How & Why Hamsters Die: 10 Most Common Causes

Sadly, hamsters do not live long lives. This means that within a few short years of adopting your young pet, you will have to go through the process of saying goodbye. There are many different reasons a hamster may pass away, beyond old age.

How do hamsters die? There are many conditions from which your hamster may pass away. Ten of the most common contributors include:

  1. Old age
  2. Heart disease
  3. Stress
  4. Wet tail 
  5. Pneumonia
  6. Cancer
  7. Kidney disease
  8. Polycystic disease
  9. Diabetes
  10. Accidents

While this may seem like a long list, the good news is that there are things you can do to decrease your hamster’s risk of some of these issues and increase their chances of living long (for a hamster) and healthy lives. Keep reading to learn more! 

How Long Do Hamsters Live?

If you have a hamster, you should familiarize yourself with your pet’s average lifespan. Lifespan can vary slightly among the five different species of pet hamster. Roborovskis usually have the longest lifespan – around 2-3.5 years. Syrians are the next longest-lived, with an average lifespan of 2-3 years. The remaining species (Campbell’s dwarf, Winter White, and Chinese) are only expected to live for 16-24 months. 

To learn more about the life cycle of a hamster, visit my article Hamster Life Cycle: Complete Visual Guide.

Reason #1 Hamsters Die: Old Age

Old age is certainly not an affliction or disease, but it must be mentioned as it is the official cause of death for many beloved hamsters. As a hamster ages, so does its cells, organs, and every part of its body. This means that your hamster can die for a number of reasons in old age that have nothing to do with a disease or condition – as an animal ages, there is a higher chance of organ failure. As death goes, this is often a relatively peaceful passing – many elderly hamsters simply pass away while they sleep. Some are even observed acting normally and running on the exercise wheel hours prior to passing. 

Reason #2 Hamsters Die: Heart Disease

Hamsters, like humans, can suffer from heart disease. Two common heart conditions found in hamsters are congestive heart failure and cardiomyopathy. Congestive heart failure occurs when the heart muscles weaken and cannot effectively pump blood through the body. This can cause a number of health problems, and most commonly affects older female hamsters. Cardiomyopathy is a similar condition in that it makes it much harder for the heart muscle to pump blood through the body; this is a genetic condition and can lead to heart failure or sudden death. Cardiomyopathy presents similary in hamsters as in humans, and so hamsters afflicted with this disease are extensively researched to attempt to find new therapies that may be effective in humans. Cardiomyopathy occurs mainly in Syrian hamsters, and is a congenital condition. 

Reason #3 Hamsters Die: Stress

Hamsters are fragile animals, and are easily frightened due to their vulnerability as prey animals. Stress can lead to heart failure, especially in a hamster that already suffers from a genetic heart condition. This can occur both in acute stress and long-term stress. A hamster can die, seemingly suddenly, from a sudden traumatic or frightful event. This is most often seen in hamsters who were already suffering from a congenital heart condition like cardiomyopathy. Prolonged mild stress can also lead to conditions ultimately causing heart failure as well – this can be chronic stress due to a poor diet, frequent or constant territory battles with another hamster “friend,” or even stress from a house cat that is often pawing at the hamster cage. 

There are various reasons your hamster may be stressed; to learn more about how to recognize these signs, visit my article Signs Your Hamster is Sad: Easy Ways to Tell.

Reason #4 Hamsters Die: Wet Tail

Wet tail disease is not one particular diagnosis, but rather the term used to describe watery diarrhea in a hamster – giving the animal a “wet tail”. Hamsters are very small, and therefore diarrhea can lead to dangerous levels of dehydration shortly after symptoms start – hamsters with this condition may die in as little as a few days after symptoms begin. Wet Tail may be caused by stress or a bacterial, parasitic, or even viral infection. It can also be caused by diet or other environmental conditions. This condition is most often recorded in very young hamsters usually between 3 and 6 weeks of age. 

Reason #5 Hamsters Die: Pneumonia

Pneumonia is not very common in hamsters, but for a small pet afflicted with this respiratory condition, things can take a negative turn very quickly. Pneumonia is caused by a bacterial or viral illness, with pathogens coinciding to cause lung inflammation. Symptoms include lethargy, loss of appetite, sneezing, coughing, and of course, difficulty breathing. If left untreated, a hamster can quickly succumb to this condition. If seen by a veterinarian, antibiotics or oxygen therapy may be successfully used as treatment.

Reason #6 Hamsters Die: Cancer

While hamsters are not as prone to tumors (both cancerous and benign) as rats, they do have their share of malignancies from which they can sadly succumb. The most common kinds of cancer that can afflict a hamster are cancers of the gastro-intestinal tract, lymphatic system, skin, and limbs. Unless an obvious tumor presents, cancer can go unnoticed, especially in elderly hamsters. The species of hamster you have may affect your pet’s likelihood of this disease; for example, Winter White dwarf hamsters are five times more likely than Syrian hamsters to get cancer.

Reason #7 Hamsters Die: Kidney Disease

Kidney disease, though relatively rare, is most often seen in older female hamsters. Kidney disease in hamsters is usually the result of kidney inflammation caused by a viral infection, high blood pressure, or an immune system disorder. The inflammation will cause degenerative kidney disease from which a hamster can succumb. While the systemic conditions that can lead to kidney inflammation may go unnoticed, it has been found that feeding a diet lower in protein can help to prevent this condition.

Reason #8 Hamsters Die : Polycystic Disease

Polycystic disease is a condition in which fluid-filled sacs grow on or around the liver and other vital organs. This is, fortunately, not a very common condition in hamsters but one that happens often enough to be worth mentioning. This disease is seen most often in hamsters older than one year of age, and there is no known cause for it. Organs most commonly affected by these cysts are the liver, male reproductive organs, pancreas, ovaries, uterus, and adrenal glands.

Reason #9 Hamsters Die: Diabetes

Diabetes is not as high a concern for Syrian hamsters, and is most commonly found in Chinese dwarf hamsters. Diabetes, as is the case with humans, is a condition marked by above-normal blood glucose levels. If left unchecked, the disease can be fatal, however it can also be managed effectively through small dietary changes. Symptoms of diabetes may include excessive thirst and urination, sudden weight changes, changes in energy level, and increased hunger. Blood glucose levels are relatively easy to check in hamsters, as urine test strips are readily available online (the hamster can be temporarily moved to a small plastic enclosure with no bedding – after the hamster urinates, simply dip the test strip into the urine). 

Reason #10 Hamsters Die: Accidents

This one is obvious, but one of the most common reasons that hamsters die is accidental trauma. Hamsters have small, fragile bodies, and they are not often content to sit quietly in one’s hands. Couple this with the fact that a hamster is commonly considered to be a child’s first pet, it is easy to see how fatal accidents can happen. If a hamster is dropped from a distance of more than a few feet, is squeezed too hard, gets loose, or finds himself in a tussle with another household pet, fatal injuries can quickly occur. These accidents can happen in the blink of an eye, but are mostly preventable. Watch children carefully when they are handling a hamster. Keep other pets away from your rodent to limit the chance of injury and also stress. It is also a good idea to hold your hamster while sitting on the floor, with some form of barrier around you so that it is not too easy for your pet to escape.

Hamsters: A Time To Live, A Time To Die

All living organisms are born, then live, then die. This is the cycle of life. This can be a tough truth to consider when in reference to your hamster, the pet that you love and with whom you spend your time and affection. Some of these causes of death are preventable, like accidents and (for the most part) stress. Some of them are harder to prevent, as they can be caused by an underlying condition almost impossible to detect without genetic testing. And of course, there is no getting around the fact that your hamster will succumb to old age in as little as a year and half of life. Fortunately, hamsters do not have the capacity to worry about these things like their humans do, so the best that we can do for our little pets is to do the best we can – offering nutritious diets, plenty of enrichment opportunities, room to exercise, and a large enclosure. Ensuring your hamster’s needs are met will lead to a hamster experiencing contentment into his final days.

Need enrichment ideas for your hamster? Check out my article Hamster Enrichment Ideas: Top Enrichment Ideas For Hamsters.

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