How Long Hamsters Hibernate & Signs They’re Not Dead

How long hamsters hibernate

How Long Hamsters Hibernate (& Signs They’re Not Dead)

If it is your first Winter with your hamster, you may be curious if you should be helping your pet prepare for hibernation. This is a valid concern, as many small animals hibernate as a means of survival during the colder months of the year. It is important to learn all you can about this behavior so that you know how to proceed should your little pet decide to take a long snooze.

How long do hamsters hibernate? Pet hamsters should not be affected by extreme weather, and therefore do not need to go into hibernation for purposes of survival. A hamster who has become too cold or has experienced a shortage of food and water may go into a form of hibernation to conserve energy, however, and precautions should be taken to avoid this state.  

Read on for important information on the different types of hibernation, whether hamsters hibernate in the wild, and what to do if you think your hamster has fallen into a deep Winter sleep.

Is It Healthy For Pet Hamsters To Hibernate?

Hibernation is not a normal behavior for a pet hamster. To understand why there may be a concern if you find your hamster appearing to have entered this state, you will need to understand why animals hibernate in the first place.

Why Hamsters And Other Animals Hibernate

Most mammals are able to regulate their internal body temperature through heat-producing mitochondria in the body’s cells. This heat travels through the bloodstream to the body’s vital organs.

This impressive ability to regulate one’s own body temperature takes a lot of energy, or in other words, fuel. Food typically becomes more scarce in the Winter months, and some mammals find themselves without the amount of food necessary to produce heat during a time when it is most needed.

While we often think of bears when we think of hibernating animals, most animals that hibernate are actually small animals like rodents and birds, because a small animal will lose heat more quickly than a larger animal.

During true hibernation, several physiological changes take place to conserve maximum energy. In this state, the following changes will take place in an animal’s body:

  • Decreased metabolic rate – hibernating animals will experience a sharp decrease in metabolism
  • Decreased heart rate – hibernating animals will have a significantly slowed heart rate, often beating only two or three times in a given hour
  • Decreased oxygen intake – hibernating animals will also experience slowed breathing, and may even stop breathing altogether for up to an hour at a time
  • Decreased body temperature – due to the energy required to maintain body heat, a hibernating animal will bring their base body temperatures much lower during hibernation. Some squirrels will have a body temperature of below-freezing levels during hibernation.

If your pet hamster is hibernating (or more accurately, in a state of torpor), that means that he is either too cold or does not have enough fuel to maintain an appropriate body temperature.

In other words, a hibernating pet hamster is not getting his basic needs met that are required for survival.

Understanding Torpor: Mini Hamster Hibernation

If you come home from a long weekend and you find your hamster very still and slow to wake, he may have entered a state of torpor. Being in torpor is similar to hibernation but to a lesser degree.

If the temperature in your home has dropped below 65 degrees Fahrenheit, or if your hamster ran out of the food required to maintain his body temperature, he may have gone into a voluntary state of torpor to decrease his energy output.

In torpor, the metabolic rate, heart rate, oxygen intake, and body temperature all drop as in hibernation, but to a much lesser degree. In addition, while true hibernation can last for months, a state of torpor will last for a much shorter period of time.

In fact, there are many animals, such as owls, who actually go into a state of torpor on a daily basis. During hibernation, an animal will feed off of its own body fat, while in torpor the animal wakes on a regular basis to forage and feed.

How To Tell If Your Hamster Is Hibernating (And Not Dead)

Hamsters need a room temperature of between 65 and 80 degrees. While this seems reasonable, the first cold front in the Winter can often catch us by surprise, and many homes can dip below this temperature range rather quickly (especially overnight).

If your home is on the chilly side and you awaken to find a stiff hamster, don’t panic. You will need to determine whether your hamster has entered a state of torpor, or has passed away. 

Because of the slowed respiration, your hamster may not appear to be breathing, even if he is alive. If you can, place a small mirror directly in front of his nose. If he is breathing, the mirror will slightly fog. Remember, in torpor your hamster’s respiratory rate will have significantly decreased, so make sure to give it a few minutes. 

If you don’t have a mirror handy, or you still are not sure about your hamster’s state, try to gently tug on one of his limbs. If they have give in them, or if your hamster pulls back slightly, he is in a state of torpor. If his limbs are very stiff and difficult to move, he may be deceased.

How To Wake Up A Hibernating Hamster

If you believe your hamster is in a state of torpor, you will want to try to gently pull him out of this. If a hamster stays in torpor too long, he will quickly become dehydrated and may not survive. The best path to waking up a hamster in this state is to warm him up. 

There are a few methods you can use to heat up your hamster. One obvious step is to raise the temperature in the home. If it is very cold in your house, turn on the heat.

You can also place a space heater in the room in which your hamster lives – just don’t place it too close to your hamster’s body, as you do not want him to become overheated.

You can also place a towel over his cage with a heating pad on top of it. If you don’t have a heating pad or a space heater, you can use your own body heat. Pick up your hamster and cradle him to your skin – you can cup him between your hands or even use your chest or your belly. This is called “skin-to-skin” contact and is a very effective method of heating up another individual.

If you are confident that your hamster is in a state of torpor and you are unsuccessful in coaxing him awake, you may wish to take him to a veterinarian. If you are not sure whether your hamster is alive or in torpor, and you cannot wake your hamster, he may have passed away. 

Do Hamsters In The Wild Hibernate?

This all may lead you to wonder whether or not hamsters in the wild hibernate, considering they are exposed to the elements depending on the region from which they are native. There are nineteen species of hamsters around the world, and five of these are often kept as pets.

Because these animals are naturally shy and prefer to stay hidden, many of them have been studied only very minimally. Below is what we do know about the hibernation patterns of ten different hamster species (in the wild), starting with those that we are familiar with as pets:

  • Syrian hamsters do hibernate during the Winter months.
  • Roborovskii (Robo) hamsters do not hibernate in the Winter; instead, they burrow deeply and survive on stored food.
  • Winter White hamsters do not hibernate in the Winter; instead, they line their burrows with animal fur and close all but one entrance, surviving on stored food.
  • Campbell’s dwarf hamsters do not hibernate in the Winter, and will instead exercise to stay warm or find shelter.
  • Chinese hamsters do enter a state of torpor in the wild during the colder months of the year.
  • European hamsters do hibernate in the wild, typically from October until March.
  • Turkish hamsters hibernate for up to 30 days at a time in the colder months.
  • Ciscaucasian hamsters do hibernate for 4-6 months out of the year.
  • Neither Grey Dwarf hamsters nor Long-Tailed dwarf hamsters hibernate; instead, they survive on stored food in their burrows through the Winter months.

Hibernation Is For Wild Hamsters, Not For Our Pocket Pets

Nature is pretty amazing, and the body’s ability to change its physiological processes to conserve energy is just one example of that. It is not only fortunate that our wild friends can take advantage of this process, but also necessary for their very survival.

This is what makes hibernation inappropriate for our domestic pets, however – our hamsters should never have to employ these survival tactics because they should be receiving the care necessary to function normally.

If your hamster is entering a state of torpor, that is a good indication that he is either not getting enough to eat, or is too cold (the most commonly seen scenario, especially in colder climates). You can find my latest articles on hamsters and other small pets here!

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