As the mercury level dips on the thermometer and your heating roars into action inside, it is tempting to take a duvet day (or two!). And that is exactly what our hamster Oscar appears to be doing. Slightly more lethargic than usual, rousing him from his bed to play each day takes a little bit longer – it’s just like having a teenager in the house. But is this something we should be worried about?
Hamsters hibernate to survive extreme weather conditions, fluctuating food supplies or if they’re deprived of light for long periods of time. If your pet hamster hibernates there is a danger that they could suffer with dehydration or hyperthermia.
In order to ensure that our hamster Oscar does not enter hibernation mode over the long winter months, I carried out some research into the ways in which we could prepare.
2 types of hamster hibernation
It is believed that there are two types of hibernation that animals employ.
- Seasonal hibernation. In the wild, animals such as bears and squirrels fatten themselves up over the summer months when food supplies are plentiful, in order to see them through the harsh winter period.
- Permissive hibernation. As its name suggests, this type of hibernation can happen at any time throughout the year as a direct effect of sudden changes in the environment such as temperature or lack of nourishment. This type of hibernation generally only lasts for a few hours or a couple of days.
Pet hamsters can fall into permissive hibernation (which is considered to be a deep sleep rather than a listless state), but as they have not prepared for it as most animals would, there is a real danger that they could suffer from dehydration or hyperthermia.
Do all hamsters hibernate?
Pet hamsters should not feel the need to hibernate when fed and watered regularly and kept in a cool cage in summer and wrapped up cozy in winter.
If, however, the temperature around them drops to below 60 degrees Fahrenheit, then your hamster may become lethargic. And, if the temperature continues to decrease below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, then your hamster could potentially become lifeless and fall into permissive hibernation mode.
Syrian hamsters originate from desert regions where they would need to hibernate in order to survive the bitter, icy nights so may be more prone to hibernation than other breeds. Dwarf and Russian hamsters, however, are well adept at operating in cold conditions and thanks to their thicker, longer coats are less likely to feel the need to hibernate.
How many hours do hamsters sleep for?
A happy, healthy hamster should sleep for around 8-12 hours a day. This generally happens during the day, although some hamsters are lazier than others and may enjoy an extended nap.
As long as you know how much shut-eye your hamster normally requires in order to build up its energy supplies, then the length in which they sleep should not be a problem. If, however, they suddenly start to sleep for much longer periods or begin shivering and shaking whilst in their nest, then there is a chance that they may fall into a lackluster state.
How do you know if your hamster is hibernating?
If you look out for the pre-warning signs that your hamster is trying to hibernate then you could stop the situation from occurring at all. After all, there is nothing more distressing than looking into a cage when a hamster is hibernating – as to many, they simply look lifeless!
Signs that your hamster is on the verge of permissive hibernation include:
- Starting to build a bigger nest or burrowing deep into their substrate for extra warmth.
- Not eating or drinking regularly.
- Uncontrollable body shuddering.
- Their heart rate and breathing starts to slow down.
Hopefully, hamster hibernation is a situation that you should never have to encounter but if you do look through the cage bars one day and see that your hamster is motionless, it may be difficult to tell if they are hibernating or if it has actually died.
Ways in which you can tell you hamster is hibernating include:
- Picking your hamster 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.
- Stroking and cradling your hamster to see if its whiskers twitch or body moves at all.
- Feeling for body warmth. A hibernating hamster will maintain a warm body temperature though it might be slightly cooler than usual.
- Seeing if your hamster’s limbs are limp enough to manipulate and move around. A completely stiff hamster is most likely a dead one.
How to bring your hamster out of hibernation
If your hamster is hibernating, it is important that you give them extra care and do not jolt them out of torpor immediately.
You could try re-warming them slowly using your own body heat or by placing them on a heat pad or even near a hot water bottle.
You should also make sure that they are exposed to plenty of light.
Finally, you could give them a massage with your fingers to get the blood circulation going. If this still does not rouse them, then you should seek veterinary advice.
How to stop hamsters hibernating
As the most likely cause of hibernation is coldness there are some simple measures you can put in place to rectify this.
These include moving the cage to draft-free areas, adding extra bedding and ensuring that they are well fed with fatty foods are all fool-proof ways to ensure that your hamster stays snug when its cold outside. For further tips on how to keep your hamster warm in winter, please read our informative blog.
As hamsters can also suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, you should ensure that they are exposed to plenty of daylight to prevent depression or anxiety which can lead to an onset of permissive hibernation.
Playing and handling them regularly will not only keep them active but can alert you to any potential health issues.
Since cranking up the central heating, adding more bedding to Oscar’s cage and ensuring that the blinds are open so that light floods into his room, has made a real difference to Oscars mood. Quick to open one eye and assess the situation, he will now happily bound of bed for a crunchy carrot, chocolate drop or cuddle. And, although I don’t think hibernation was ever a real worry, I do think next winter we need to be quicker in adapting to the falling temperatures to stop Oscar from getting SAD.