double the size of the ham (flat space).

  • A COMBINATION OF POTTY & BATH can be the same as the bath size, since most hamsters tend to only use one or two corners to pee in.

  • A SANDPIT can be as big as you want it, up to a third of the habitat space, but an additional small potty will still be useful to help keep this large area of sand cleaner.

SUITABLE CONTAINERS TO USE:

You can use just about any container as long as it is not thin glass. Margarine and ice cream tubs are absolutely fine, but some hamsters may decide to chew these at some stage, in which case you will need to hunt down a hardier container (ceramic, pyrex, dog bowl, etc.)

Good for Dwarf Hamsters as a bath or toilet but, ideally, a separate container will be useful as  a potty.

Good for Dwarf Hamsters as a bath & potty combo.

A Syrian would be able to use this as a potty.

NOTE: Dwarf hamsters are a lot more vigorous in their bathing rituals and sand tends to go flying all over. You can either get a commercial bath that has a cover or you can provide a deep container (but please ensure that the little one can climb in and out of it by using some kind of ladder or stones).

UNSUITABLE CONTAINERS: These are too small and don't really provide enough space for even a dwarf to have a good roll and pee in! 

 

SAND PITS

 

Most hamsters will be absolutely delighted to be given a sandpit to play, bathe and scratch in. You can use any large container that will provide decent depth (5cm or more) for digging, or you can make one yourself, or you can simply fill a divided section in the habitat with sand to create a natural environment. Half-bury a terracotta plant pot or wicker basket on its side, throw in a cleaned coconut shell, etc. to create an extra adventure within the pit, and a few cleaned (boiled) fist-sized river stones ....they love digging in between these. You could also wedge your small potty container into a corner of the pit for the hamster to urinate in and help keep the larger sand area clean for longer. Washed and dried COCO PEAT can also be used in place of, or in a second pit, and this is often a lot warmer than sand in winter (See Accessories & Enrichment page)

(See the ACCESSORIES &  ENRICHMENT page for a

COCO PEAT option for sand pits)

TIP: To properly clean/sterilise stones, terracotta pots. tiles, bricks, etc. simply give them a good scrub in hot soapy water, rinse in vinegar water, place in a pot of water, bring to boil and let them bubble away for 20-30 minutes, depending on thickness. Let them cool and dry thoroughly before placing in the habitat.

SAND / LITTER SUBSTRATES 

PLEASE CHECK THE ACCESSORIES & ENRICHMENT page too for other ideas to add extra textures in the habitat too.

 

GOOD LITTER & SAND

 

CHILDRENS’ PLAY SAND is probably the most economical of all sands to use (especially for sandpits and large Syrian baths). The fine grains make it quite luxurious for hamsters. Sold at Makro, West Pack, Toys R Us, Baby City, and some hardware shops & nurseries and costs about R69 to R120 for a 20kg bag, depending on where you get it. Will last through many sand changes and top ups. 

The sand is already washed and damp in the bag but drying it out in the oven will also ensure that it is sterilized:

  • Spread some into one or two shallow oven dishes and bake at 180 degC for 20-30 minutes, stirring once or twice until JUST dry. DON'T OVER-BAKE; it will become brittle and dusty.

  • Allow it to cool. 

  • Optional and not usually necessary: Sift to remove the courser grains and any debris as you decant into a convenient container.

  • Obviously most people won’t be able to bake the entire bag in one sitting, but it can be stored to sterilize at a later stage.

Unfortunately, this sand does not clump but it’s easy enough to lift pee patches out with a spoon.

Highly recommended!

Do check the content label on the bag: some play sand contains silica and those brands should be avoided, e.g.

  • the Bounce King brand  often sold in Game Stores contains silica.

  • Mambo's may or may not have permanently changed their sand supplier. The bags that are branded with Cape Silica Suppliers logo contains a lot of silica.

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REPTILE SAND

(WITHOUT calcium, lime or meds)

Generally safe to use as is without sterilizing.

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Reptile Resort Chinchilla Sand:

IMPORT GRADE ONLY

Note that some chinchilla sands having clumping properties - see Clumping Litters below

SOME CHINCHILLA SANDS are good to use as hamster litter, but please make sure that it is the sand and NOT Chinchilla Dust. The dust is way too fine and will irritate the eyes, nose and respiratory tracts, causing severe infection that will require veterinary attention.

Does not need drying and sterilizing.

 

CLUMPING LITTERS

Clumping litters are economical and very convenient, particularly for potties and baths. The advantages are that the hamster’s pee will clump in one spot, making it easy to lift out and leaving the rest of the litter nice and clean. Such litter will also not require sterilizing.

However, PLEASE BE AWARE that there is some debate over the safety of any clumping products. Many owners have used such products for years with no problem, while others fear that the clumping properties could cause intestinal blockages if ingested. Therefore, the decision is yours but we recommend that if your hamster has the tendency to take food into its sand bath - particularly fresh moist food - that you look at non-clumping alternatives instead.

For additional larger sand pits, we recommend that you use finer, more luxurious sands, as described above.

 
 
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COMMERCIAL HAMSTER POTTY LITTER is usually the same as the bentonite gravel/clumping cat litter, simply rounded into little beads, but can be rather expensive due to specialised packaging and branding.  Once again, never use any that are scented.

Some of these commercial potty litters come with a sachet of "freshener" - DO NOT USE THIS. They are scented powders or bicarbonate of soda and not safe for hamsters.

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FINE CLUMPING CAT LITTER (PLAIN BENTONITE GRAVEL)

NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH BENTONITE CLAY POWDER, which will be too dusty.

Always read packaging very carefully: 

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DO NOT GET CLUMPING CAT LITTER THAT IS SCENTED OR THAT HAS SILICA ADDED! Unfortunately there are some such clumping litters on the market, but they are NOT suitable for hamsters.

Some are not even bentonite; they are Attapulgite/Palygorskite/Sepiolite Clay.

Others may be bentonite but the gravel is too big/course (similar to ordinary cat litter) and therefore too abrasive. 

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RIVER SAND and TOPSOIL

(WITHOUT MANURE, COMPOST & FERTILIZERS)

Available at local nurseries.

Not exactly the most ideal to use, but if you're in a bind, it can work as an interim solution.

The grains of sand are not mechanically ground, so could be quite sharp for the skin, and cause abrasions long-term.

Should be dried and sterilized in the oven (same as described for kid's play sand), and sifted.

Good video to watch about soil in the habby:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5ARp-dqqKs

 
 

                   BAD LITTER & SAND Never purchase products made in China (usually obvious by the language on packaging).

                              China, unfortunately, does no research into safety standards and therefore most products contain lethal and toxic ingredients.

 
 

While Chinchilla Sand is a good option for litter, CHINCHILLA DUST IS NOT.  Neither is FINE HAMSTER BATH SAND. The dust is way too fine and will irritate the eyes, nose and respiratory tracts, causing severe infection that will require veterinary attention. Anything resembling powder or dust needs to be avoided.

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SILICA LITTERS (for cats or rodents) have no place in a hamster environment!

Silica is carcinogenic (cancer causing), so please AVOID!

https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/nioshtic-2/00171383.html

QUARTZ SAND (often sold for fish tanks) is also a no-no since Quartz is basically Silica!

It is unkind to use any SCENTED SUBSTRATES. The scent can be rather overwhelming within the confines of a habitat and your hamster cannot escape!

Furthermore, one has to wonder what the scent is made from, even if the package implies “natural” derivatives, not to mention that the citrus scents are of fruits that are bad for hamsters.

Avoid COLOURED SANDS too. We can never be sure if the colourant use is safe, and some leech onto the hamster's fur too.

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BEACH AND BUILDING SANDS are not safe to use due to the presence  of too many pollutants, fine shards of glass, salt, lime, calcium, etc.

Unfortunately, even sterilising will not make it safe.

Also note that cuttlefish bones, and most shells, that you may pick up off the beach are not safe either.

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ATTAPULGITE, PALYGORSKITE, & SEPIOLITE  CLAY LITTERS

These clumping cat litters resemble fine Bentonite Gravel but they are a completely different substrate which is majority silica, and have enough content of oxocalcium and magnesium oxide to be cause for concern to the hamster's skin. They also tend to be quite dusty, even though they claim "99% dust free". 

ORDINARY CAT LITTER/GRAVEL is way too rough. Besides being uncomfortable for the hamster to bathe in, this can scratch quite badly, resulting in abrasions that can become badly infected.

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CALCIUM FORTIFIED SANDS & MEDICATED SANDS

NEVER use these sands because when calcium clumps it becomes rock hard. Many people report that hamsters tend to nibble this kind of sand and the rock-like clumps are incredibly dangerous as they will form intestinal blockages, usually leading to the death of the hamster. It is therefore very important to look out for additives if you choose Reptile Sand.

Similarly, reptile sand (or any sand) containing LIME is to be avoided as this can dry out the hamster’s skin and cause irritation.

WOOD LITTERS AND SAWDUST are no good since one doesn’t always know what wood it comes from and the toxic oils and phenols can therefore cause severe respiratory and eye infections, and skin allergies. This one states that it’s Pine Wood and,  as discussed in Bedding, pine is to be avoided.

 
 
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CAUTION: “SMALL ANIMAL SHAMPOO” !!!! 

OK, it's not litter but it has to do with bathing a hamster and is sold in quite a few  pet shops, even with a picture of a hamster on it.

NEVER ever consider this, whether it is dusting powder or actual liquid, nor any other animal shampoo. All are exceptionally dangerous for hamsters and will cause illness. If for some reason, your little one has become mucky due to topical medications, its own poop, or some mushy food, use a cotton pad dampened in plain clean luke-warm water to help clean that patch of fur.  Hamsters will usually groom themselves, bathe in the sand, and eventually become clean again within a few days. 

Wetting your hamster will risk it becoming cold and/ill. Furthermore, getting wet will destroy the special natural oils in the skin that helps keep it moist, which never recovers after being washed off. This will leave your hamster vulnerable to skin and fur problems and difficulty to maintain body heat.

Under exceptional circumstances an experienced exotics vet may advise a certain type of wash or shampoo for wounds, and this should be the only time that you use any product for cleaning your hamster.  

REMEMBER: JUST BECAUSE A SHOP SELLS IT, DOES NOT MEAN IT'S OK ... WHEN IN DOUBT, DON'T USE IT!

PLEASE CHECK THE OTHER SUBSTRATE TOPICS TOO....there may be other substrates mentioned that you can or shouldn't use.

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~ courtesy of Ham-Ham Love group.