Although many don’t realise, pet hamsters can go into hibernation leading some pet parents to think their tiny fur friend has passed away. Here's how to tell if they are and what to do!
Is my hamster hibernating?
This week, the story of Lisa Goodman’s family hamster drew a lot of attention on social media and in the news.
Ms Goodman found her daughter’s hamster, Fudge, lying motionless at the wrong end of his cage. He was limp and cold, and thinking he was dead, Ms Goodman was preparing to bury Fudge. Fortunately, before she got that far, she suddenly saw very shallow breaths. She called a vet right away, who advised her to slowly warm Fudge up. Close call!
If you find your hamster in a similar situation, you could be looking at a hibernating pet. It's not always obvious, but here are several ways to check if your hamster is indeed doing just that:
- Are they taking breaths? If the hamster has hypothermia, these could be as infrequent as one breath every two minutes, so you will need to watch carefully.
- Do they twitch if you stroke their whiskers gently?
- Is their cheek pouch slightly warmer than the rest of their body?
- If you move them to a warmer spot, do they eventually begin to stir?
If you are not sure, your vet will be able to advise you as to whether your little friend has passed away, or whether they are hibernating. If your pet is extremely rigid, chances are they may no longer be alive.
My hamster is hibernating, what should I do?
If your little furball has gone into hibernation, they may wake up to eat occasionally. For this reason, it is advisable to leave fresh food, water and nesting materials near them.
One major complication of hibernation in hamsters is that they may develop hypothermia. For this reason, you should keep them in a room that is kept at a stable, warm temperature to help their body expend less energy to keep them warm. Also provide plenty of warm nesting materials. If in doubt, or if your hamster seems particularly cold, contact your vet for further advice.
The RSPCA in the UK recommends leaving your hamster to hibernate as long as they are not in any danger or too cold an environment.
Why do hamsters hibernate?
Some hamsters hibernate and some don’t. It can be related to breed, genes and/or their environment.
There are two types of hibernators: permissive and obligatory. Obligatory hibernators always hibernate in the winter according to their body clocks, regardless of their environmental conditions.
Hamsters such as the Syrian hamster fall into the first category. As a permissive hibernator, Syrians hibernate depending on conditions such as temperature and food supply. In fact, Syrian hamsters can technically hibernate in any season given the right conditions.
According to the British Hamster Association (BHA), cold temperatures are the biggest trigger of hibernation in Syrian hamsters. Light is also a contributing factor.
The BHA website states that "a hamster kept in the cold and dark is more likely to hibernate than one kept cold but in strong light for more than 12 hours out of 24".
This implies that, to avoid hibernation, you should keep your hamster warm and in a room that is lit on a regular schedule, for 12 or more hours per day. Handling them regularly is also a good idea.
Have you ever seen your hamster hibernate?