What could be more basic to a hamster's life than the litter in his or her cage - the soft stuff that feathers our nests, carpets cage floors, and absorbs moisture in the pee corner?

That litter can consist of several things. There are two very common varieties. One consists of pulped (recycled) paper that's boiled and dried in little pieces, some coming in natural gray color and some bleached and/or tinted. The other is wood shavings (other than cedar which can severely damage the respiratory systems of small critters like us). A photo of normal wood shavings appears below. The shavings should be lightweight and fine and should feel soft when squeezed. There should never, ever be slivers of wood or splinters!

A name brand pet supply maker used to be a reliable source of good pine or mixed-wood shavings. But in the late 1990s the quality started to deteriorate to the extent that the stores eventually stopped carrying it altogether. As well they should have!

More recently, since roughly 2008 or so, two large chain stores began offering litter under their own label at reasonable prices. Both Petsmart and Petco sold very big packages - at least 20 cage-fulls even when using very large and/or deep cages - for under $15. And the shavings were of good quality.... for a while.

Then after we got some not-so-great litter from Petsmart, we resolved to buy only from Petco. And it was highly satisfactory. Was. As in "until this Saturday past."

That's when our personal shopper picked up a package and noticed it didn't look like the last one she got. She felt it and it had thick pieces of wood in it that felt almost like gravel. She insisted the sales person bring out more from the back and compared them. All were of dubious quality. Only after the entire stock was brought out did one of them arrive that felt almost like the old stuff. She bought it.

Upon opening the package and putting it into a shavings container to air out, however, she found that the Petco brand wasn't what it used to be. Most of it was good, but mixed in were wood pieces and even splinter-like mini-spears. See the enhanced photo below which shows one of the wood pieces. The photo is enlarged about four times natural size.

This means that when our cages are changed, our domestic servant will have to sort through each handful to get out any sharp pieces that could harm a little hamster. And the narrow, sharp-pointed strips can do terrible things as we learned over a decade ago when a hamster had to have surgery to remove his eye! In addition to great pain endured by the poor hamster and the loss of one of his eyes, the veterinarian bill was enough to buy 300 packages of good litter (at late 1990s prices). Booo! Hiss!

Below is another view of the "board" that came in the litter package (photo not enhanced).

And here's the issue.

The particular hunk of wood in these photos is not the really dangerous kind. It's not slim and sharp like the little needles and daggers that are, unfortunately, easier to miss when filling cages.

The purpose of litter, whether it be pulped paper or corn cob or any of a few other types, is to keep a hamster comfortable and safe. And the stick in the picture looks more like an instrument to impale a furry friend rather than it does like a product we can use to carpet our homes and pile around our nests.

There are alternatives. For the caretaker who prefers wood shavings, sometimes sawdust can be bought at stores that sell horse and stable goods. When they have that type of litter, you get about five or six times as much in the (big and heavy) package as the large size from a regular pet shop - and it costs half as much as one large-size unit from Petco or Petsmart. Some horse supply shavings are great! But some are worthless. The good thing is that most of these merchants will gladly split open a bag and let the customer feel the texture of the wood shavings before deciding whether to buy.

So listen up Petsmart and Petco. People aren't going to buy an inferior product. And Fuzzy Sozo (the HFP campaign's resident hamster-at-law) says you could even be sued if injury occurs because you sold a product "not fit for the ordinary use for which it is intended."

Sozo has advice for hamster keepers if faced with potentially hazardous litter: Just save your purchase receipts and the wrapper the litter came in (showing, among other things, that it is intended for small animal bedding, as opposed to, say, horses), the sliver or slivers of wood believed to have caused the injury, and the vet bill along with a note from the vet stating what harm was done and how. And do take pictures and more pictures! Best case scenario in a dreadful situation: you have photographs of the hamster or other small pet before the injury, after getting hurt (showing the wound), the cage as it looked when the injury was discovered, and the little patient healing up after surgery. Hopefully it won't come to that.

There you have it. That's my issue. And it has a political side. File it under "health and environment." Thank you.

A note to readers: This is the first in a series of commentaries on issues featured on our new updated-for-2012 website. When we have more, the page will be set as a first paragraph index that leads to the full stories.
Here are some things to look forward to. Limood will explain everything you never wanted to know - but need to know, regardless - before you take that weather forecast too seriously. Cosmo will propose some hilarious practical jokes hamsters can play on humans. Fuzzy Sozo will caution against the very same pranks, citing legal risks. Pestis intends to tell you all about human-habitable (arguably) rat holes and where to find them. And with a little luck, our furry friend Einstein who lives at the HFP-National Capital Area headquarters, will provide us with a dissertation on the theory of relativity.