Most hamsters only live for 2-3 years, which is less than most pets. While their short lifespans are unavoidable, unsuitable living conditions could be why hamsters keep dying young.
While you can’t always prevent medical conditions, you can keep a hamster healthy. This can be achieved with a nutritious diet, mental enrichment, exercise, and a stress-free environment.
Why Do Hamsters Die Young?
If you can’t keep hamsters alive for long, you may wonder, “Why do hamsters die easily?”
Before getting a hamster, it’s important to realize that hamsters seldom survive beyond their third birthday. Here are the average life expectancies of different hamster species:
|Hamster Species||Average Lifespan|
|Roborovski||3 to 3.5 years|
|Chinese||2 to 3 years|
|Syrian||2 to 2.5 years|
|Campbell’s Dwarf||2 years|
|Winter White Russian Dwarf||1.5 to 2 years|
|Hairless||6 months to 1 year|
Small animals like rodents are ineffective at maintaining their biological processes, so they die younger. Over time, the body’s cells and tissues become less effective, resulting in shorter lives.
Procreation is essential to the species’ survival because they’re heavily preyed upon in the wild. Consequently, they’ve evolved to focus on reproduction, not long-term survival.
There are many reasons why hamsters live short lives, including the following:
A hamster hiding and shaking is likely a scared animal with an elevated heart rate.
- Loud noises.
- Unexpected handling.
- Exposure to bright lights.
- Predatory pets like cats.
- Insects near the cage.
As small prey animals with poor eyesight, hamsters are easily shocked and scared by almost anything.
Stress weakens the immune system and exacerbates existing health conditions like heart problems. Sudden death occurs when hamsters are continually exposed to stressful conditions.
An illness related to stress is Tyzzer disease. According to the MSD Veterinary Manual, stress precipitates the bacterium Clostridium piliforme, characterized by liver lesions and liver failure.
Hamster mites are tiny arthropods that attach themselves and burrow into the skin to lay their eggs. Small, red bumps on the skin characterize the presence of mites.
The most problematic mite species include the following:
- Demodex mites.
- Notoedres mites.
- Sarcoptic mites.
Mites cause significant distress, leaving hamsters vulnerable to fatal illnesses. Mites must be treated with Ivermectin drops as they won’t go away on their own.
Early anti-parasite treatment minimizes the risk of hamsters getting sarcoptic mange.
Hamsters are omnivorous animals that eat plants and insects. Unfortunately, not all food is safe for hamsters. This includes the following:
- Onions (thiosulfate).
- Raw rhubarb (oxalic acid).
- Garlic (indigestion and blood disorders).
- Chocolate (theobromine poisoning).
Some fruit seeds (like cherries, apricots, plums, and peaches) contain cyanide. When feeding hamsters fruit, remove the stones and pips to prevent cyanide poisoning.
The following heart conditions cause hamsters to die young:
- Polymyopathy: A recessive gene that weakens the muscles, resulting in heart failure.
- Cardiomyopathy: A recessive gene that affects the heart muscles.
- Atrial Thrombosis: Follows heart failure and causes blue feet and rapid breathing.
- Congestive Heart Failure: The heart muscles can’t circulate blood around the body.
A vet can do little for heart conditions but can manage the condition for a while.
Heatstroke and dehydration are two related fatal conditions in the most severe cases.
Direct sunlight is a particular issue because it causes hamsters to overheat. Similarly, hot weather quickly raises the room’s temperature, so provide adequate ventilation in the summer months.
The optimal temperature for hamsters is 65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit (18-23 Celsius).
Accidents are a common cause of sudden death. Freak accidents can happen in an enclosure, even if you’re careful where everything is positioned.
According to Ohio State University, hamsters experience symptoms of depression, particularly during winter when there are limited daylight hours.
Hamsters unhappy in their cages are also at risk of becoming depressed. They may reject their food until they die, but it’s just as likely that depression renders them more vulnerable to fatal illnesses.
Another problem hamsters face is that unsuitable, dusty substrates cause respiratory issues. The following substrates are widely considered dangerous and inappropriate for pet hamsters:
- Wooden and paper pellets.
- Cedarwood shavings.
- Cat litter.
- Chinchilla sand.
Prolonged exposure to these substrates affects hamsters’ lungs, eventually resulting in pneumonia. Substrates that harbor mold, like corn cob, are also harmful.
- Soiled, wet bottom.
- Greasy fur.
- Increased appetite.
- Excessive drinking.
- Foul-smelling cage.
While treatable with antibiotics and intravenous liquids, most hamsters with wet tail die within 48 hours.
Also known as pyo, pyometra is an infection of the uterus or womb that affects female hamsters. Open pyo is less severe, while closed pyo is more commonly fatal.
It occurs when blood and pus accumulate within the body once the cervix is closed. The discharge remains in the body, causing the abdomen to protrude.
Unfortunately, it’s usually too late at this stage, and the hamster soon dies of blood poisoning due to the toxins and bacteria spreading throughout the body.
Tumors are a common cause of death in hamsters. Tumors, growths, and abscesses are commonly the result of cancer and infections.
They grow alarmingly quickly, pressing on organs until they eventually cease functioning. Likewise, hamsters rarely survive anesthesia, so surgery is seldom possible.
Cushing’s disease is another fatal condition in hamsters. It affects the brain’s pituitary gland, causing irregular hormone production. The illness is incurable. The main symptoms include:
- Dry, flaky skin.
- Thinning fur or bald patches.
- Skeletal muscle waste.
- Impaired movement.
- Weight loss.
- Loose skin.
- Increased thirst.
- Increased urine production.
- Patches of dark pigmentation on the skin.
- Cuts, scabs, and wounds, sometimes becoming infected.
Most owners aren’t familiar with Cushing’s disease, meaning it often goes undetected.
Hamsters bred in rodent mills are likelier to have bad genes. The parents could have had various diseases, but you’ll never know because this information is unavailable.
If a hamster dies shortly after you bring it home, it may be older than you think.
It’s difficult to tell hamsters’ ages because they live such short lives. Similarly, you don’t know how long the hamster’s been at the pet store.
Owners can return their hamsters at some pet stores if they can’t care for them, meaning they may already have a past life you don’t know about.
How To Make Hamsters Live Longer
You can keep a hamster healthy and maximize its life expectancy in the following ways:
Unhealthy diets cause hamsters to die young. Replicate a pet hamster’s diet to prevent avoidable health conditions. Provide a diet that comprises the following:
- White meat.
- Lean red meat.
Avoid giving hamsters toxic foods, even if they’re safe for human consumption.
Hamsters can travel up to 6 miles each night, foraging for food and evading predators.
Captive hamsters lack the same enrichment to keep themselves busy, so owners must provide entertainment to prevent boredom, stress, and depression. Options include:
- An exercise wheel that measures at least 28 cm in diameter.
- Cork logs and tunnels.
- Plenty of bedding, with the highest section being at least 8 inches.
- Different substrates for hamsters to explore.
Stereotypies like bar biting and monkey barring are signs of stress. Do whatever you can to minimize a hamster’s stress levels, as this can prevent illness and disease.
Check for Illnesses
Monitor the hamster, especially when you first bring it home. If the hamster doesn’t seem itself or isn’t as energetic as you’d expect, take it to a vet for a check-up.
While hamsters don’t have long lifespans, they bring joy while they’re with us. Provide a healthy diet and safe environment to keep a hamster healthy and prevent accidents.