Unfortunately, the festive break bought us some heartache, as our beloved hamster Oscar passed away on Boxing Day. Having been out for the day, we returned to find him with his eyes shut and his body stiff.
How do you dispose of a dead hamster? Hamsters are not immortal, and these cute pets only live to around 2-3 years of age. So when the times comes to say goodbye, it is really important that you dispose of your dead hamster in the best way possible either by burial or cremation.
If we are totally honest it was not a shock for us when Oscar died, as he was well over 2 years old and was showing signs that he was starting to slow down. His breathing had become heavy, his movements were labored, he looked frail and he no longer enjoyed time out of his cage. As sad as it was, it was some comfort to us all to know that he had not suffered and had died peacefully in his sleep.
How to check that your hamster is definitely dead
If you do notice that your hamster is no longer moving it is really important that before you assume the worse, you check that your hamster isn’t just hibernating.
Pet hamsters can fall into permissive hibernation (which is considered to be a deep sleep rather than a listless state) but will only do so in order to survive extreme weather conditions, fluctuating food supplies or if they are deprived of light for long periods of time.
It may be difficult to tell if your hamster is hibernating or if it has actually died. If your hamster appears motionless you should do the following:
- Pick them up to check for signs of life. One way you can do this is by holding a mirror or spoon up to its face to see if it mists. This way you can tell if they are breathing.
- Stroke and cradle your hamster to see if its whiskers twitch or its body moves at all.
- Feel for body warmth. A hibernating hamster will maintain a warm body temperature though it might be slightly cooler than usual.
The easiest way to see if your hamster is hibernating or dead, however, is to check for rigor mortis. This is caused by chemical changes in the muscles after death and if your hamster is completely stiff, then it is most likely a dead one. Oscar was incredibly cold and rigid when we cradled him, so it was very clear to us that he had passed away.
If you are interested to find out more about hamster hibernation and how to prevent them from suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, read our blog on why hamsters hibernate.
How long can you keep a dead hamster?
Rigor Mortis starts to set in within 15-30 minutes of your hamster dying. Therefore, it is important that you preserve the body by placing them in a sealed plastic bag whilst you make a decision on what to do next.
Ideally, you want to keep them somewhere cool, or within your freezer, but always make sure that you dispose of your hamsters’ body within a 24 hour period.
How long does it take for a dead hamster to start smelling?
Hamster remains start to biodegrade really quickly, especially during the summer months when it is hot, so you will notice an unpleasant whiff rather quickly if you fail to preserve the body correctly.
Depending on how your hamster died also has an effect on how quickly your dead hamster will smell. Those with any exposed injuries may start to decompose faster, as opposed to those hamsters who simply passed away in their sleep.
For more reasons on why hamsters might die, check out our informative blog.
Do hamsters go stiff when they die?
The keyway to determine whether your hamster is dead or not if to check if they are stiff as this indicates rigor mortis.
Rigor mortis is the medical term that is used to describe the hardening of body muscles after death. It’s the result of the body’s loss of chemical substances that gives energy to the muscles. Rigor mortis is a valuable tool to any death investigation since it can narrow down the timeframe of death.
If you find your hamster within the first 8 hours of them passing, their body is likely to have started to stiffen but is still movable. Between 8-12 hours and the muscles will be as stiff as a board. From 24 hours onwards, however, the stiffness will start to dissipate with the muscles becoming more flexible as the body start to decompose.
How to bury a dead hamster
When our hamster Oscar died, our children wanted to bury him in the garden so that they could still feel close to him. If you choose to bury your hamster there are some key things you should do beforehand:
- Remove your hamster from the cage using a pair of disposable gloves.
- Place them in a biodegradable box. We used a cardboard box which our children decorated, but if you are unsure what materials to use, you can always purchase one such as this one on Amazon.
- Choose a suitable place to bury them such as in your backyard. In America there are over one hundred pet cemeteries in the United States, all dedicated to honoring our furry friends. Just make sure that you steer clear of public spaces, like a park or woodlands, unless you have been given permission to do so.
- Make sure that you dig a deep hole well away from any water sources.
- Create a memorial out of stones as a reminder of the place where your hamster is buried. If your neighborhood is notorious for cats, then this is also a good way of ensuring that unwanted paws are kept out.
How to cremate a dead hamster
If you would prefer to cremate your hamster, then you should speak to your local vet or contact your local pet cemetery.
Many vets will provide this service and give you your hamsters ashes to take home. Alternatively, you can buy your own urn or even necklace (see on Amazon) so that you have a constant reminder with you at all times.
It is important to note that cremation is generally more expensive than a burial, but it often comes down to personal preference.
Statistics show that losing a pet can feel the same as losing a family member or even a best friend. Regardless of the circumstance, you should never underestimate your feelings.
However, once the initial shock has passed, you should focus on the positives by remembering your hamster and the happy times you have shared. This is exactly what we did with Oscar and by giving him a proper send-off and disposing of his body in the best way possible proved to be the perfect way to honor his little life.