Owners of hamsters, especially those who have never owned one before, can sometimes confuse their hibernation with death. After all, if they aren’t moving and can’t be roused, how are you to tell if your tiny pet is just taking a very long nap, or if they are sadly gone forever?
If you aren’t sure if your hamster is dead or just hibernating, here is how you will be able to tell the difference. Remember it’s very important to make sure your hamster is actually deceased before you choose to hold a funeral for them. While certainly not at all a pleasant topic, it is something you need to be prepared for as a pet owner.
Is My Hamster Dead or Hibernating?
Check your hamster’s breath and heart rate. While it may be slow or shallow, it should still be detectable when they are in hibernation. There will also be tiny movements or twitches. If the temperatures in their room are low, your hamster is probably just conserving energy.
If there is no detectable heartbeat, if they aren’t moving at all and if it’s not that cold in their cage, they may unfortunately be dead.
Check the Room Temperature
Hamsters don’t hibernate in warm weather. If the temperature is over 20°C, they are not at all likely to go into a deep sleep.
So, if their cage is near a window, or if it’s generally cool in the room, they may have decided to conserve their energy.
If you gradually raise the temperature to over 20°C, your hamster should wake within a couple of hours (or days at the most). You should however check for other signs of hibernation too, as hamsters can also die in cool weather, especially if they are old or have been ill.
Don’t Go By Body Temperature Alone
If your hamster feels cold to the touch, don’t immediately worry. Their temperature will drop when they are in hibernation, as they are aiming to match the environment’s. Just because they are cold does not mean there is anything wrong.
If however the room temperature is high and your hamster feels cold and is unresponsive, they may be dead.
Check If They Are Breathing
If you believe your hamster may be hibernating, check if they are breathing. Watch them very very closely for several minutes, as their breath rate can be as low as one breath per two minutes, so you may mistake them for dead if you expect them to breathe as they usually would.
Check Their Heartbeat
If you can’t really determine if your hamster is breathing or not, try to find a heartbeat. Note that it may be difficult to locate, so you will need some patience.
Place your forefinger and thumb on either side of their chest, just above the elbows. Apply a tiny amount of pressure, like you would when you are trying to stop your hamster from running away: gentle but firm. You should start to feel their pulse in a minute or so. Note that it will be quite slow, and can be very faint.
Check For Movement
Finally, if you haven’t been able to detect either breath or heartbeat, you need to check for movement.
Stroke your hamster’s whiskers. Even when they are hibernating, they will twitch their cheeks. Make sure you are extra gentle, as you don’t want to hurt them.
A hamster’s head will also often tremble slightly when they are hibernating. If you notice any twitching or movement, they are just dozing very deeply.
If you have found no signs of life, you can ask your vet to come out and check if your hamster has really passed away, if you don’t trust your own findings.
What Does a Dead Hamster Look Like?
A dead hamster will be curled up in a fetal position, completely stiff and unresponsive and there will be no signs of breathing or heartbeat.
A dead hamster will be lying on its side, with its head close to the front paws. The back paws will be close to the front ones, and the tail will be tucked in. They will be curled up more than usual.
Rigor mortis will also set in, so if your hamster is completely stiff, they have unfortunately passed away. Check if there is any movement or response. If you also can’t detect a pulse and they don’t seem to be breathing, you will sadly have to say goodbye to your pet.
Why is My Hamster Hibernating?
Hamsters are permissive hibernators, which means they will only hibernate when the temperatures are low and there is no regular food supply. They don’t have to hibernate in the winter, nor do they have to do it at all.
Hamsters will go into hibernation when it gets cold in their cage, if the room is dark and they aren’t getting a regular supply of food. If they live in a warm, light room, have some company or there is a lot of activity around them, they are not likely to.
On the other hand, they are perfectly capable of hibernating in both spring and fall, if the temperatures allow.
What to do When My Hamster is Hibernating?
Make sure you provide fresh food and water for your hibernating pet, and slowly start bringing the temperatures up if you want to wake them up.
Hamsters will wake up to eat from time to time, and since you don’t know when this will be, you need to make sure they have something to eat and drink at all times. Keep cleaning stale bits of food out regularly.
Make sure it does not get too cold in the room, as hamsters can develop hypothermia when hibernating. You want to slowly start warming the room up to preserve their health, and to slowly bring them back.
How to Wake a Hamster from Hibernation?
If you have made sure your hamster is hibernating by checking for signs of life, you can slowly warm them up. You can do this by holding them close to you for half an hour.
Since hamster hibernation is triggered by low temperatures, you want to warm them up. Hold them close to your chest for at least 30 minutes, being very careful not to hurt them. You can also wrap a hot water bottle in a towel and place it in their cage. Don’t put it right next to the hamster, as you want the change in temperature to be gradual.
When they start to wake up, make sure there is food and drink around. Keep the room they are in warm to prevent them from slipping back into hibernation again.
Do All Hamsters Hibernate?
While all breeds of hamster can hibernate, not all of them actually do. It will depend on their environment.
Syrian hamsters don’t usually hibernate in the wild, as they come from desert regions, but they can slip into their deep sleep if the temperatures get really cold. They can also hibernate in captivity.
Dwarf and Russian hamsters are more used to colder temperatures, but they can also hibernate if they need to.
How Long Do Hamsters Hibernate?
Hamsters will usually hibernate between 2 and 4 days. However, if they are not getting enough food or water, if it’s very cold or they are kept in a dark room, they may make it a week or even longer.
Can Hibernation Kill a Hamster?
Yes, hibernation can kill hamsters. If they remain in it too long at a very low temperature, they can suffer a fatal hypothermia, where their body loses heat much faster than it can produce it.
Since hamsters can’t store enough calories or water to get them through an extended hibernation, they can also sleep themselves to death.
Do Hamsters Hibernate With Their Eyes Open?
Hamsters can have their eyes both closed and open when hibernating, and there is no general rule. Some will keep their eyes half-open, while others will appear to be awake.
Do Hamsters Go Stiff When They Hibernate?
No, hamsters do not go stiff when in hibernation. They will go limp though and only be mildly responsive. If your hamster is stiff, they have most likely unfortunately died.
Wrapping It Up
Understanding if your hamster is dead or hibernating can save their life, as you can warm them up and prevent a potential hypothermia. If it’s sadly time to say goodbye to your pet, make sure to find a way to do so that is appropriate for your family.