If you find your hamster in a deep sleep, with a barely detectable heartbeat and breathing, you might be understandably worried. They’re probably in a state of torpor, which is a kind of emergency hibernation they use when it’s too cold or food is scarce.
While torpor is a natural adaptation, it’s a rare occurrence for domestic hamsters, who should be kept at an appropriate temperature and have consistent access to nutrition. While it won’t hurt them to hibernate for a few days, you should be monitoring them and doing what you can to return them to normal.
Read on to learn everything you need to know about hamster hibernation: what is normal for them in the wild; what’s normal for them in captivity; how long they should hibernate, if at all; how you should care for your hamster when they are hibernating; and when you should be concerned.
How Long Do Hamsters Hibernate In The Wild?
Hamsters are described as hibernating animals, but how they hibernate and for how long depends on the type of hamster.
European hamsters, which have adapted for cold winters, might hibernate for five months of the year. This is called true or obligatory hibernation. They will fatten themselves up in the summer when the weather is good and there is plenty to eat, and then in the winter will hibernate, waking up every five to nine days before re-entering hibernation.
In contrast, dwarf hamsters don’t have an annual hibernation cycle. They’ll enter short periods of hibernation, known as torpor, to deal with a crisis such as a severe drop in temperature or lack of food. They generally can’t hibernate for more than two to three days because they don’t have the food and liquid stores for extended periods without nutrition. This is also known as permissible or facultative hibernation.
Do Domestic Hamsters Hibernate?
Most domestic hamsters are breeds that don’t have a long hibernation cycle, so you should not be expecting them to hibernate for several months of the year.
Like wild hamsters, they may enter torpor, but this is generally a sign that something isn’t right with them. This is a response triggered by adverse conditions, so it probably means they aren’t getting enough heat, light, or food, or that they’re sick.
Read our beginner’s guide to owning a hamster.
What To Do If Your Domestic Hamster Is Hibernating
If your hamster appears as though they are in a very deep sleep, they could be hibernating. They may even appear to be dead as many of their bodily functions slow down. Their body may feel cool to the touch and may feel either limp or stiff. Their breathing and heartbeat can also be difficult to detect because they are significantly slowed.
If you find your hamster hibernating, fight the instinct to wake them up immediately. They need to come out of the hibernation state gradually and naturally.
The first thing to do is to check the temperature of their habitat. Domestic hamsters thrive at temperatures between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. If temperatures have dropped below this, it could be why they are hibernating. So, the first thing you can do is increase the temperature in their habitat. This should allow them to emerge naturally.
If there has been some kind of habitat crisis and they have been in the cold for an extended period of time, or temperatures have plummeted significantly, you might want to try and warm them up faster to prevent hypothermia. Never use electrical heaters, though, as there is a risk they could get burned. Instead, cup them in your hands and hold them close to you to share body heat.
A lack of light can also signal to your hamster that they should enter torpor, since it’s a sign of colder days coming. Ideally, their habitat should get at least 12 hours of good sunlight each day. If that is not happening, add artificial lights to create a more consistent day and night for your hamster.
The other reason they might go into hibernation is that they are not getting enough food. Hamsters should have access to fresh food and water daily and should get one to two tablespoons of food each day.
If they have not been fed, or they are refusing food, this could be why they are hibernating. Make sure they have access to food while they’re in torpor. They will want to eat right away when they wake up since they are unlikely to have the stored body fat to sustain extended hibernation.
There are many reasons that your hamster might not be eating. They are pretty sensitive, so any changes to their diet can cause them to turn their nose up at new or different food. Changes in their habitat can also create a level of discomfort that sees them refusing food.
While hamsters don’t like the cold, if it gets too hot for them they may aso refuse food, so check the temperature of their habitat.
A variety of medical conditions can also result in refusing food. Any dental problems can reduce appetite in response to the pain. Conditions such as flu, wet tail, and stress can also affect their appetite. Look out for accompanying symptoms such as aggression, diarrhea and vomiting, and excessive scratching.
How Long Should Domestic Hamsters Hibernate?
You should start checking and adjusting your hamster’s living conditions the moment they start hibernating to correct any issues. This is the only way that your hamster will naturally come out of hibernation, and they should not stay in torpor for too long due to risks of dehydration, malnutrition, and hypothermia.
That said, most domestic hamsters can hibernate for two to three days without any detrimental impact on their health. This is also the normal amount of time for torpor, so they should wake up within this period and, if conditions are good, stay up.
If conditions are good and your hamster is hibernating for more than three days, it’s time to contact your vet.
Hamster Hibernation FAQs
Can you wake a hamster from hibernation?
Don’t try to forcibly wake your hamster if they are hibernating. They need to naturally make changes to their bodily functions to bring themselves out of hibernation. Instead, provide them with heat, light, and food, and monitor them carefully to ensure they wake up and see the “crisis” is over.
How long can it take for a hamster to come out of hibernation?
A hamster might hibernate for just a few hours in response to a cold breeze and then be back to normal, or they might enter torpor for two to three days. Your hamster should naturally wake up from torpor within three days, and then stay awake if the conditions are good.
Some species will stay in hibernation mode for longer in the wild, as long as 10 days, but this is extremely rare among domestic hamsters. If your hamster is in hibernation for more than three days, it’s usually time to contact your vet.
Do hamsters smell when hibernating?
Hamsters should not smell bad when hibernating as they do not excrete while they’re in this state. If they start to smell bad, it is a sign that something else is wrong.
How long do hamsters sleep normally?
Hamsters actually need a lot of sleep and will sleep an average of 12-14 hours a day. But they don’t sleep for extended periods like humans; instead, they have polyphasic sleep-wake patterns, so they will have dozens of 10-20 minute snoozes throughout the day.
The information out there about hamster hibernation cane be confusing, because in the wild it is natural for some types of hamster to hibernate for several months, and all hamsters might enter a period of emergency hibernation, known as torpor, when conditions are unfavorable. But this information isn’t necessarily helpful when dealing with domestic hamsters.
Most domestic hamster breeds aren’t hibernating breeds, so they shouldn’t sleep for extended periods in the winter. Emergency hibernation is a response to a crisis, and domestic hamsters living in cushy conditions shouldn’t really be dealing with food scarcity or extreme drops in temperature. Of course, it can happen if they are refusing food for other reasons, or if extreme temperatures have caused an unexpected change in their habitat.
But, when it comes to domestic hamsters, it is a sign that something is not right with their living conditions, which has forced this response. Check their heat, light, and food supplies and make adjustments. If you can’t find the source of the problem, contact your vet.
Interested in other small mammals? Read our guide to guinea pigs.