Being able to tell if your hamster is dead or hibernating is important.
Because we have all heard of instances when hamster owners nearly buried their little pets alive thinking they were already dead.
Some hamsters hibernate during extreme cold seasons and you might be forgiven to think that being cold and motionless is a sign your hamster is dead.
— BBC (@BBC) November 28, 2017
So, how do you tell if your hamster is dead and when it is in a hibernation state?
Is my hamster dead or hibernating?
Below we will highlight ways to help you tell if your hamster is dead or hibernating. First, let’s start with how to tell a hamster is just hibernating.
1. Hamster is still breathing
If your hamster is still breathing then it means it’s hibernating. During hibernation, a hamster’s breathing rate slows to as little as one breath every two minutes.
You need to take your time to carefully observe whether the hamster is still breathing, which could mean one inhalation/exhalation every one or two minutes.
An easier way to do this is to hold a mirror close to the hamster’s nostrils. If after a few seconds or at most two minutes you notice a small buildup of mist on the mirror, it indicates the hamster is still breathing.
2. The hamster still has a heartbeat
Having a heartbeat means your hamster is not dead but hibernating. Telling if a hamster has a heartbeat can be hard because their breathing slows down to minimize energy usage.
Place your forefinger and thumb on either side of the hamster’s chest, apply gentle pressure, and wait for a minute or two. If you feel a pulse then it indicates the hamster is still alive but in a hibernation state.
3. The cheek pouch is warm
You can also confirm your hamster is hibernating by feeling the cheek pouch which should be warmer than the rest of the body.
During hibernation, the hamster’s body temperature will drop to match the ambient temperature. However, the cheek pouch will remain warmer than the external body parts.
4. Observe if there’s a twitch
Even during hibernation, a hamster can still manifest minute reflexes. To confirm this, gently stroke the whiskers and check to see if the hamster twitches. If you notice a twitch then he’s alive but in a hibernation state.
PS: You can read our previous post on signs of a dying hamster and ways to help your hamster in his/her final days.
What does a dead hamster look like?
Now that you know how to tell your hamster is not dead but hibernating, below are the tell-tale signs of a dead hamster.
1. Being in the fetal position
This is the most common way to tell if a hamster is dead. A dead hamster will be motionless and in the fetal position where the head will be close to the front paws and laying on one of its sides.
You will also notice that the back paws will be close to the front paws with the tail tucked in. The hamster will also be curled up a lot more than when in a sleeping position.
If you find your hamster in this position, especially at a time when they are most active such as at night, it is most likely dead.
2. The body is stiff
The state when the body becomes stiff after dying is called rigor mortis. The hamster’s muscles will become stiff and the body will feel harder than it usually is.
Every part of the hamster’s body cannot move easily. To confirm this is the case, try pushing a single part of the hamster’s body, such as the forelimbs.
If you do this and the whole body moves rather than just the limbs, it means the hamster is dead and rigor mortis has already set in.
3. It’s completely unresponsive
A hamster being completely unresponsive can be a sign it is dead. You should, however, take time to confirm your pet is completely unresponsive because a hibernating hamster shows little to no reflexes even when stroked.
If the hamster is unresponsive, is in the fetal position and the body is stiff, your pet has likely passed away.
4. There is no heartbeat
Lack of a heartbeat simply means a hamster is not hibernating but is dead. We have mentioned above how you can check for a hamster’s heartbeat just to tell if it’s hibernating or not.
If a hamster has no heartbeat, isn’t breathing, and is unresponsive, it is dead.
5. No signs of breathing
Hamsters have a fast breathing rate, which makes it easy to notice when they inhale and exhale air. However, if a hamster is dead then you won’t see any of these.
A hamster in a hibernation state will display very minute signs of breathing. That’s why you need to take more time to confirm because the hamster could be hibernating.
As earlier mentioned, a hamster in hibernation has a low breathing rate as slow as one heartbeat every two minutes.
Here’s a short video explaining hibernation in hamsters. Video courtesy: SnakeFootScience.
Why do hamsters hibernate?
Temperature fluctuation is the main determinant that makes some hamsters go into hibernation. Hibernation largely depends on breed, genes, and/or environment.
Hamsters often hibernate when kept away from daylight for long hours, to survive extremely cold temperatures, and due to fluctuating food supplies. Hibernating hamsters are in danger of dying from dehydration, insufficient calories, and hypothermia (where the body is losing heat faster than it can produce).
Do all hamsters hibernate?
Not all hamsters can hibernate. For example, Syrian hamsters originate from desert regions and hibernate to survive extremely low temperatures below 60°F (15°C). On the other hand, Dwarf and Russian hamsters do not need to hibernate as they are well adept at surviving cold conditions thanks to their longer, thicker coats.
There are two types of hibernators. Permissive hibernators, such as Syrian hamsters, hibernate depending on conditions such as low temperatures, shortage of food supply, and being kept in a dark room for long. Obligatory or seasonal hibernators always hibernate in the winter based on their body clocks regardless of environmental conditions.
How long do hamsters hibernate?
On average, hamsters hibernate for 2 to 4 days. However, with a continued lack of enough food, water, warmth, or light, they may remain in hibernation for up to a week or longer. It’s advisable to keep the room warm and ensure there is enough daylight to help pull them out of hibernation.
Can hibernation kill a hamster?
Yes, hibernation can kill a hamster. If a hamster remains in a hibernation state for too long in extremely low temperatures, they are likely to suffer from fatal hypothermia where the body will lose heat faster than it can produce. Hamsters also do not store extra calories or enough water to survive an extended hibernation state.
Do hamsters hibernate with their eyes open?
Hamsters can hibernate with their eyes open, half-closed, or completely closed. Different hamsters will look different when in a hibernation state, which largely depends on factors such as breed and genes. All hamsters, though, will still be limp and mildly responsive when hibernating.
Do hamsters go stiff when they hibernate?
No, hamsters do not go stiff when they hibernate. A hibernating hamster will be limp and mildly responsive. If a hamster that has been in a hibernation state becomes rigid, unresponsive, and cold, it is highly likely he’s already dead.
How to get a hamster out of hibernation
You should never attempt to forcefully bring your hamster out of torpor hibernation. Try warming the room with room heaters to raise room/cage temperature to above 64.4°F (18°C) while exposing them to plenty of daylight.
You can also hold the hamster close to your body to keep them warm. Alternatively, place a water bottle with warm water underneath the hamster’s beddings to raise their body temperature.
As you raise the room temperature and your hamster’s body temperature, you can also give them a gentle massage with your fingers to get the blood circulation going.
How to stop hamster hibernation
The easiest way to stop hamsters from going into hibernation is by keeping the room temperature above 60°F (15°C) and ensuring they get enough daylight, food, and water. While you can prevent permissive hibernators from going into hibernation, there is little you can do with obligatory hibernators because their hibernation is based on instincts and body clock rather than environmental conditions.
The bottom line, though, is to keep your hamster warm, well-fed, and in a room with enough daylight. This will help reduce the chances of a permissive hibernator going into a state of hibernation.
Permissive hibernators hibernate due to extremely low temperatures and as a result of food, water, and daylight shortage. To confirm if your hamster is dead or hibernating, check for breath, heartbeat, minor reflexes, and a warm cheek pouch. A dead hamster has a stiff body, is completely unresponsive, has no heartbeat, and will often be in the fetal position.