If there’s one thing new hamster owners should know, it’s that they can hibernate. While pet hamsters no longer feel the obligatory instinct to hibernate at certain times of the year, they may do so when conditions fail to meet their standards.
This can cause a lot of confusion and unnecessary heartache for unaware hamster owners. In this article, we explain what’s happening to hamsters when they hibernate, how to recognize the signs, and what you should do to keep them awake, happy, and healthy.
The Difference Between Torpor and Hibernation
The form of hibernation seen in pet hamsters is actually called torpor. While some wild species, like the European Hamster, must sleep during the winter months, the domesticated hamsters follow a more permissive path.
Torpor usually occurs when they feel the need to conserve energy. This happens in the wild as food grows scarce and temperatures drop, usually in the colder months, and it remains until those conditions improve.
This type of hibernation can be dangerous because the hamsters don’t have the same fat stores that obligate hibernators to build up. If they stay sedentary for too long, they can dehydrate or become hypoglycemic.
Pet hamsters shouldn’t need to worry about these conditions. By recognizing the triggers, owners can prevent or quickly reverse torpor.
Conditions that Facilitate Hibernation
While cold can trigger hibernation, it’s not the only thing hamsters pay attention to. They like room temperatures between 65° and 75°F. When the temperature drops below 65°F for longer than 24 hours, their metabolic activity begins to decrease. Some hamsters enter torpor after just one day; others require anywhere from 1 to 2 months of continuous exposure.
A cold room isn’t the only thing that can trigger hamster hibernation. Hamsters that receive less than 12 hours of light a day worry about how much food or water they have, and lack access to safe housing and deep bedding may hibernate until these conditions change.
How to Tell if a Hamster is Hibernating or Dead
Unfortunately, a hibernating hamster is often mistaken for a dead one. Their muscles may be stiff, and their body cool to the touch. Hibernating hamsters also slow down their heart rate and respiratory rate significantly.
If you try to rouse your hamster without success, it’s time to check their vitals.
A hamster’s heart rate drops from 400 bpm to just 4 bpm when hibernating, but any heartbeat is a key indicator that they’re alive. To check this, hold your forefinger and thumb on either side of the hamster’s chest and push down slightly for about a minute. A heartbeat should be slow but clear.
Because it can be difficult and time-consuming to check for a heartbeat, many find it easier to check for breathing. A spoon or mirror directly in front of their nose should fog up within a minute.
Hibernating hamsters may also twitch their whiskers or legs when petted. While it's not guaranteed, the side of their body closest to the ground may be slightly warmer.
When in doubt, it’s best to try to revive the hamster. If there are no changes, they are most likely dead.
How to Prevent Hamster Hibernation
Preventing hamster hibernation is often easier (and safer) than trying to pull them out of it. In short, hamsters should have everything they need to feel secure in their environment.
Keeping the room at least 65°F or higher is essential. This limits any instinctual response they may have to conserve energy in colder weather. The hamster’s home needs to be in a draft-free location and out of direct sunlight. This prevents temperature variations that make it feel colder than it is.
If the room doesn’t get at least 12 hours of bright light, the hamster may need supplemental lighting. Adding a lamp should be enough. Make sure you offer a high-quality block feed as well as fresh snacks and seeds for supplement. Hamsters do best when they have free access to water.
If you’re expecting some chilly weather, consider adding fatty hamster-safe snacks like sunflower seeds, peanuts, or avocado.
Ample bedding allows the hamster to create tunnels that make its cage a true hamster habitat. They can also burrow down and warm up as needed, preventing the extended chill that triggers hibernation.
Hibernation is just one of many surprising quirks that hamster owners don’t often know about. Learning as much as you can helps you get closer to your small companions.
What to do When a Hamster Hibernates
If a hamster starts hibernating, it’s important to act fast. Taking them out of the torpid state within 24 hours drastically decreases the risk of dehydration and malnutrition.
If habitat conditions do not meet those listed above, make slow and steady improvements. Continue providing warmth, 12 hours of light, and plenty of access to food and water even if the hamster doesn’t’ awaken within 24 hours.
Some owners have better luck warming their hamsters with their own heat. This can be done by cupping them in the palm and sitting for about a half hour, wrapping them in a warm cloth, or setting them on a heating pad set to 90°F.
If it takes longer than 24 hours to pull the hamster from hibernation, prepare for a vet visit. While most hamsters recover fine, a wellness check ensures any issues receive prompt, effective treatment.