Is My Hamster Dead or Hibernating?

By Deb Haines

New hamster owners are sometimes shocked to discover their previously healthy hamster suddenly not moving or sleeping excessively. Although this abrupt change in behavior may look scary, there’s a good chance that your hamster is experiencing torpor, a condition similar to hibernation. This can occur if your hamster is kept in cold temperatures or poor housing conditions.

Hamsters experience a process called Torpor. Torpor is a prolonged response to low temperatures similar to hibernation, but typically lasts for shorter periods of time. If your hamster is sleeping for hours or days at a time, particularly in colder temperatures, then he is most likely experiencing torpor. Because torpor and hibernation are similar processes, some experts will use these terms interchangeably.

Not all species of hamster display the same types of hibernation behavior. In the wild, European hamsters are true hibernators and will spend the winter in prolonged periods of hibernation. Dwarf hamsters are less likely to hibernate. Syrian hamsters are permissive or facultative hibernators, meaning that they do not hibernate under typical conditions but they are capable of hibernating if environmental conditions require it. Female hamsters also tend to hibernate for shorter periods of time than male hamsters do. Knowing the typical hibernation patterns for your hamster’s breed and sex can help you identify periods of torpor or hibernation at home.

To help you determine whether or not your hamster is in a state of torpor, you’ll first need to take a close look at his environment. The biggest factor contributing to hibernation behavior in hamsters is temperature. The ideal temperature for hamsters is about 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit. Below this range, your hamster may become too cold and may enter torpor. Be sure to keep your hamster’s cage in a warm – but not hot! – room and provide plenty of fresh, dry bedding. Your hamster should also be kept in a well-ventilated area, but be careful to avoid cold drafts from windows or air conditioning units which may also make the environmental temperature too cold for your hamster.

In addition to temperature, other factors such as food supply and the daily cycle of light and darkness in your hamster’s environment can also affect torpor behaviors. One study found that hamsters with a restricted food supply were more likely to experience deep torpor, while those with ample food stores experienced shorter bouts of torpor and generally maintained higher body temperatures. If you suspect your hamster has entered torpor, addressing these environmental factors may help him return to his normal active state.

By Veterinarian Elizabeth Racine

Why do hamsters hibernate?

Hibernation is a survival strategy that many animals use, including hamsters. They hibernate to keep themselves alive during cold weather and to save energy for when resources are not readily available to them. During hibernation, animals fall into a deep slumber. Their heart rate and temperature drop and their breathing becomes slower, too.

There are two different kinds of hibernation, the obligatory and the permissive hibernation. Obligatory hibernation pertains to the kind of hibernation most people are aware of in which animals eat a lot during summer months and then hibernate during the winter. Example of an animal that does this hibernation are bears .

Permissive hibernation is what most species of hamsters do. This kind of hibernation doesn’t depend on the time of the year. It mainly depends on the condition of an animal’s environment. If your hamster feels like its environment can’t support its needs, it will tend to conserve energy and go into torpor.

Most of the time, hamsters will stay in torpor until their environment gets better. However, the longer your hamster stays in hibernation, the more dangerous it gets. It’s because your hamster can potentially develop dehydration or hypothermia.

The ideal temperature for your pet hamster’s environment should only be between 65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Usually, anything lower than 65 Fahrenheit prolonging to 24 hours can cause your hamster to hibernate.

If you are worried about the health of your hamster, you can safely check for signs of life:

  1. Temperature: Hamsters only hibernate in cold temperatures. If the temperature of your hamster’s cage is over 20°C then it isn’t very likely it’s started to hibernate. If the cage is next to an open window, or in a particularly cold corner of the room, increase the temperature gradually to over 20°C, and within a few hours to a few days your hamster should wake up.
  2. Breathing: If it is cold enough for your hamster to have been hibernating, look for signs of breathing. Watch very closely for several minutes, as during hibernation the breathing rate slows to as little as one breath every two minutes.
  3. Heartbeat: If you can’t tell whether your hamster is breathing you might need to check for a heartbeat. This can be difficult to find, but to do this, simply place your forefinger and thumb on either side of the hamster’s chest just above the elbows. Apply the same amount of pressure as you would if you were trying to stop your hamster running away without hurting it. After a minute or so you should start to feel a pulse.

Remember that your pet hamster should never have to hibernate if it’s receiving its basic needs. To avoid hibernation, make sure that your hamster is kept in a well-ventilated area inside your home that isn’t too cold, especially during the winter season. Give your hamster enough food and water as well.

Bringing your hamster out of Tupor

Body heat: Pick your hamster up and hold it in your hand against your body. Use your body heat to provide warmth for your hamster. Keep holding it for at least 30 minutes and see if there are any changes in their behavior or if they start acting more alert.

Can use hot water bottle : You can wrap your hamster in a towel with a water bottle full of hot water. Important, Make sure the hamster is not directly touching the water bottle and doesn’t get too hot. This will help warm his body and bring him out of hibernation

NOTE : Never apply heat to your hamster directly, such as with a heating pad or hair dryer, as this can easily cause severe burns.

You can move your hamster’s cage to a warm dry area or hold your hamster inside your shirt against your skin where he will be able to benefit from your body heat. Once your hamster is more active, offer him some food.

If Hamster is fresh out of torpor, you should introduce water slowly and in small amounts, such as with a dropper or syringe, to make sure that they can safely swallow the water.

If your hamster is not easily roused with stimulation and a warmer temperature, seek veterinary care. Your veterinarian may treat your hamster with fluids or medication, if necessary. Your veterinarian can also help you troubleshoot your husbandry to prevent future episodes of torpor.

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