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How Do You Know If Your Hamster Is Hibernating Or Dead?

When hamsters go into torpor or temporary hibernation, they appear dead. They only show the slightest signs of life, which are easy to miss.

Hibernating hamsters slow their heart rate to 3 beats per minute and only breathe once every 1-2 minutes. Their feet and noses turn blue, but the pouch feels warm.

You should be able to pull a hibernating hamster’s limbs and feel them move, while dead hamsters become stiff and feel cold all over.

If you’re wondering, “Is my hamster dead or hibernating?” check for signs of life because understanding the difference between death and hibernation can save a hamster’s life.

Why Do Hamsters Hibernate?

Captive hamsters don’t hibernate, so they go into temporary hibernation (torpor) when too cold.

During torpor, hamsters reduce their physical and mental state to preserve energy. For hamsters, it’s an adaptive survival state and a last-ditch attempt to stay alive.

Hibernation often occurs soon after a sudden drop in temperature, leaving hamsters with little time to prepare. Also, prolonged exposure to darkness causes hamsters to hibernate.

While direct sunlight is harmful, hamsters need natural light to replicate wild conditions.

Syrian hamsters are more likely to hibernate than other species because they originate from desert climates and survive cold nights by entering a short, deep sleep.

Dwarf hamsters are more used to cold temperatures, so they’re less likely to hibernate.

When Do Hamsters Hibernate?

The Royal Society explains how hamsters are facultative hibernators, which means they hibernate whenever they experience extreme environmental conditions.

Most hamsters hibernate when it’s too cold, but some hibernate when it’s too hot.

A hamster’s ideal temperature range is between 65 (18.3 °C) and 75°F (23.9 °C). Cold conditions can take as little as 24 hours to a couple of months to induce torpor. 

According to the Journal of Comparative Physiology, hamsters without food reserves are likelier to hibernate than those with access to a food hoard.

So, hamsters enter torpor when there isn’t enough food to sustain them. This can happen at any time of the year, even in summer.

Wild hamsters hibernate to evade predators during active seasons. Pet hamsters don’t have predators, so it’s an uncommon reason for hibernation, but it can happen in stressful environments.

difference between dead and hibernating hamsters

How Long Do Hamsters Hibernate?

Torpor is temporary and should only last a few hours. However, if a hamster’s room remains too cold, it’ll hibernate for 2-3 days until conditions improve and the temperature rises.

If the temperature remains too low, hamsters can remain in hibernation for up to a week. Hamsters in good health before hibernation can undergo longer, deeper, and more frequent torpor.

Can Hibernation Kill A Hamster?

When hamsters go into torpor, they don’t prepare themselves for it like animals who go into true hibernation during the winter.

Torpor is uncommon in captivity, as hamsters are kept in warm rooms with access to food and water.

However, if owners don’t monitor the temperature during the cold months or provide deep enough bedding for their hamsters to burrow into for warmth, they risk going into torpor.

Unfortunately, hamsters can die from dehydration, starvation, or hypothermia because they aren’t equipped to hibernate.

It’s not uncommon for pet hamsters to enter a deep sleep and never wake up, especially if owners aren’t aware their hamsters are in torpor.

Most animals use body fat reserves to keep themselves alive while they hibernate. However, hamsters lose weight when it’s cold, putting them at greater starvation risk while hibernating.

Signs of A Hamster Going Into Hibernation

Before hibernating, a hamster will struggle to cope with cold conditions. So, you’ll notice these signs:

  • Lethargy.
  • Sleeping longer than usual.
  • Lack of interest in food.
  • Thirst or dehydration.
  • Cold or blue feet, ears, and nose.
  • Slowed-down breathing.
  • Low activity levels.

These are indicators that your hamster is slowing down, readying itself to enter a deep sleep.

Do Hamsters Poop When Hibernating?

While hamsters still produce waste while in torpor, they don’t eat. This means their digestive systems aren’t as active, meaning they won’t poop as frequently as usual.

You may find that poop sticks to the hamster’s bottom because it can’t keep itself clean. A hamster will also smell more pungently of ammonia while hibernating.

Do Hamsters Hibernate with Eyes Open?

All hamsters are different, but it’s not uncommon for hamsters to be in torpor with their eyes open. They can be either fully or partially open, displaying the same empty look as a dead hamster.

While this can be distressing, it doesn’t mean your hamster’s dead.

Difference Between Dead And Hibernating Hamsters

Torpor mimics death, making it difficult for owners to tell them apart. During torpor, hamsters:

  • Slow down their metabolism.
  • Breathe less, resulting in a very low heartbeat.
  • Reduce their body temperature and become cold to the touch.

While it’s hard to detect signs of life when hamsters are in torpor, it’s not impossible. For example, hamsters in torpor appear deceased and often curl into a tight ball to retain heat.

Unlike some dead hamsters, those hibernating will be asleep in their nests. This is one of the reasons why owners fail to spot the signs of torpor. Other signs to look out for during torpor include:

  • A shallow heartbeat of approximately three beats per minute.
  • Breathing once every 1-2 minutes.
  • A blue nose or feet, where the blood pumps too slowly around the body.
  • Subtle movements, like spasms or twitching.

Hamsters in torpor will feel soft and limp; dead hamsters go through rigor mortis and feel stiff to touch and hold after a few hours. You won’t be able to extend the limbs because of the rigidity.

How To Check Whether a Hamster’s Alive

You can perform checks to determine if a hamster’s dead or hibernating. Remember, these can also be signs of hypothermia, so you act fast to save your pet hamster. Here’s what to do:

  1. Place a spoon or mirror in front of your hamster’s face and check for any fog.
  2. Stretch the hamster’s limbs to see if they feel limp or stiff.
  3. Stroke the back to see if its whiskers twitch.
  4. Feel the pouches. They should feel slightly warmer than the rest of the body.

If your hamster feels stiff and cold, it’s likely dead, especially if the room’s already warm. Your hamster will also start to smell after a few days, which is an obvious sign of death.

can hibernation kill a hamster?

Do Hamsters Bury Themselves Before They Die?

Some hamsters like to hide before death to protect themselves from predators. Old and sick hamsters are likelier to die than young, healthy hamsters.

So, hamsters will instinctually bury themselves to hide. Nesting in bedding also creates a warm resting place where hamsters can die in peace and comfort.

However, before death, a hamster may not have the energy to burrow into its bedding. Instead, it’ll rest in one of its hideouts to be safe from danger.

How To Bring A Hamster Out of Torpor

If you discover your hamster won’t awaken from hibernation, you must warm it up. Start by creating a sugar-water mix by following these steps:

  1. Mix 1 cup of warm water, ½ cup of sugar, and 1 teaspoon of salt. Stir until it dissolves.
  2. Don’t let the sugar water cool. If it does, warm it back to room temperature.
  3. Lift the hamster and slowly uncurl it. Gently scruff the back of its neck and lay it on its back, keeping it supported with your open hand. Rotate it sideways to afford better access to its mouth.
  4. Use a syringe, dropper, or small spoon and place a few drops of the sugar water solution into the side of the mouth, letting it run across the tongue and out the other side.
  5. Do this every 1-2 minutes for 30 minutes, placing the hamster on a soft towel between sessions.

The benefit of feeding your hamster a warm sugar water solution in this way is that its tongue will absorb the heat without the water entering the lungs, warming the body from within.

Simple sugars also provide instant energy, helping your hamster wake up.

Once the hamster wakes up, it’ll appear wobbly and disorientated and even struggle to stand. Keep feeding the sugar water for 10-20 minutes until it refuses to drink anymore.

Don’t be alarmed if the hamster returns to its nest to hide. At this point, warm the room to between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit and ensure the hamster has enough food and water to sustain itself. 

As hamsters in torpor look deceased, ensure it isn’t dead before disposing of its body.

You may need to wait a few days for rigor mortis to set in. That, coupled with a bad smell, will help you determine that the hamster is dead and not hibernating.