Most captive hamsters are native to desert conditions, so digging is a natural behavior. While a pet hamster was almost certainly born in captivity, it’ll retain instincts that drive it to burrow.
Wild hamsters spend up to 23 hours underground per day, only rising to the surface to occasionally forage for food. Remaining under the desert sands protects a hamster from the heat and light of the daytime sun or the cold of the night and predatory animals.
Digging and burrowing is good exercise for hamsters. They’ll create tunnels in bedding to hoard food, avoid overstimulation from light and noise in a home, and stay sufficiently warm.
Why Do Hamsters Like to Burrow?
Burrowing is an instinctive behavior for hamsters, with various explanations. If you wonder, “why is my hamster digging so much?” here’ are the answers.’s why:
Exercise and Recreation
Life can be dull for captive hamsters, and your pet can only pass so many hours running on an exercise wheel. Burrowing and digging is another way to pass the time while satisfying their wild instincts.
The Journal of Ethology explains how a Syrian hamster in its natural environment will spend just an hour a day above ground, spending the remainder under the sand.
Captive hamsters will still be nervous when first brought into a home. A hamster will likely spend some time burrowing and remaining out of sight until it grows in confidence.
Biology Letters confirms that captive hamsters, especially Syrians, are invariably nocturnal, which will be reflected in their behavior.
Bright light hurts the eyes of a hamster and causes a sense of panic. In the mind of a hamster, light equals daytime, which means that predators will be active.
Warmth and Privacy
Some hamsters burrow and hide under the substrate for rest and some privacy. Hamsters won’t flourish in a noisy room, so burrowing is a chance to block out the external stimulus.
Some hamsters sleep under the substrate for warmth, comfort, and security.
While adult hamsters usually live alone, they’re still driven by an instinctive urge to bury and hoard food supplies. You’ll find that a hamster stuffs its cheek pouches with food and creates hidden food caches.
This is a natural behavior, but you’ll need to regularly check and change the substrate. Any perishable food left to rot can become a bacterial hazard.
How Deep Do Hamsters Burrow in the Wild?
Hamsters build a complex range of tunnels underground. Some hamsters burrow as deep as one meter underground, but more commonly, they’ll cease burrowing at around two-thirds of this distance.
Essentially, burrowing for wild hamsters is to negotiate terrain without rising to the surface. This helps hamsters avoid detection by predators, including birds of prey, snakes, and desert mammals.
Hamsters are extremely short-sighted, so negotiating the world underground is no more challenging than it would be on the surface. Wild hamsters rely on their senses of smell, touch, and hearing.
Burrowing in Pet Hamsters
Most hamsters will be driven to burrow in captivity, so the onus is on you to make this happen. Consider housing a hamster in a solid glass tank rather than a cage because this will minimize mess.
You can create a cage partition, with one side of the habitat containing more substrate than the other. This way, you won’t end up with one side of a tank bare and the other piled high.
Another approach is to create a burrowing box for the hamster by taking a tissue box and cutting a hole in the bottom. Fill the box with substrate and place it in the hamster’s habitat.
What Is The Best Hamster Bedding for Burrowing?
The substrate mustn’t be toxic to hamsters, as some bedding will be pouched or swallowed as food will be buried within. The ideal material will meet the following criteria:
- Nothing should be scented because this causes sensory overload, making terrain negotiation hard.
- No dust that’ll cling to a hamster’s fur and irritate the nose or eyes.
- Can withstand digging and burrowing without collapsing, trapping a hamster under the substrate.
With these considerations in mind, shredded kitchen paper, hemp shavings, or soft hay mixed with a bedding topper are best for burrowing hamsters.
Why Do Hamsters Dig in Corners?
Hamsters are good at escaping and frequently seek a way out of their enclosures. Burrowing in a corner is likely an attempt to dig its way out of a tank, as the hamster hopes to create a tunnel to freedom.
Why Has My Hamster Stopped Burrowing?
If a hamster seems happy and content, a lack of burrowing isn’t a cause for concern.
Any sudden behavioral change is more concerning. While burrowing isn’t essential to survival in a captive hamster, the activity won’t cease without an explanation.
Not Enough or The Wrong Substrate
While hamsters enjoy novel experiences, the new bedding may be unsuitable for digging. The activity will cease if the hamster finds burrowing difficult or painful.
The substrate may also make a hamster nervous, especially if it has an unfamiliar scent. Remember that hamsters rely on their olfactory senses to understand and maneuver around their surroundings.
A hamster that suddenly stops burrowing may have an injury to one or more of its paws or legs. Common signs of a hamster injury include the following:
- General lethargy and sleeping more than usual.
- Limping or reluctance to place weight on a particular leg or paw.
- Squeaking when moving.
- Uncharacteristic aggression when handling, including hissing or biting.
- Loss of appetite and disinterest in grooming.
If you suspect the hamster is hurt, visit a veterinarian.
As hamsters get older, they become increasingly sedentary.
A hamster aged 18 months or older is entering the final months of its lifespan, and behaviors will change. Digging and burrowing will be among the first activities to cease.
Older hamsters tire easily and will not waste energy on anything considered non-essential. As older hamsters move with reduced intensity and frequency, they burn fewer calories and eat less.
Monitor an older hamster’s body temperature, ensuring it remains warm enough to be comfortable.
Do Hamsters Burrow When They Die?
Hamsters won’t necessarily burrow under the substrate when they reach the end of their lives. As discussed, a senior hamster may lose interest in the effort involved with burrowing.
Hibernation in hamsters is known as torpor, and many owners mistake hibernation for death.
As The The Journal of Comparative Physiology explains, hamsters look to dig underground and hibernate in temperatures of 43OF or less.
If a hamster is burrowed and isn’t responding to stimuli, uncover it and hold a mirror in front of its nose. If fog appears on this mirror, the hamster is breathing and thus hibernating.
In this instance, steadily increase the ambient temperature and hold and stroke the hamster.