Nighttime Habits: Are Hamsters Truly Nocturnal?

Hamsters are well-known for burning the midnight oil, but they weren’t always this way. These small companions may not be as nocturnal as you think.

Nov 19, 2023By Maya Keith
are hamsters truly nocturnal

Anyone who owns a pet hamster understands how important it is to invest in a quiet exercise wheel. Odds are any wheel with the word “squeaky” in its reviews will not sell well–no one wants to hear it going all night long.

It’s no secret that pet hamsters are most active at night, but this isn’t an indication of the schedule that their wild cousins keep. In fact, many pet hamsters adapt to the diurnal habits of their humans.

Keep reading as we explore what affects hamster sleep patterns and what you can do to give your hamster (and yourself) the best sleep possible.

Hamster Sleep Schedules in the Wild

cricetus cricetus wild hamster
Image Credit: SgH Vienna

Scientists compared the nocturnal schedule of laboratory hamsters to the diurnal one of their wild cousins. The results showed that in their natural environment, the hamsters were most active between 6 to 8 AM and 4 to 7:30 PM.

If you consider when their natural predators are most active, this makes quite a bit of sense. Hamsters aren’t great fighters, so their evolution relied on a schedule that helped them avoid danger. Coming out at dawn and dusk limits their chances of becoming a snack.

Species in desert areas also need to combat high heat during the day and freezing temperatures at night. Sunrise and sunset are often the most manageable for their slight frame and light-sensitive eyes.

Why Pet Hamsters are Usually Nocturnal

roborovski hamster sleeps under wheel
Hamsters prefer to burrow down somewhere safe before they sleep.

While they can be fierce little creatures, hamsters are prey animals. This means that their instincts guide them toward behaviors that will keep them safe, including being active while the most dangerous beasts slumber.

Hamsters are also solitary creatures, so they prefer to go about their business on their own. This differs depending on their personality, but most wait until the sun goes down to forage and exercise.

Giving them a mansion in your home does little to curb these instincts. Even the most loved hamster will have the urge to run and hide when they fall under the shadow of something larger, even if that shadow is yours.

Hamsters also have sensitive eyes that work poorly in bright light. This not only blinds them, but it can affect their circadian rhythm. Just as humans naturally tire in the dark, hamsters naturally tend to slumber during the height of the day.

Why Some Pet Hamsters are Diurnal

standing dwarf hamster
Image Credit: Frenjamin Benklin

Hamsters are intelligent creatures with plenty of pleasant, surprising traits. Their personalities differ from hamster to hamster, and they tend to have mood swings that rival humans.

Just as some humans thrive as night owls, some hamsters are naturally inclined to a diurnal schedule.

This usually happens if they feel safe in an area. These hamsters need plenty of space to run around, bedding to tunnel into, and hideaways to rest their eyes. It’s likely that their owners keep the lights dim and volume down.

The opposite may also be true. If a hamster feels threatened by loud noises in the area, they may be too on edge to sleep. The noise can also interrupt their natural sleep cycle, opening the door to several behavioral and health issues. Like humans, hamsters experience REM sleep, and they grow agitated the longer they go without it.

Remember that when a hamster sleeps isn’t a clear indicator of their health or happiness. Providing a safe space facilitates proper sleep and keeps your hamster pleasantly enriched.

Setting Pet Hamsters Up for Sound Sleep

hamster peeks out of bedding
Image Credit: Andy Holmes

Regardless of when your hamster chooses to sleep, there’s plenty you can do to ensure they’re well rested.

Give them a roomy, enriching environment to reduce stress as much as possible. Your hamster should have deep bedding to burrow in, a properly sized wheel, and plenty of places to explore. Provide dim sleep spaces with commercial hamsters or DIY cardboard huts.

Your hamster also needs a balanced diet. A high-quality block food provides a good foundation, but hamsters also need fresh treats and protein to cover all their bases.

Finally, you may need to adjust the conditions in your home if they’re disrupting your hamster’s sleep. Keep the room as dark as possible during their normal sleep hours, drawing the shades or turning the lights off as needed.

Avoid disrupting your hamster as much as possible as they sleep; they tend to be grumpy when rudely awoken.

Can Hamsters Sleep Too Much?

winter white hamster staring
Image Credit: Kim Green

Hamsters spend about 41 percent of their time sleeping, about 10 hours a day. This number may be less when they’re younger, and it tends to grow as they age, but it should be somewhere in this range.

A hamster that sleeps for 24 or more hours consecutively may actually be hibernating. While most hamsters won’t hibernate, the behavior may be triggered by cooling temperatures or other factors.

Excessive sleep may simply be a sign of old age, but it can also warn you of a number of health issues. Whether your hamster sleeps at night or during the day, keeping track of their habits helps you catch these issues early on.

Maya Keith
By Maya Keith

Maya is a lifelong animal lover. While she switched from studying veterinary medicine to English, she continues to help by fostering animals in her community. Her permanent residents include 3 dogs, 2 cats, 5 quail, 19 chickens, and a small colony of Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches.