To maximise the potential of a hamster enclosure, we should be filling it with the maximum amount of substrate it can hold. Hamsters are burrowing animals – it’s what they love to do! Making deep burrows is a key form of enrichment for our pets that replicates their wild behaviour. It also means your hamster can create their ideal chamber layout, with plenty of space for sleeping and food stores. Burrows also reduce stress, being a safe hideaway for prey animals, and good depth even helps hamsters regulate their body temperature.
Cage A in the diagram has only 10cm of substrate, which is still unfortunately a very common but misguided setup habit. This leaves the hamster with little to no burrowing room, and full height of the cage is being wasted with empty “air space”. Put it this way: You wouldn’t buy a large fish tank and then only fill it with 10cm of water, and the same logic applies to caging.
Cage B is a much more suitable layout because it uses platforms to maximise its vertical space. Platforms are an essential part of an enclosure that allow heavy items such as wheels and sandbaths to be elevated safely without sinking into deep substrate. Cages with bars should be wrapped with perspex or cardboard, as their base trays are generally not deep enough to hold substrate beyond a depth of 15cm or so.

Research shows that hamsters do not burrow when there is not enough substrate provided. Some hamsters also prefer use burrow starters, such as semi-submerged tubes, or multichamber hides. Substrate should be compressed as “fluffed up” bedding can’t hold burrows. Mixing different substrates together or introducing layers of hay can help to bind the substrate for easier tunnelling.
A 2005 study (The influence of bedding depth on behaviour in golden hamsters. Andrina R. Hauzenberger, Sabine G. Gebhardt-Henrich, Andreas Steiger) showed that all hamsters with substrate depths measuring 40cm and 80cm constructed their own burrows, whereas hamsters with just 10cm of bedding slept in hides. This proves that when hamsters are given the choice, they opt for sleeping in deep substrate. 40cm of substrate enhanced the lives of the Syrian hamsters tested.

Hamsters kept on 10cm of bedding displayed obsessive wheel use and spent much more time bar-biting, which is known to be a stress behaviour. Hamsters that were provided with 80cm of bedding never chewed their enclosure bars.
Hamster Info Ireland recommends an absolute minimum substrate depth of 20cm for dwarf hamsters and 30cm for Syrian hamsters. Where possible, these measurements should always be exceeded.

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