How to help a stressed hamster: Vet's guide to symptoms and causes

how to help a stressed hamster
(Image credit: Getty Images)

You might not realise it, but hamsters can become stressed, just like cats, dogs, humans, and other animals. Thankfully, most causes of a stressed hamster can be prevented or improved with an adjustment to their environment. 

So, as long as you keep an eye out for stress signs in your pocket-sized pet, you should be able to make sure that your companion lives a happy, healthy, and carefree life. So, how can you spot the symptoms of stress in your hamster? And if you know that your hamster is stressed, what can you do about it?

Hamster stress symptoms 

If your hamster is stressed, you might notice that they have some of the following symptoms:

  • Hair loss/fur changes   Stressed hamsters will sometimes overgroom or pull their fur out, leading to bald patches or hair thinning. But, even aside from self-inflicted baldness, stress can cause your hamster’s fur to change over time to become more sparse, more oily, or more dishevelled. 
  • Aggressive behavior  Hamsters who are feeling stressed are much more likely to lash out. So, mind your fingers and give your hamster some space while you try to reduce their stress levels. 
  • Cage biting  If you see your hamster regularly biting at the bars or the plastic on their cage, this could signify that they are feeling stressed. 
  • Digging  Excessive digging and other repetitive behaviors like rolling, scratching, licking, or scurrying in circles can all be signs of a stressed hamster. 
  • High-energy behaviors  When people are stressed, sometimes they withdraw and have little energy, but stressed hamsters are often hyperactive and restless. It's common for stressed hamsters to run the same route around their cage over and over again or to spend lengthy spells on their exercise wheel. 
  • Vocalising  Although you might be used to your hamster keeping you awake at night as they noisily go about their daily routine, you probably haven't heard your hamster making their own noises. Hamsters are normally pretty quiet, but when they're stressed, you might notice them making more noise than usual. This could be their way of communicating that they are nervous, scared, or distressed. 

Hamster chewing cage

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Causes of stress in hamster 

Hamsters can become stressed for multiple reasons. Hamster stress can be caused by fear. Being so small, it’s easy to understand why hamsters might feel afraid sometimes. Scary situations for hamsters include loud noises, rough handling, being held at a height, sudden movements, or unfamiliar environments. For example, if you buy a new cage for your furry friend, even if it’s the best hamster cage, the fact that it is a new environment that they’re not used to could cause them stress. 

Hamsters can also become stressed because they aren’t getting enough mental and physical stimulation. Boredom and a lack of enrichment can lead to frustration and stress symptoms. Stress symptoms can also develop if your hamster is unwell or in pain, so it's essential to get to know your hamster's normal behavior so that you can spot changes quickly.

How to help a stressed hamster 

The most important thing you must do if you think your hamster is stressed is to take them to a veterinarian. The vet can check for signs of pain or illness and give you advice on how to combat your hamster’s stress. Once you’re sure there’s no medical reason for your hamster’s anxious behavior, you can start looking for things to tweak in their environment or your handling. 

You should ensure that your hamster’s home is the perfect size for them, with plenty of space for exercise, eating, drinking, and relaxing. Here are some tips for selecting the right size cage.

Ensure that their cage is in a quiet part of the house, away from other pets and without much footfall. Keeping up with a regular and thorough cleaning regime will also help to alleviate their stress, as will providing them with chews and toys for enrichment. When it comes to handling, it's not always easy to help your hamster feel more confident, especially if they haven't been handled from a young age. 

However, making sure that you don't smell of chemicals or perfume, keeping your movements slow, and holding them close to the ground will help.  

Hamster

(Image credit: Getty Images)

 Hamster body language guide 

If you own a hamster, you’ll soon get to know and understand their body language if you pay close attention. But here’s an easy guide for what your hamster is trying to tell you: 

  • Happy  A happy hamster might stretch and yawn to show they are relaxed. If you watch your hamster display their normal behaviors like grooming and digging, this is a sign that they are happy. If they watch you back and have their ears pointed up, this is a sign that they're interested and curious, rather than afraid.   
  • Scared  A hamster who is scared or feeling threatened might stand on their hind legs or turn on their back, showing their teeth. They often puff out their cheeks and hold their ears flat or forward. You might hear them vocalising and, if you don’t give them space, they might bite.
  • Depressed  A depressed hamster might be more lethargic. However, it's common for boredom and under-stimulation to cause hyperactivity. So, you might notice them turning or rolling repeatedly, biting their cage, or over-using their wheel. 

Frequently asked questions

A hamster eating crumbs at night

(Image credit: Getty)

Do hamsters bite when they are stressed? 

It's very common for hamsters to bite when they are stressed. They might be feeling irritable, threatened, or unwell. If your hamster has suddenly started biting or behaving aggressively, speak to a veterinarian about the possible causes. 

Can hamsters die from stress? 

Hamsters are very susceptible to stress, and sudden stress can put extra strain on their heart and other body organs. If they are old or have poor underlying health, they are even more at risk of sudden death from stress. 

Conclusion

Although hamsters are tiny, hamster stress is a big problem. If you take home a little ball of fluff, it's worth doing your research to make sure you handle them correctly and provide them with everything they need for a happy and relaxed life. 

Dr Hannah Godfrey is a small animal vet with a love of dentistry and soft tissue surgery. She lives in Wales with her partner, son, and their two cats.