As small animals are at the bottom of the food chain, hamsters frequently experience stress. Unfortunately, stress can have a serious long-term impact on a pet hamster’s health.
Common stressors for hamsters include loud noises, strong scents, and bright lights. Hamsters can also get bored in a cage, especially if it’s too small and lacks enrichment.
Keep the pet hamster in a large cage in a quiet, dimly-lit room to minimize the risk of stress. Hamsters get cabin fever, so allow them out of the cage in a hamster-proof room without other pets.
What Happens if Hamsters Get Stressed?
Common warning signs of stress in hamsters include:
- Hiding from social interactions.
- Unprovoked aggression, from hissing to biting.
- Freezing on the spot, often trembling while doing so.
- Growing hyperactive and running in circles.
- Loss of appetite.
- Compulsive behaviors, especially excessive grooming or biting cage bars.
- Attempting to escape a cage or environment.
- Verbalizing stress, often in the form of squeaking or screaming.
This is just what you can see. More concerningly, stress puts pressure on a hamster’s heart.
The Journal of Neuroendocrinology explains how younger hamsters cope with stress better than their senior counterparts, who are likelier to be cowed by an unpleasant experience.
Alas, a high-stress lifestyle isn’t safe or sustainable for a hamster of any age.
Is My Hamster Stressed or Excited?
The signs of a stressed hamster can sometimes be confused with excitement.
Once you’ve bonded with a hamster, it’ll be happy to see you if it associates you with food or playtime.
Initially, it may be hard to tell the difference between a hamster expressing joy and stress, as both emotions lead to hyperactivity. Listen carefully for sounds of unhappiness, such as hissing or screaming.
Behavior before and after squeaking will reveal more about a hamster’s mood. If a hamster yawns and stretches while squeaking, it feels great. If the hamster remains restless, it may be stressed out.
How Do Hamsters Get Stressed?
Common reasons for hamsters to experience stress include:
- Adapting to a different environment because hamsters need time to settle into a new home.
- Too much noise (hamsters have good hearing) or bright light (this hurts a hamster’s eyes.)
- Handling from strangers – it sees this person as a threat, especially if lifted high off the ground.
- Presence of other predatory animals, such as cats, around the cage.
- Feeling cooped up in a small cage.
- Boredom within the cage and not enough opportunities to explore outside.
- Lack of routine and structure.
As an owner, you must make every effort to prevent stress in hamsters.
How To Reduce Stress in Hamsters
If the hamster is visibly upset, quickly identify the stressors in its environment and remove them at once, ensuring they don’t become a regular feature of the hamster’s life.
Follow these steps to provide a hamster with a calm and stress-free life:
1/ Right Cage
Obtain the largest cage or tank possible, but never place a Syrian hamster in a home smaller than 24″ x 12″ x 12″. Dwarf hamsters can live in slightly smaller enclosures.
Decide upon a wire cage or a glass tank. Most hamsters will be more comfortable in a wire cage, as they’ll be able to climb the bars for recreation, and the space will provide greater ventilation.
Wire cages are unsuitable for dwarf hamsters, who may slip between the bars.
Glass tanks are harder for hamsters to escape, so this may be a preferable home. A solid glass tank also means less mess outside the habitat, as bedding won’t be kicked outside.
2/ Optimal Temperature
As they descend from desert-dwelling ancestors, hamsters flourish in warm temperatures – but must not be subjected to excessive heat. An ambient temperature of 65–75OF is best.
Anything hotter leaves your hamster at risk of heatstroke, which will be distressing for your pet. Don’t attempt to cool off the hamster with a fan. As well as making a mess, hamsters loathe cold weather.
3/ Quiet Room
Loud, sudden noises are a major stress trigger for hamsters and must be avoided.
Keep a hamster’s cage in a quiet room. Avoid homing the hamster in a living room filled with activity and ambient noise like TV sets or stereos.
A spare bedroom or rarely-used utility room is ideal, or a kitchen may work in a pinch.
An active bedroom, especially that of a child, should be cautiously approached as hamsters can be noisy themselves at night.
4/ No Strong Smells
As hamsters are extremely short-sighted, their sense of smell is the most important sense this animal relies upon. This means that a room filled with strong, external aromas will distract and distress a hamster.
If a hamster is overwhelmed with different scents (especially onion, lemon, or vinegar, all smells loathed by hamsters), it’ll struggle to differentiate what is unfolding in its environment.
5/ Dim The Lights
While wild hamsters occasionally emerge to forage for food in the daylight, captive hamsters are crepuscular. This means a per hamster needs to live in an environment with low lighting.
Bright lights hurt the eyes of a hamster, don’t subject the animal to high-intensity, overhead illumination. If the lights don’t have a dimmer switch, rely on lamps to see while you’re in a room.
Hamsters spend a lot of time in their cage, so ensure the habitat has entertainment. All hamsters will be keen to escape their cage, but if it’s bored this campaign will become more pronounced.
An exercise wheel is the first thing many people think of when it comes to hamster entertainment, but it’ll need tunnels, enough substrate to dig and burrow under, obstacles and apparatus to climb, and toys to keep it amused.
If you ask, “why is my hamster stressed in a big cage?” the answer likely revolves around plenty of space but little to do. Hamsters also enjoy novelty, so occasionally change up a cage’s layout.
7/ Settling in Time
When a hamster first moves into your home, it’ll live in a state of near-constant high alert. Give it at least 3 days to adjust to its new surroundings before you attempt to interact.
8/ Earn Trust
The more your hamster trusts you, the less likely it is to become stressed during its lifetime. Work to forge a bond with your hamster, making it clear that you don’t mean any harm.
The fastest way to gain a hamster’s trust is to use your voice around it. The more familiar your hamster grows with your voice, the faster it will accept you as a source of pleasure.
9/ Careful Handling
You’ll need to handle the hamster occasionally, even if it’s just to move it from one location to another.
Only pick up your hamster when necessary, and don’t lift it too high. When holding a hamster, use both hands to prevent it from bolting and falling. Then, put it down again as soon as possible.
10/ Set Routine
Hamsters relish routine, so bring this into the hamster’s life.
Learn when the hamster wakes up and emerges from its bed (usually around dusk), and establish a reliable chain of events from this point forth.
The ideal scenario will be to let the hamster out of its cage for exercise as soon as it wakes up. If the hamster knows this will happen, it’ll be increasingly excited for the start of its day.
11/ Out-of-Cage Time
No matter how large a habitat may be, the hamster must run around in a greater space at least once a day to avoid cabin fever.
The best solution is to create an external ‘playpen’ for the hamster. This could be a large cardboard box, a child’s sandbox, a plastic storage box, or even a bathtub.
Ideally, though, this playpen should also feature toys and obstacles.
Hamsters love to explore, so consider allowing the hamster to roam free around the home. However, hamsters are escapologists, so you have to hamster-proof the room.
Release the hamster for exercise and play as soon as it wakes up. The idea here is that it’ll exhaust itself while you’re awake. This way, the hamster will be tired and less active in its cage while you sleep.
12/ Regular Cleaning
Hamsters are fussy about personal hygiene, dedicating large parts of their day to grooming.
However, hamsters can find being regularly rehomed for a deep clean disturbing and unsettling. Start by spot cleaning daily, removing any soiled bedding and rotten food.
The hamster’s cage will require a deep clean, but try to limit this to once a week.
Can Hamsters Recover from Stress?
All hamsters are likely to experience stress at some point in their lives. The trick is to keep this to a minimum and to take action as soon as you notice the warning signs.
Physiology and Behavior confirm that hamsters can recall memories of social defeat and the fear and pain inflicted by these encounters. This suggests they’ll recall other traumatic experiences.
If the hamster calms down after a stressful moment, it’ll recover and return to its former state of contentment. Just remember that constant exposure is harmful to their long-term health.
Can Hamsters Die from Stress?
Stress can be fatal as it places unsustainable pressure on a hamster’s organs. It’s rare but possible for a hamster to have sudden heart failure if it hears a loud noise and has already been weakened.
It’s likelier that stress will compromise the hamster’s immune system, leaving it susceptible to sickness. Hamsters don’t have a long lifespan, but happy and contented hamsters are likelier to live for 2-3 years.
Life can be nerve-wracking for any small animal, especially one as defenseless as a hamster. However, owners can create a calm and stress-free life for hamsters by following some basic lifestyle rules.