Sometimes your hamster may be hibernating. This can happen to hamsters, but how healthy is it for them ? Do they do this regularly ? How do you wake up a hibernating hamster ?
This is what I went around and asked and researched, since I have an adult Syrian hamster. He’s been safe so far, never needed to hibernate. But I wanted to know what to do to save him, if I ever needed to. So, now you get the info too.
So do hamsters hibernate ?
Yes, hamsters do hibernate when the temperature drops. This means that the ambient temperature must be below 65 Fahrenheit/18 Celsius, for a minimum of 24 hours, for hibernation to set in.
Both Syrian and Dwarf type hamsters are capable of hibernation. This happens much less with pet hamsters, because they have a stable habitat, as opposed to wild hamsters.
Pet hamsters, kept in warm homes never need to face the cold, so they will not hibernate naturally. But they will if you expose them to very cold temperatures.
Why hamsters would hibernate in the first place
For this, we’ll talk about what hibernation is, as well as the benefits of hibernating, and how how long it lasts, and so on.
Hamsters hibernate to survive the cold. They have fur, yes, but even the Siberian hamsters are not meant to stay awake at minus 20 Celsius/ minus 4 Fahrenheit. Their metabolism and heart rate slows down. The use much much less energy.
What is hibernation
Hibernation is a state much like sleep, that hamsters will enter if it gets much too cold for them. So this means that once they settle down to ‘sleep’ they will wake up when it’s much warmer, and they will have food outside.
A hibernating hamster has a very slow metabolism, uses very little energy. He’s barely breathing, and may even look like he’s passed away.
Hibernation is common in many animals, and is meant as a survival mechanism. Once the cold temperatures start to set in, animals will gather food and build a warm, safe shelter to pass the winter. They curl up to sleep, and wake up in spring, or when the weather is warmer.
The shelter the animal makes must be safe, so predators won’t find them, or it won’t be flooded or covered. If this does happen, the animal can’t fight back since it’s in a deep sleep.
Hamsters hibernating in the wild vs in captivity
Captive or pet hamsters can hibernate if their habitat gets too cold, for at least 24 hours.
This happens very rarely, since their habitats are warm and have plenty of food. Pet hamsters have a fairly constant temperature they live in. It rarely or never drops below 18 Celsius/65 Fahrenheit.
And in the summer time the home itself never reaches temperatures above 26 C/79 F, since it becomes uncomfortable for the humans too.
So your pet hamster will probably never have to hibernate if you keep him warm and safe and well fed.
Wild hamsters have to hibernate each cold season. Food isn’t always available, and temperatures vary in the wild. This means the hamster’s natural instincts will come in, and it will hibernate.
It will start eating more, to put on weight. Yes, hamsters will intentionally get fat so that when the time comes for them to hibernate, they will use that fat for energy.
They will not move, wake up, drink water, or do anything at all. They will wait out the cold and hope for the best. Once the warmer temperatures come back, they will wake up and start looking for food and water.
How long do hamsters hibernate ?
A hamster will hibernate for as long as it is cold, and under 18 C/65 F. That can mean the entire winter and part of spring if it’s a wild hamster. Or, in the case of pets, the hamster will wake up once the temperature rises.
Now, in the pet’s case that depends entirely on you. It’s not recommended to leave a pet hamster hibernating for more than 24 hours since it has no food and water in its system that will keep him more than that.
A pet hamster has not had time to fully prepare for hibernation. When pet hamsters hibernate, it’s more of a shock for them and they can’t last for more than a day like that.
Dangers of hibernation for hamsters
Hamsters in hibernation are in danger of a few things, but I’ll be talking mostly about pet hamsters here. Some of the dangers are:
- Mistaken for being dead – so you might end up burying a live hamster, who will stir awake after a few days or when it gets warmer, only to die of starvation later.
- Dehydration – hamsters do not drink a whole lot of water before hibernating, so when they wake up they will need a lot of water, but given in small,controlled amounts.
- Starvation – depending on how long the hibernation was, your hamster might be starved when he wakes up. Not just hungry, but actually starving.
- Death, if the hibernation is too long or the temperature drops much too low. Like losing your hamster outside in January for example.
- Coming out of it with a cold, or sick. Hamsters can’t deal with illnesses as well as humans, so they need immediate attention from your vet.
Is hibernation deadly for hamsters ?
Hibernation can be deadly for hamsters, but you need to understand why. There is a big difference between how a wild hamster and a pet hamster enter hibernation.
A wild hamster will get a sort of ‘warning’ from the weather and temperature around him that the cold is coming. So, he will have time to prepare for this. He will eat a lot, and build a safe and warm nest.
He has months, or all year, to prepare for this.
But a captive hamster has no warning that this will happen, and it’s almost always the result of an accident. For example you’ve left home for a couple of days, and left the AC on, which broke and now keeps the house much too cold.
In response the hamster will hibernate, and will only have the resources you’ve given him before you left.
Your hamster will be fine if you find him soon (up to 24 hours) after entering hibernation. If he stays for more than a couple of days it becomes more and more dangerous. He has no resources in his body to help him through the cold.
Hypothermia can be confused with hibernation
This is a very big problem, since these can be confused. Hypothermia sets in when your hamster is suddenly exposed to very cold temperatures for a long period of time.
For example, losing your hamster in the house and he finds a corner to hide in, but it’s a very cold one. Or losing your hamster outside in the middle of winter.
Even something as simple as placing his cage near a vent can shock him like this.
Hypothermia is especially dangerous since it not only comes without a warning, but your hamster is not going to survive for long since he has no resources in his body to keep him alive.
In fact, most pet hamsters who were reported to be hibernating were actually in hypothermic shock. They were exposed to very cold temperatures for more than 24 hours, and had no time to prepare. Even if they were just mild cases of hypothermia.
But I’ll be calling this hibernation for the purpose of this article, since this is what most people will call it.
How to tell your hamster is hibernating
A hibernating hamster will be cold, very cold, limp, unmoving. His paws and ears will be cold, but his cheek pouches should be a bit warmer. You might find him in his hideout, or he might be anywhere in the cage.
His food will be untouched, his water as well. Just no signs of life.
A hibernating hamster will be very noticeable, but it’s important to figure out if he’s hibernating or he’s passed away. A few signs will help you figure this out.
Check your hamster for breathing
Shallow breathing, and it might be irregular. It might even be something like 2 minutes apart. But it should be these. You need to watch your hamster very carefully. See if his belly moves up and down, or use a mirror.
Place a small mirror under his nose/mouth, and check for any fogginess. Even if it’s just a bit, it should be there. Keep it there for a few minutes to be sure.
Try to hear your hamster’s heartbeat
It will be very faint, and the beats will be few and far apart. But you should find them. You can check this with a stethoscope (if you have one just lying around the house, I don’t know).
Or you can hold him up to your ear, and keep him there for a few minutes. Again, the beats will be very faint but they will be there.
Stroke his ears or whiskers for twitches
You might have to look very carefully, but the hamster’s ears and whiskers will move slightly when you touch them.
Try moving the hamster’s paws
There might be some resistance, but his paws should be able to move. If they’re a bit stiff, that’s okay, it happens when his body gets very cold. But as long as it can move without you putting too much effort, your hamster is fine.
How to wake up a hibernating hamster
It’s important to not be sudden when waking up your hibernating hamster. This is something that should be done slowly and gently, to simulate the natural way a hamster wakes out of hibernation.
Pick up the hamster and massage him
This will help your hammy’s blood circulation, and will slowly warm him up. You have to do this for a few hours. but the massage doesn’t have to be continuous. Just keeping him in a chest pocket would be enough.
After a few hours of being warmed by your body heat, he will wake up on his own.
Slowly raise the temperature around the hamster
Like turning up the thermostat, or moving his cage to a warmer room. You can also use a warm(not hot) water bottle placed close the the hamster to warm him up.
Do not use direct heat on the hamster to wake him up
Don’t place the hamster on a heater, or anywhere very hot in an attempt to wake him up faster. As long as you raise the temperature around him he will wake up on his own.
Also, do not use a blowdryer on the hamster to wake him up. Any sudden change in temperature will only get your hamster into another kind of trouble, which will require more treatment and care than hibernation.
Contact your veterinarian
This might be the safest route, if you’re unsure of what to do. Maybe you’ve tried everything and just can’t seem ti wake your hammy up. Contact your vet, and bring your hamster in for a check up.
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How to care for a hamster that woke up from hibernation
Once your hamster has woken up, you will need to do a few things.
First, your hamster will be dehydrated since he did not drink any water at all. So provide him with fresh clean water. If you have a water bottle he will use that on his own.
But if your hammy is moving very slowly still, you can use an eye dropper or syringe to give him a few drops of water every few minutes, to make sure he gets some water.
As for the food, your hammy will need something easy to digest and very filling. For example a small piece of cooked chicken, plain, will suffice. Then continue feeding him as usual. If the chicken is a bit warm that’s even better since it will help warm your hammy up.
How to prevent hibernation or hypothermia in hamsters
This can be done by following a few rules, like:
- Providing your hammy with clean, warm bedding. Check out this article to find out what kind of bedding and hideout your hamster needs to stay safe and warm.
- Keeping the ambient temperature in the hamster’s room above 18 C/65 F, but below 24 C/75 F.
- Not moving the hamster or his cage unless you absolutely need to, like moving house. In most cases he can be left home and checked up on by a friend or neighbor. No point in bringing the hamster out into the cold.
- Providing your hamster with good, safe food. You can check out this food list article to find out what foods your hammy can and can not eat. Scarce food will bring on hibernation much faster.
A word from Teddy
I hope you found what you were looking for here. I know walking into your room to find your hamster friend looking stiff with his eyes wide open can be concerning. But we can hibernate with our eyes open too you know ! We’re not ‘seeing’ but our eyes are a bit open.
If you want to know more about us hammies, you can check out the articles below. You’ll find out what kind of cage we need, and how much we can last without any food or water.