New hamster owners might be surprised when they find their furry little friend motionless in their little cage, cold and barely breathing. Do not panic just yet! If they are breathing and you can feel their heartbeat, then don´t worry. Your pet is going through its hibernation process.
Hamsters go through a process called torpor, which is similar to hibernation. It is a prolonged response to low temperatures, usually during wintertime, that lasts for shorter periods of time than regular hibernation in other animals.
Hibernation, or torpor in hamsters, is a very rare occurrence due to the conditions pet hamsters are traditionally kept in. Unlike hamsters in the wild, pet hamsters are not doomed to suffer the harsh winter months, so why do they hibernate? Let’s find out!
What Time of Year do Hamsters Hibernate?
Hamster hibernation has more to do with the temperature of where they are than the time of year, unlike most animals that hibernate. When the temperature drops lower than 59 degrees, they enter their temporary hibernation process called torpor.
Although this is a natural and instinctive ability that hamsters possess, it can be dangerous for a pet hamster on certain occasions. In the wilderness, hamsters are capable of sleeping all through winter while going through hibernation, but at the same time, prolonged hibernation will dehydrate and starve them.
For pet hamsters, it is a rare case when they go into their temporary hibernation. This will usually only occur when the temperature in the environment they live in is too cold for their little bodies. In response to this, they will conserve their energy and body fat and fall asleep for an extended period of time in an attempt to warm themselves up again. If you keep your pet hamster in a warm environment, well-fed and safe, there is no need for them to hibernate.
In the case of wild hamsters, they hibernate every winter or cold season. During the spring and summer, these wild critters will stuff themselves with food so that when winter comes, all they have to do is sleep all winter. They will use their accumulated fat during this time to keep themselves alive during their hibernation and hope that no predator comes to bother them while they sleep.
Can Hibernation Kill a Hamster?
Hibernation is a normal process that some hamsters may go through, but it can also be deadly to them for various reasons:
Many pet hamsters can be mistaken for being dead when in reality, they are only temporarily hibernating. To make sure your furry friend is alive, you can watch them for a few minutes and check their breathing. Hamsters can take a breath every 2 minutes, so be patient!
If hibernation lasts too long, hamsters are in danger of succumbing to hypothermia, starvation, or dehydration. Hamsters do not naturally consume a lot of water, and especially pet hamsters that, unlike hamsters in the wild that can bulk up on food before going to their long sleep, so when coming off hibernation, they might be seriously dehydrated or starved.
Long hibernations are quite dangerous for pet hamsters, so take good care of your pet! A long hibernation for pet hamsters is considered to be 24 hours, as pet hamsters are not supposed to have to go into this state. As long as the proper measures are taken during this time, your pet should wake up fine!
When Hamsters Hibernate Can You Wake Them Up?
When a hamster is hibernating, it is not doing it voluntarily. Torpor is a survival instinct, and it is an involuntary process that occurs due to the drop in temperature of the environment they live in. So, waking up a hibernating hamster is not as simple as shaking the little critter awake.
Before attempting anything to jerk your pet awake, first watch for the signs to confirm if your pet is indeed in hibernation, or if it has actually died. Watch for their breathing or any movement they might make. Sometimes, hamsters during hibernation may make small movements, like wiggle their whiskers, tremble, or nod their heads. If you notice any of these small movements, it is a good indication that they are alive and hibernating.
Even though it might be difficult, also moving the body of your little hamster is a good indication of their state. If you roll their body to the side, and it falls naturally, then this is a good sign! However, if you roll their body and it falls limp, this may mean that your pet hamster has actually died.
Now that you have confirmed that your pet is in hibernation, the next step is to bring their body heat up to wake them up from their slumber. Here are some ways you could do this:
- Body heat. The most simple way to wake up your hamster is to share some of your own body heat! You can carry them in your hands or put them close to your chest to warm them up. Petting and massaging your pet are useful, as this helps the blood circulate through their little bodies. Thirty minutes to an hour should suffice for you to notice your pet a little more awake and active.
- A hot water bottle. You can fill up a water bottle with hot water (not too hot!) and place it close to your hamster, rolling the bottle around them to help them absorb some of the heat from the warm bottle.
- A heating pad. You can wake your pet from hibernation by placing your pet on top of an already warmed heating pad, for twenty to thirty minutes, checking them often to make sure the heating pad doesn’t become too hot. If you don’t have a heating pad, another common solution is to place a towel on top of a radiator and to place your pet on top of the warm towel to absorb its heat.
- After your pet has woken up, a good idea would be to feed your pet hamster some warm milk. The warm milk is great because the heat will help your hamster to finish waking up from its slumber, and as well as provide hydration and nourishment that they missed while they were asleep.
All of these techniques equate to the same thing: elevating your hamster’s body temperature should help them leave their hibernation state and wake them up!
Preventing Hibernation in Your Pet Hamster
- The most crucial thing you can do to prevent your pet hamster from hibernating is to keep the room temperature warm enough for your critter. This is a temperature between 65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit, or 181 to 24 degrees Celsius.
- During wintertime, be more observant towards your pet hamster. Make sure they are well-fed and provide the proper bedding for them to maintain warmth. Indicators that your pet might be going into hibernation: It can be becoming lethargic, sleeping more and more often, and moving less. This is accompanied by losing interest in their food. Watch out for the signs!
- A diet rich in fats can be beneficial to your pet to prevent hibernation, as they will have more body fat and therefore produce more body heat, and become less likely to go into hibernation. Sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and nuts are good ailments for pet hamsters. You could also feed them pieces of boiled egg and chicken for some protein if you find that your hamster is a bit on the skinny side.
Hamsters are naturally less active during the winter months, so this doesn’t mean you have to worry yourself, and obsessively check for their every breath. The time for worrying is if you find them sleeping for a period longer than 24 hours; in that case, they are probably in torpor. Or dead.
What Do Hamsters Look Like When They are Hibernating?
When your hamster is hibernating, you will find that they look quite dead. But if you look closely, you will find that they are actually breathing! They take small, shallow breaths every two minute or so, and they might even twitch their little whiskers or move their nose.
In the wild, hamsters will binge on food so that they can survive off that excess fuel during their sleep. Some pet hamsters will take this approach, and binge on their food hours before falling to their deep slumber.
Hibernation is a process that occurs every wintertime for many species of animals all over the world, in an attempt to conserve energy during times of famine.
For pet hamsters, unlike hamsters in the wild, the process of hibernation, or torpor, does not usually occur because they just don’t need to. If your pet is living under the proper conditions – they have a proper environmental temperature and have enough food and drink – then it is unlikely that they will fall into hibernation.
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Shawn Manaher is a serial entrepreneur but when he isn’t working, he loves dogs. He’s owned different pets over the years, and always gives a part of his heart to each pet.