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Do hamsters hibernate? 5 things to know before you buy a hamster

Do hamsters hibernate
(Image credit: Getty)

Do hamsters hibernate?  The answer is more complex than it may seem!  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. Before you purchase your first hamster, make sure you are familiar with these five facts about torpor and hibernation behaviors so you can ensure your new friend stays healthy and active.

1. Most hamsters are not true hibernators

Hibernation is a prolonged period of limited activity that occurs in certain species of animals as a response to low temperatures and limited food supplies. During hibernation the body’s metabolic processes slow down, reducing energy expenditure and causing the animal to enter a state similar to a deep sleep. For animal species that are true hibernators, this period allows them to survive through the harsh winter conditions by reducing their bodies’ needs for food and water intake. Most wild hamster species live in regions that do not have particularly harsh winters, so they do not naturally hibernate.

However, many species that sleep in cold conditions are not experiencing true hibernation. Instead, animals like 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. 

2. Hibernation behaviours vary depending on the species of hamster

Interestingly, 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.

3. Environmental conditions for hibernation in hamsters

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.

Do hamsters hibernate

(Image credit: Getty)

4. Signs of hibernation in hamsters

Many pet owners worry that their hamster is severely ill when they find the animal in a state of torpor. Admittedly, if you have never seen this behavior before the symptoms can be alarming.  Hamsters in torpor often act lethargic, listless, or excessively sleepy. The hamster may even be completely limp if they are in a particularly deep state of torpor. The hamster’s body will often feel cool to the touch, especially in the extremities such as the limbs, feet, and tail. Occasionally, you may notice the hamster shaking or shivering as it goes into or comes out of the state of torpor. In most cases, a hamster in torpor can be rouse with stimulation, such as gentle handling or rubbing, or by increasing the temperature in the environment. However, the hamster may fall asleep again if left undisturbed, particularly if the environmental temperature is still too cold. While in this state of torpor the hamster will have minimal activity, may not eat or drink, and may urinate and defecate less than usual.

5. Consult your veterinarian about torpor that is prolonged or frequent

If you suspect your hamster is in a state of torpor, you may be able to resolve the issue by increasing the temperature and ensuring adequate access to food. Never apply heat to your hamster directly, such as with a heating pad or hair dryer, as this can easily cause severe burns. Instead, 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 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. He or she can also help you troubleshoot your husbandry to prevent future episodes of torpor.

Hibernation in hamsters can be a husbandry problem

Although torpor occurs as a natural response to cold temperature, it is not something your hamster should be experiencing under ideal husbandry conditions. If your hamster is hibernating, this is a sign that you may need to reassess his diet and housing conditions to ensure all his or her needs are being met!

Elizabeth Racine, DVM

Since obtaining her doctorate in veterinary medicine, Dr. Racine has worked exclusively in small animal general practice. Her work has been featured in blog posts, articles, newsletters, journals, and even video scripts.