A guide to hamster hibernation. Do hamsters hibernate? When do hamsters hibernate? Signs of hamster hibernation and how to keep your hamster safe.
You’ll learn that there are different types of hibernation and that pet hamsters don’t truly hibernate as we usually understand it. That’s why people often describe the fright they had with their hamster playing dead.
When hamsters enter a state of hibernation it could be life-threatening. We’ll look at how you can determine whether you have a sleeping hamster or a hamster hibernating – or dead. But also, most importantly, how to prevent hamster hibernation.
First, we need to clarify what exactly it means to hibernate, biologically speaking.
What is hibernation?
Hibernation is a survival strategy. It keeps animals alive when it’s cold and when food and other resources tend to be scarce. They save energy by becoming inactive and turning their systems right down – their temperature drops and their heart rate and breathing become a lot slower.
Scientists have been studying hibernation because it could have many benefits in medicine if the state could be induced in humans, for example during heart surgery or after serious injury. They have now even found that there are major chemical changes in animal’s brains when they hibernate.
There are two main types of hibernation. The type that usually comes to mind is known as obligatory hibernation – those animals who fatten themselves up during the summer, create a safe space, and hibernate all winter. Examples are bears, bats and squirrels.
Hamsters fall in the second category, called permissive hibernation. These animals hibernate at any time, winter or summer, when extreme environmental conditions need them to conserve energy. This usually happens when it’s cold, but also when it’s too hot or there is a lack of food or water.
In this second category the animals usually only go into state called torpor. It’s more like a deep sleep than true hibernation and lasts for a shorter time. From a few hours to a few days, until conditions improve.
Permissive hibernators don’t prepare for the torpor and the danger comes in when the conditions that caused it go on for too long. They can die from hypothermia or dehydration.
So the answer to the question “Do hamsters hibernate?” is that they do. But not like the animals that hibernate according to a natural seasonal rhythm. For hamsters it’s not a necessary or an ideal state.
Pet animals, including pet hamsters, should never have to face the type of conditions that could induce a state of hibernation.
Let’s have a closer look at what these conditions are.
When do hamsters hibernate?
The usual reason why hamsters enter a state of hibernation is when it’s too cold. Ideally the temperature in a hamster’s environment should range between 65 °F (18.3 °C) and 75°F (23.9 °C).
When cold conditions continue for at least 24 hours it may induce a state of torpor. It could even take a month or two of cold temperatures before hamsters start hibernating.
Unlike true hibernators, permissive hibernators lose weight as conditions get colder rather than building up fat stores. So hamsters aren’t very good hibernators.
Depending on the species and individual characteristics, some will hibernate and some will never hibernate. Others will hibernate but do so ineffectively and fall victim to hypothermia.
Syrian, or golden hamsters, originated from a desert climate and a state of stupor for short periods was essential to survive cold nights. These hamsters are more likely to hibernate than other hamster species.
Dwarf hamsters and Russian Dwarf hamsters originated from cold climates and are less likely to hibernate at all.
A real danger is when the temperature drops very quickly and unexpectedly, leaving the hamster with no time to properly prepare their body systems for torpor. When this happens they can easily fall victim to fatal hypothermia.
Light also plays a role in hamster hibernation. Hamsters kept in cold and dark conditions are more likely to hibernate than those exposed to strong light for at least 12 hours a day.
Hamsters can also enter into a state of torpor when food and/or water are in short supply.
So how do you know if you have a sleeping hamster, a hamster hibernating – or dead
Hamster hibernation or sleeping?
Getting to know the signs of hamster hibernation is a critical part of responsible pet hamster ownership.
Hamsters sleep, cozily burrowed into their bedding – around 6 – 8 hours a day. They usually sleep during the day and are more active once the sun starts going down.
You know what your pet’s normal sleep-wake pattern is. When your hamster seems to be less active and sleeping more than 12 hours a day you should start keeping an eye. Your pet may also be shivering and shaking.
While moving into a stupor state your hamster might still wake up briefly and eat and drink in between. If the environment remains too cold, the periods the hamster stays asleep become longer and longer.
You may also notice that they’ve built a bigger nest than usual and are burrowing deeper in a more protected area of their habitat.
When you see these signs ask yourself if it’s been colder or whether there’s been a draft or less light. Maybe you moved your pet’s box to a different location.
So if the temperature range in your hamster’s living quarters has dropped below 65 °F (18.3 °C), and you notice the above changes in behaviour you can act to prevent hibernation.
Otherwise it’s likely that he will progress to full torpor and you’re could end up wondering if your hamster is hibernating or dead.
Signs of hamster hibernation
Hopefully you will never have to look at your pet hamster and wonder “is my hamster hibernating or dead?” Unfortunately you also can’t control absolutely every aspect of your hamster’s life or what others around you may do.
Should your pet enter hamster hibernation, it’s important to be able to recognize the signs quickly. Then you can give your hamster the appropriate care rather than waiting and wondering – and risking a worsening situation.
The most common signs of a hibernating hamster include (but are not limited to):
- At first they are are limp, and later stiff, when you pick them up.
- They may appear to be in a coma.
- 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.
- You may think your hamster is dead.
So is there a way to tell whether your hamster is hibernating or dead?
Hamster – hibernating or dead?
When hamsters enter a state of torpor their systems can slow down to such an extent that they appear dead. They feel cold to the touch. It’s difficult to spot signs of life because they could breathe only once every 2 minutes and their heart rate could be as slow as just 4 beats a minute.
You can do the following checks to find out if your hamster is still alive. These could be signs of either hibernation or of hypothermia.
- Hold a mirror or a spoon in front of your hamster’s face. If it fogs even slightly, there may be respiration. If you watch carefully for a few minutes you may even notice your pet taking a breath.
- Stroke your hamster gently and watch to see if their whiskers twitch at all. This is the easiest sign to spot.
- Feel if the temperature of the hamster’s cheek pouch is slightly warmer that the rest of their body.
- Gently stretch your hamster’s limbs. While they may feel stiffer than normal, they can still be stretched a little bit by pulling.
Open eyes are not necessarily a sign that your hamster is dead. They can hibernate with their eyes open, half closed or completely closed.
If your hamster’s body is stiff like a board and you’re unable to bend the limbs this is usually rigor mortis – a sign that your pet has died. Especially if you’re certain that the environment hasn’t been cold.
Another way to check if your hamster is really dead is if your pet doesn’t wake up or show any sign of life after raising the temperature of his environment to above 66 °F (20 °C) for 24 hours.
Once you’ve discovered that your hamster is hibernating you’ll need to take action quickly.
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 question is for how long your pet has been in torpor.
If the duration thus far has been relatively short (less than a day), rewarming them may be sufficient to revive your pet.
Remember that the most likely cause was that your hamster was too cold. If he has hypothermia, rather that having entered a state of torpor, it can become deadly very rapidly, so immediate intervention and care is essential!
Rewarm the enclosure and keep it well lit for at least 12 hours. Make sure there is enough food and water as well.
The hamster’s enclosure can be moved to a warmer room. You can even wrap him in a warm cloth or hold him against your body and gently rub his back.
A gentle massage to both their body and extremities can help get the blood circulation moving again. A massage will also help warm your hamster up more fully. It can take up to three hours to bring you hamster out of turpor.
Veterinarians do NOT advise using artificial heating elements on or near your hamster to rapidly raise the their temperature and forcibly pull them 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.
Once your hamster is fully awake and there’s anything in his behaviour you’re still worried about, it’s best to take your little one to the vet for a proper check-up.
But what should you do if your hamster has been in hibernation for longer than a few hours?
Care for extended hibernation
If your hamster has been in a period of torpor or hibernation for longer than 24 hours, it’s unlikely that simply warming up the area plus massage will be enough to ensure continued good health.
There are several critical health issues that can occur in prolonged hibernation. Dehydration is common, since hamsters don’t drink anything while hibernating.
Another common issue is malnutrition, since hamsters lose weight before hibernation rather than building up 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 to take your hamster to your vet for a full checkup. They can administer fluids and nourishment if needed and check for and treat any critical health needs. They’ll also advise you on caring for your hamster once you are both back at home again.
The best for your pet is obviously to prevent hibernation in the first place.
Preventing hamster hibernation
By now you probably realise that hibernation has everything to do with the environment you provide for your hamster.
The most important step is strict temperature control of your little one’s habitat. Make sure that the temperature remains in the ideal range of 65 °F (18.3 °C) to 75°F (23.9 °C).
One thing in particular to watch our for closely is changes in temperature (either up or down) caused by direct sunlight or proximity to air vents or open windows.
Additionally, hamsters should get at least 12 hours a day of bright light. And make sure that they always have enough food, water and bedding.
You can also take these steps if you’ve been observant and suspect that your hamster is showing signs of getting ready for hibernation. Handling and playing with your pet more often also helps to prevent hibernation.
The easiest and safest approach is to do everything possible to prevent the need for your hamster to hibernate. This list of suggestions can help you get started.
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. This keeps the temperature 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). 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), don’t put any type of heater or heating element, even a hot water bottle, inside the habitat itself.
- Instead of draping a blanket or cloth over the habitat to keep drafts out, consider a Blizzard or Alpine fleece hammock or pocket. This 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.
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 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? – Summary
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.
We’ve provided answers to the confusing question “Do hamsters hibernate?” The tips offered in this article explained the early warning signs that your hamster may be too cold or that he has gone into torpor. Also the action you should take right away to save your pet.
Even if you are able to revive your hamster yourself, you should still make a follow-up veterinary appointment 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 look out for and what to do!
This article has been extensively revised and updated for 2019.
- Chayama, Y. et Al. 2016. Decreases in body temperature and body mass constitute pre-hibernation remodelling in the Syrian golden hamster, a facultative mammalian hibernator. Royal Society Open Science.
- Davis, J. 2016 What does a hamster look like when it’s about to hibernate? Pets On Mom.me.
- Forrest, G. Hibernation in Syrian Hamsters. British Hamster Association.
- Gonzalez-Riano, C. et Al. 2019. Metabolomic Study of Hibernating Syrian Hamster Brains: In Search of Neuroprotective Agents. Journal of Proteome Research.
- Price, J. What is hibernation? Hibernation, aestivation, torpor and denning explained.Discover Wildlife.
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