Hamsters: Hibernation and Torpor

black hamster hiding inside a yellow cap
20 August 2020 Pets4Company

Did you know that your hamster can hibernate? Know the causes and risks of hibernation in hamsters!

Hibernation and torpor in hamsters are two natural processes little understood by most owners and capable to cause even a few moments of distress!

Firstly it is important to distinguish these two processes. We mean by torpor the ability to enter a temporary state of hibernation. It is a short-lived process that aims to enable the hamster to preserve its internal resources and survive in times when the climate is very cold or when food is scarce. The torpor can last from a few hours to a few days , and often happens without the owner realizing it.

During that time, their bodies require significantly less energy.

There are several biological processes that occur during torpor in hamsters:
  • The hamster metabolism slows down significantly.
  • The hamster breathes less and its heartbeat is almost nonexistent.
  • Body temperature drops.

If conditions do not improve, the hamster may enter complete hibernation which is not a desirable state.

WARNING: If not detected in time, this process can also lead to hypothermia and even death.

white and beige Syrian hamster eating broccoli

What signs should I look for to make sure my hamster is still alive?

As the state of torpor mimics death, many owners have mistakenly thought that their pet had died when, in fact, it was only in torpor. It can be difficult to detect signs of life when they are in that state.

Here are some signs you should be aware of before "confirming" that your hamster is dead:
      • Shallow breath. A hamster can breathe only a few times per hour since breathing slows down during hibernation. You can put a small mirror or spoon in front of its nose to see if it fogs up. If that happens, even a little, it is a sign that the hamster is still breathing.
      • Hamsters don't move much during hibernation, but there may be some subtle movements like spasms of the whiskers or slight body movements. You can try to pet your hamster to see if it causes any kind of physical response.

      • Look at its members. Are they soft or just a little stiff? If you can extend its limbs effortlessly, your hamster is likely to be hibernating and not dead. If the limbs cannot be bent or extended, or if significant effort is required to do so because of severe rigidity, this indicates that the worst has happened and that your pet is in rigor mortis.
      • Look into its eyes. Although it seems impossible, hamsters may be in torpor with their eyes wide open, half open or partially open. The vague look and emptiness of an  hamster in torpor certainly seems alarming, but it is not necessarily an indication of death.

russian hamster sitting eating a treat

What behaviors indicate that your hamster is about to hibernate?

Some behaviors of your hamster may be indicative of its intention to go into hibernation or, more precisely, in a state of torpor. These behaviors can appear suddenly, as it can take only a few hours of cold temperatures, combined with a lack of food and water, to cause hibernation. The most telling symptom that your pet is about to go into hibernation is when it hides in the nest. The hamster can dig deeper or make the nest larger and more comfortable or in a more sheltered place in its cage to guard itself during hibernation. You may also see your hamster tremble moments before entering torpor.

How can I prevent my hamster from going into torpor?

      • Regulating the temperature - hamsters are animals from arid and desert areas. For this reason, the temperature should not be below 15ºC, and some species may go into torpor at higher or lower temperatures depending on the characteristics of each species.
      • Food and water always available - studies show that a shortage of food and water will cause hamsters to enter hibernation. The same studies show that hamsters who were able to store large amounts of food in nests and hiding places did not enter torpor as easily as the rest who were unable to do so.

white and beige Syrian hamster

My hamster is in Torpor. What should i do?

Warm it up! Upon discovering your hamster in this state you will see that its body is colder than normal. The most important thing will be to warm the hamster gradually. It is recommended to connect a heater in the room where it is located without reaching the hamster too close to the heat source. You can also hold the hamster in your hands or close to your chest, using your body heat to wake it up slowly. Take this time to massage it gently and help restore blood circulation.

Provide food and water. When coming out of torpor your hamster may be very hungry. Most domestic hamsters do not have adequate fat reserves to hibernate since they have not had time to prepare. Provide small portions of food at the beginning to prevent them from overeating. Dehydration is another concern that hamsters owners in hibernation should take into account. When your hamster has just come out of torpor, introduce the water slowly and in small portions, with a dropper or syringe, to make sure it can drink safely.

See a Vet! All of this can be done before taking your hamster to the vet, although the vet can provide additional water and food to ensure that your  hamster will be healthy after hibernation. A professional can also detect other problems such as hypothermia. Even if your hamster looks wide awake and alert after leaving this state, it is advisable to take him for a check-up. After this ordeal, your hamster will probably be a little stressed. After returning from the vet, make sure it has food and water and leave it alone. Avoid cleaning your cage and handling it excessively until everything is back to normal.

russian hamster being fed with a spoon

Final Note!
All of this suggests that something may not be right in your hamster's habitat and that it's time to review the entire set-up and environment. Of course, sometimes there are situations that are beyond our control, such as extreme temperature variations without warning or even changes in your hamster's metabolism (age derivatives or health problems). In the end the most important thing is the health of our little ones!