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

how to help a stressed hamster
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Learning how to help a stressed hamster is key to keeping your little ball of fur happy and healthy in its surroundings. 

You might not think so, but these small little balls of cuteness can suffer from stress just like other animals and human beings. Especially if they aren’t happy in their environment, they are bored or they are being handled incorrectly. But thankfully, all this stress can be prevented and lessened by making minor adjustments to their living space or day-to-day routine. Even just investing in some of the best hamster toys can help to keep your curious little critter entertained, busy and mentally stimulated. 

So to help create a relaxing, peaceful and stress-free space for your beloved hamster, we spoke to veterinarian, Dr Hannah Godfrey. Dr Godfrey talked us through the signs, symptoms and common causes of stress. So make sure you keep scrolling to find out what Dr Godfrey advises.

Dr. Hannah Godfrey BVetMed MRCVS
Dr Hannah Godfrey

Dr Hannah Godfrey has more than 10 years’ experience as a veterinary surgeon, having graduated from the Royal Veterinary College in London in 2011. She started out as a small animal practitioner involved in surgery, consultation treatment and imaging of pets and later moved into a telemedicine triage role. She has a passion for soft tissue surgery and dentistry.  

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

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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.  


(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

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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. 

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 BVetMed MRCVS

Dr Hannah Godfrey is a small animal vet who graduated from the Royal Veterinary College in 2011 and began work straight away at a busy mixed practice. Initially, she treated all species, but focussed on small animals from 2014. She has a passion for soft tissue surgery, ultrasound, and canine and feline dentistry, having completed additional training in these areas.