The topic of hamsters and hibernation is a confusing one, especially if you are a first-time hamster parent. Do hamsters hibernate?
For that matter, can hamsters hibernate? If so, when and for how long? And is there anything special you need to do to care for a hibernating hamster?
If hamsters don’t hibernate, how can you keep them from inadvertently entering a hibernation-like dormant state? Most importantly, if one day you should find your pet hamster in such a state, how can you tell if you truly have a hamster in hibernation or….something much worse?
These are the questions we will tackle in this article. Find out the definitive answers for all of your questions about hamster hibernation.
What is hibernation?
First, it can be clarifying to understand exactly what it means to hibernate, biologically speaking.
Hibernation is designed to be a protective state for animals. Hibernation is often also called torpor, brumation, denning or (in hot climates) aestivation. It helps animals survive in seasons when food and other resources tend to be reliably scarce.
In these types of situations, the ability to hibernate can literally determine whether that animal survives or perishes.
When an animal is preparing to enter hibernation, several biological processes occur.
First, the animal begins to slow its metabolism down. As this occurs, its body temperature falls correspondingly. Respiration and heartbeat follow suit, until the animal may only produce a handful of breaths and heartbeats per hour.
Once the animal has fully entered the hibernation state, it becomes highly vulnerable to just about anything. Since it has largely relinquished the ability to quickly mobilize and control its own physical responses in favor of living on hugely conserved inner resources.
So if a predator comes along or the animal’s hibernation quarters are covered or flooded to the point where its breathing apparatus is blocked, that animal will die.
Ultimately, it is important to remember that hibernation and its variants is designed to be a way for animals to withstand harsh climatic conditions (whether hot or cold) while awaiting a time where food and other vital resources once again become more plentiful.
It is also worth noting that, unless they become lost outside the home during extreme weather for some reason, most pet animals, including pet hamsters, will never have to face the type of climate conditions that could induce a state of hibernation.
Do hamsters hibernate?
When answering the question of “do hamsters hibernate in winter,” it is important to note that there are really two questions here. Do hamsters go into hibernation in the wild, and do hamsters go into hibernation in captivity.
The answer to the first question is one that continues to be hotly contested between veterinarians and biologists. A better question might actually be, “do hamsters ever enter a true state of hibernation in the wild?”
Hibernation vs Torpor
Here, the potentially most accurate answer is that hamsters living in the wild in colder climates have been known to enter a state called “torpor”. That is somewhere in between a deep sleep and a true hibernation state.
The answer to the second question is no, unless that hamster’s habitat requirements are not met in captivity. In order for a hamster living in captivity to enter torpor, the temperature would need to drop below 40 °F (4.4 °C).
It would then need to stay there for sufficient time to induce torpor. At least 24 hours or more.
Unfortunately, when it comes to determining if it is a true torpor or hibernation in hamsters who are pets, the more likely answer is that the hamster has fallen victim to hypothermia. This occurs when the temperature drops quickly and unexpectedly. It leaves no time for the hamster to prepare for it. Which they would do by stockpiling food, packing on the pounds and preparing an insulated, safe and protected den.
In addition to these other lacks, hypothermia, unlike torpor or hibernation, is a sudden and dangerous condition that can quickly become fatal. The difference lies in how the body systems respond.
A true hibernating animal prepares all year long to hibernate by eating plentifully to “fatten up.” The fat the animal stores on its own body will then be used for energy during the dormant months.
In contrast, an animal that is simply succumbing to unanticipated hypothermia may fall into a torpor-like state. But this is because the essential body systems are beginning to shut down in response to the sudden temperature drop without any real protection in place.
For this reason, without access to warmer temperatures, that animal will likely very sadly die.
Hamster hibernation signs
Getting to know hamster hibernation symptoms is a critical part of responsible hamster pet ownership.
While hopefully you will never have to look at your pet hamster and wonder “is my hamster dead or hibernating?” you also cannot control absolutely every aspect of your hamster’s life or what others around you may do.
In the event that your pet enters dwarf hamster hibernation, it is far better to be able to recognize the symptoms quickly. Then to get your hamster the appropriate care than to wait and wonder and risk the situation worsening.
The most common symptoms of a hibernating hamster include (but are not limited to) these warning signs and symptoms:
- You find your hamster burrowed deep into his bedding or curled up in a ball in a more protected area of the habitat.
- Your hamster shakes or shivers.
- He is limp when you try to pick him up.
- He may appear to be in a coma or you may even wonder if he is dead.
- You cannot detect a heartbeat.
- You see no respiration, or respiration is sporadic.
- There is no sign that your pet has eaten or drunk anything or eliminated recently.
If you see any of these symptoms in your pet hamster, it is best to get him to the veterinarian as quickly as possible.
When do hamsters hibernate?
A hibernation hamster response in captivity is typically due to inadequate habitat conditions. The most common reason is when the temperature falls too low or rises too high.
Different hamster species may be more or less well able to tolerate temperature extremes.
For example, in the case of Syrian hamster hibernation, a Syrian hamster prefers a temperature range of 65 to 75 °F (18.3 to 23.9 °C).
The same holds true for Roborovski (“Robo” for short) hamsters.
Dwarf hamsters and Russian Dwarf hamsters kept as pets prefer a temperature range of 65 to 80 °F (18.3 to 26.7 °C).
So if the temperature range in your hamster’s living quarters suddenly drops below 65 °F (18.3 °C), it is quite likely you will observe hibernating hamster symptoms such as those described here earlier.
One thing in particular to watch closely for is changes in temperature (either up or down) caused by direct sunlight or proximity to air vents.
You can avoid ever having to ask the question “do robo hamsters hibernate?,” “do dwarf hamsters hibernate?,” “do Russian dwarf hamsters hibernate” or “do Syrian hamsters hibernate?” (depending on which hamster species you have) if you take precautions to keep your little one’s habitat strictly temperature controlled and well away from direct sunlight or drafts from air vents, ceiling fans or open windows.
How long do hamsters hibernate?
According to the British Hamster Association, hamsters that are suffering from hypothermia may hibernate for a few days at a time or until temperatures warm up. If this occurs before the hypothermia becomes life-threatening.
However, if the low temperatures continue, the hamster may enter torpor or hibernation more completely for one week or even longer.
Hamster – hibernating or dead?
If you have never seen an animal while it is hibernating, it is very logical to wonder, “do hamsters hibernate with their eyes open?”
If you find your pet hamster one day with eyes open and body limp and nonresponsive, the question you are more likely to be asking is, “can hamsters hibernate with their eyes open?”
The answer is that yes, hamsters can hibernate with their eyes open. They may have their eyes fully open, half-open, slightly open or closed.
So if you do find your hamster one day and her eyes are open and her body is not rigid and hard, it is quite likely your hamster is not dead at all, but either suffering from hypothermia or in a state of torpor or hibernation.
There are some simple tests you can do to try to detect any signs of respiration or movement:
Hold a mirror in front of your hamster’s face. If it fogs even slightly, there may be respiration.
Place a bedding chip on your hamster’s body. If it has moved the next time you check on her, she has likely moved in the interim and may be in hibernation.
Stroke your hamster gently and watch to see if her whiskers twitch at all.
If the body does feel a bit stiff but not to the extent of rigor mortis (where the body is like a stiff board and is un-bendable), try to extend the limbs. If they extend with minimal pressure, your hamster may be hibernating.
Pick your hamster up, cuddle it in your palm and stroke it gently with your fingers. Noticing if there is any twitching or signs of respiration.
Caring for a hibernating hamster
The level of care your hibernating hamster will need can hinge on any number of factors. But the most important factor is duration.
If the duration thus far has been relatively short (less than one day), rewarming the habitat may be sufficient to revive your pet.
Remember that it is more likely your hamster is suffering from hypothermia (being too cold) rather than entering a true state of torpor or hibernation.
Hypothermia can become deadly very rapidly, so immediate intervention and care is essential!
If rewarming the enclosure is sufficient to wake your hamster up, you should gently massage both body and extremities to help get the blood circulation moving again. A very gently massage will also help warm your hamster up more fully.
Veterinarians do NOT advise using artificial heating elements on or near your hamster to rapidly raise the ambient room temperature and forcibly pull him out of hypothermia/hibernation.
This can be unhealthy and even unsafe, and may prompt other unwanted health conditions that will require treatment. Rather, try to raise the temperature in and near the habitat very gradually and gently, or just use your own body heat to slowly raise your hamster’s body temperature as well.
Hibernating Hamster Care
If your hamster has been in a period of torpor or hibernation for a longer period of time (in excess of 24 hours), however, it is unlikely that simply warming up the area plus massage will be sufficient to ensure continued good health.
There are several critical health issues that can occur in prolonged hibernation. For instance, dehydration is common, since hamsters do not drink anything while hibernating. Another common issue is malnutrition, since captive pet hamsters have not stockpiled any fat reserves to tide them over during a hibernation state.
Both water and nourishment must be offered with great care and restraint after a period of hibernation. Your hamster won’t be able to tolerate large quantities of either. Water in particular should be administered only one or two drops at a time with an eyedropper.
The safest and best course of action is always to bring your hamster to your veterinarian for a full checkup. Your vet can administer fluids and nourishment if needed, check for and treat any critical health needs and give you further guidance for caring for your hamster once you are both back at home again.
Since hypothermia and torpor/hibernation can appear so similar when you are on the outside looking in, once it occurs, only your veterinarian can determine for sure what is really going on with your pet hamster.
An easier and safer approach is to do everything possible to prevent any of these states from ever occurring. This list of suggestions can help you get started. It is also always a good idea to consult your veterinarian for other ideas.
Hamster Bedding for Warmth & Burrowing
The first step you can take is to provide your hamster with plenty of bedding material to burrow in. In the wild, a hamster would create a burrow that is insulated with soil, wood and even rock. In captivity, you need to offer your hamster the tools to create something similar.
Here are some bedding options that your hamster will likely love:
Healthy Pet Natural Bedding
Healthy Pet HPCC Natural Bedding is economical, all-natural, cardboard-based bedding is compostable and nearly dust-free.
Customers say their hamsters find it quite comfy.
Kaytee Aspen Bedding
Kaytee Aspen Bedding for Pets is another good choice.
You can choose between four different sizes depending on how many habitats you need bedding for.
This product is all-natural and contains no oils or inks. Customers describe the scent as “like the forest” and say it does a good job covering up other habitat smells.
Colored Pet Bedding
Healthy Pet Bedding in Colors is economical and completely biodegradable.
The inks are safe and non-toxic and will not bleed or stain. The fibers trap moisture to keep it away from your hamster. It also absorbs habitat odors quite well.
For an even more economical approach, offer shredded toilet paper or facial tissue for your hamster to use as bedding. This is warm, absorbent and comfy and your hamster will likely love it.
Hamster Temperature Monitoring – 24/7
There are a variety of helpful tools to monitor the temperature inside and near to your hamster’s habitat. Most are quite inexpensive and readily available online. Here are a few of our favorites:
Zoo Med ReptiTemp
Zoo Med ReptiTemp Digital Infrared Thermometer is designed for use in reptile habitats, but you can just as easily use it with your pet hamster.
Just point at the area of the habitat where you want to take a temperature reading and instantly the thermometer will display the temperature for you.
You can choose between Celsius and Fahrenheit.
Zoo Med Digital
Zoo Med Digital Terrarium Thermometer is an easy-to-read in-habitat digital thermometer that will continually display the temperature so you can check it whenever you want to.
Now you can know at a glance if the temperature may be approaching the extreme at either end.
Zoo Med Economy
While you may not necessarily need the humidity side of this old style analog gauge, the thermometer is very easy to read at a glance and you can use the Velcro-mount backing to place it inside your hamster’s habitat.
Hamster Habitat location
Another logical way to keep your hamster from ever suffering from hypothermia or going into hibernation in captivity is to choose the habitat location with great care.
In most homes today, there are some areas or rooms that simply seem to stay a bit warmer than the rest. Bathrooms, laundry rooms and kitchens can be good examples.
You should also choose the placement of the hamster habitat in the chosen room carefully to avoid drafts or direct sunlight beams.
Keeping a hamster in a cold climate
Finally, if you live in a climate known to get quite cold, you may want to consider adding some type of heating element to the room where your hamster resides. Here, safety is of the utmost importance both for you and your family and for your hamster.
If you do decide to use a heating element of some kind, always follow these safety precautions:
- Choose a product with an automatic safety shut-off switch if the equipment happens to get turned over or begins to overheat.
- Choose a product with a self-regulating heating element that stays within a certain range.
- If you choose an under-case heating mat, be sure it is safety-rated for the habitat type (some only work with glass or plastic, for example), and place it in only one area of the habitat so your hamster can get away if the mat gets too hot.
- For safety reasons (since hamsters love to chew) it is always best not to put any type of heater or heating element, even a hot water bottle, inside the habitat itself where your hamster will have direct access to it.
- Instead of draping a blanket or cloth over the habitat to keep drafts out, consider a Blizzard or Alpine fleece hammock or pocket, which won’t cause any internal blockage if ingested.
- A ceramic heat lamp may be a better option to heat a portion of the habitat, especially if your hamster is a confirmed chew-a-holic.
Hamster Safe Heaters
Here are a few options for hamster-safe heating in or near the habitat itself.
Motina Pet Mat
Motina Pet Mat Under Tank Warmer with Temperature Control is designed for reptile enclosures.
This pet mat comes in two options: 7-W and 14-W. It is waterproof and simple to clean and it won’t harm other surfaces.
The temperature control gauge allows you to set a range between 0 and 35 degrees.
Pet Heat Light
Pet Heat light, Reptile Heat Emitter, Ceramic Infrared no Light Safe Heater.
You can choose between 100-W and 150-W bulbs in a pretty yellow color. You will need a bulb housing like this one as well as an external (away from habitat) way to suspend or mount it in a way that your hamster cannot access it.
Alfie Pet Hammock
Alfie Pet by Petoga Couture is super cute.
You can choose between two patterns: Owl or Animal. The fleece-based hammock is easy to secure to your hamster’s habitat and can be hand or machine-washed as needed.
Do Hamsters Hibernate?
While hamsters of all breeds are generally considered to make for hardy, friendly, healthy pets, there are a few areas where they can become quite vulnerable very quickly.
Extremes of temperature present one of the greatest health risks for any pet hamster. Keeping your hamster’s environment strictly temperature-regulated is a key to making sure your pet hamster enjoys the longest and healthiest possible life with you.
The tips offered in this article can help you learn about the early warning signs that your hamster may be experiencing hypothermia or may have gone into official torpor or hibernation.
Even if you think you may be able to revive your hamster yourself, you should still make a follow-up veterinary appointment just in case. Plus, it is always a good idea to take your hamster to the vet after any period of hypothermia or hibernation to be sure there are no health issues forming.
By taking the time to learn about hamsters and hibernation, you may have just learned something that could save your pet hamster’s life one day. While we hope this will never occur, if it does, now you know exactly what to do!
Resources & Further Reading
- Price, J., “What is hibernation? Hibernation, aestivation, torpor and denning explained,” BBC’S Discover Wildlife, 2015.
- Ralston, Dr., DVM, “We Think She is Hibernating But She Won’t Wake Up,” Just Answer Veterinary, 2012.
- Lyman, C.P., A.B., M.A., Ph.D., “Hibernation in Mammals,” American Heart Association Journals, 1961.
- Davis, J., “What Does a Hamster Look Like When It’s About to Hibernate?,” Pets On Mom.me, 2016.
- McLeod, L., DVM, “How to Keep Your Hamster Healthy: Common Health Problems and Diseases in Pet Hamsters,” The Spruce, 2016.
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