IMPORTANCE OF SAND
Never bathe a hamster in water because they can go into shock and may die as a result. Aside from other health risks, hamsters do not like getting wet! See further down for info.
Hamsters are naturally clean animals that groom themselves on a regular basis and the function of the sand is a natural method to remove & absorb excess oils, moisture, and particles from the skin and coat.
Hamsters that are not provided with sand can be at higher risk of getting mite infestation and other skin & fur disorders.
Scratching in the sand also helps to keep 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.
During hot weather hamsters often like to lie on the sand to help stay cool.
A sand potty will assist in keeping the habitat & bedding clean from urine once the hamster is potty trained, therefore reducing odour and frequency of deep cleaning the habitat.
The odd hamster will not enjoy rolling in the sand as much as others will, or may not become potty trained, but it is important to provide at least one container of safe sand for when he instinctively decides that he needs it.
Dwarfs are usually very vigorous in their sand baths, while Syrians rarely toss themselves about in it, preferring to scratch & dig in a pit.
Economical but mainly recommended for potties, although many hamsters will also bathe and dig in it if it's the only sand provided. Advantages:
Urine will clump in one spot, making it easy to lift out and leaving the rest of the litter nice and clean.
Does not require sterilizing.
Significantly reduces urine odour.
PLEASE BE AWARE of some debate over the safety of 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.
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, you look at non-clumping alternatives instead.
For larger baths & sand pits, we recommend that you use finer, more luxurious sands (Play Sand, Reptile Sand, or Import Grade Reptile Resort Sand)
PLAIN BENTONITE GRAVEL (usually sold as Fine Clumping Cat Litter)
NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH BENTONITE CLAY POWDER, which will be too dusty.
Always read packaging very carefully. Some clumping cat litters are not Bentonite, but could be an unsafe clay gravel or have silica added, or are the coarser chips (see Bad Sands section further down).
Safe recommended brands:
MCPets (MC Logistics), Healthy Pet Accessories, and Imerys Eccacat.
CHINCHILLA BATH SAND
SOME chinchilla sands are good to use as hamster litter, but some brands can be be too dusty. Note that Chinchilla Bath Dust must be avoided.
Very fine powdery dust from sand or any substrate will irritate the eyes, nose and respiratory tracts, causing severe health problems.
We've heard that Karlie Bathing Sand is OK, but cannot guarantee.
Reptile Resort Chinchilla Sand:
IMPORT GRADE ONLY
COMMERCIAL HAMSTER POTTY LITTER
Some of these are the same as the bentonite gravel/clumping cat litter, engineered into rounded into little beads, but we cannot be certain if every brand is indeed a safe substrate or not. Never use any that are scented.
However, due to the small quantity in the packages, they are rather expensive to use as potty litter.
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.
PLAIN RIVER SAND
Not exactly the most ideal to use and not recommended, 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 hamster's skin, and may therefore cause abrasions with long-term use.
If you have to use river sand for a short stint, it must be dried and sterilized in the oven (same as described below for children's play sand), and sifted.
SADLY PLAY SAND WILL NO LONGER BE SAFE, UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE
UNFORTUNATELY ALL PLAY SAND SUPPLIERS ARE NOW ADDING EXTRA SILICA TO THE SAND.
Silica is carcinogenic (causes cancer) for small animals that toss their entire bodies in it.
WE WILL CONTINUE TO TRY & FIND A SAFE SOURCE.
CHILDRENS PLAY SAND
An economical, smooth-grained sand to use for hamsters.
Perfect for sandpits & baths, and also for potties.
Sold at West Pack, Toys R Us, Baby City, and some hardware shops & nurseries and costs approx. R69 to R130 for a 20kg bag.
1x bag will last through many potty sand changes and top ups, and/or will be plenty to make a substantial sand pit.
The sand is already washed and damp in the bag but has to be dried & sterilized before using, to ensure absolute safety for your hamster:
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 (a few damp spots).
DON'T OVER-BAKE - it will become brittle and dusty.
Allow it to cool.
Bake enough for what need now, and a bit extra for top-ups, if you cannot dry the entire bag in one sitting. The rest can be stored and baked later.
Optional: Sift to remove the courser grains and any debris as you decant into a convenient container.
Potties: This sand does not clump but it’s easy enough to lift soiled patches out with a spoon. With Syrians and their larger pees, the urine can spread through the sand, so more topping up will be required, and full sand changes will be needed once a week.
This was the last of the safe brands, but appears to have been replaced by the silica-enriched brands.
CHECK THE CONTENT LABELS
These brands are known to been adding extra silica for a while now, and should be avoided:
Bounce King brand (Game)
Cape Silica Suppliers (Mambo's.)
Playpen Sand (Makro & B/Warehouse)
UNSAFE SANDS & LITTERS FOR HAMSTERS
HAMSTER SAND FROM CHINA
As with most animal products from China, NEVER purchase any sand from there (usually obvious by the language on packaging).
China does little to no research into safety standards and therefore many products contain lethal and toxic ingredients. Unfortunately, most importers, distributors, and pet shops also don't do research and simply bring in these cheap products for fast profits.
SCENTED & COLOURED SAND
As lovely as it may seem to you, SCENT is very overwhelming for your hamster.
One must also question what the scent is made from, even if the package implies “natural” derivatives. And then you have citrus scents too, which are bad fruits for hamsters.
Similarly, with ARTIFICIALLY COLOURED sands, we can never be sure if the colourant use is safe, and some can even leech onto the hamster's fur when wet.
Both are purely for human indulgence, but not for the animal!
UNSAFE CLUMPING LITTER
- 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".
Others may indeed be plain bentonite, but the chips are the same size as regular cat litter and therefore too sharp, or they have scent added.
REGULAR CAT LITTER
This is way too rough. Besides being uncomfortable for the hamster to bathe in, it can scratch quite badly, resulting in abrasions that can become infected.
BEACH & BUILDING SAND, OR GARDEN SOIL
These are not safe to use due to the presence of too many pollutants, fine shards of glass, salt, lime, calcium, feces/urine, bugs/nits, toxic seeds, 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.
WOOD LITTER & SAWDUST
These are no good since one doesn’t always know what wood it comes from, or it is simply pine, and the toxic oils and phenols can therefore cause severe respiratory and eye infections, and skin allergies. DO NOT USE.
SILICA LITTER & QUARTZ SAND
SILICA LITTERS marketed for cats or rodents have no place in a hamster environment!
Silica is carcinogenic (cancer causing)!
QUARTZ SAND (often sold for fish tanks) is also a no-no since it is basically silica!
There are some safe aquarium sands, but we cannot seem to find them here in SA.
CHINCHILLA DUST & FINE BATH SAND
Very fine dust 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.
MEDICATED & CALCIUM/LIME SAND
NEVER use these fortified sands, which are incredibly dangerous and harmful to hamsters.
Many people report that hamsters tend to nibble CALCIUM kind of sand, and when moistened the clumps become rock hard. The rock-like clumps 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, any sand containing LIME is to be avoided as this can also dry out the hamster’s skin and cause irritation.
Other VITAMINS or MEDS that may be added to some sands will also not be safe for hamsters.
SMALL ANIMAL SHAMPOO
OK, it's not litter but it has to do with hamster bathing and is sold in many pet shops, even with a picture of a hamster on it.
NEVER ever use dusting powder or 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, diarrhea, or some mushy food, use a cotton pad dampened in plain clean lukewarm water to help clean that patch of fur. Hamsters will usually groom themselves, bathe in the sand, and eventually become clean again within a day or two.
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 for wounds, and this should be the only time that you use any product for cleaning your hamster.
DIG 'N PLAY PITS
Most hamsters will be absolutely delighted to be given a pit to play, bathe or dig in.
Ideal size: Approx. 1/4 to 1/3 of the habitat, with a depth of 8cm or more.
Use/make a large container that will provide decent depth. Any material can be used - wood, cardboard, large deep ceramic or thick glass dish, etc.
For more of a free-flowing natural pit, simply fill an open section of the habitat with sand. Cordon off the zone by making some kind of barrier, e.g. dried thick branches (safe wood only), rocks, low-ish cardboard/wood wall, etc.
Add some enrichments to create extra adventure: Half-bury a terracotta plant pot or wicker basket on its side, throw in a cleaned coconut shell, a few sterilised smooth rocks, driftwood, etc.
If you notice your hamster pee-ing in the pit, an extra potty container can be wedged into a corner to help keep the larger sand area clean.
Washed and dried cocopeat or Chipsi Super can also be used in place of sand, or as a second pit.