Winterize Your Hamster!
When the weather gets cold, we put on a sweater, maybe an extra pair of socks and turn on the heat in our homes. Even though they have a nice fur coat (usually) a hamster feels the cold, too. Remember that Syrian hamsters are originally from a very warm part of the world. Though hamsters have evolved some in the 60 years they have been commonly kept as pets, they still are not very used to our changing seasons. Sudden temperature drops can be very dangerous for them- as their bodies react drastically and they can slip into hibernation.
What is hibernation?
Hibernation is the slowing or stopping usual activity during the winter for some animals. Usually it includes the slowing of the animal's metabolism. Most commonly, people think of bears hibernating. Gophers, Ground Hogs, as well as some species of bats, frogs and snakes hibernate. Black and Brown bears are efficient at hibernation. They eat more in the fall and store lots of fat. While they hibernate, their metabolism, heart rate, breathing, all slows down so they do not burn as much energy.
Syrian hamsters, however, are not so good at hibernating. Mainly, they need to be awake so they can drink and prevent dehydration. They can, and do, slip into hibernation sometimes as a last-ditch effort to survive. In slowing down their heart rate and breathing, they conserve energy and produce a little more warmth, but the need for water is still there.
Dwarf hamsters are not known to hibernate. They originate from very cold places like Siberia and very high in the mountains of Mongolia and China. Domesticated, however, they are not free to burrow deep into the ground to find warmth. The same precautions should be made for all hamsters to keep them from getting too cold.
What causes Hibernation and how to prevent it?
Hibernation, most commonly, is caused by an extreme drop in temperature. However, even a slight change in temperature, combined with lack of food or water can trigger hibernation. Even in warm months, a hamster with no food might fall into a deep sleep to conserve its energy. A hamster can fall into hibernation in a matter of hours. You should check your hamster morning and night for activity during colder months.
No one has control over the weather, unfortunately. Considerations must be made, however, for your hamster's comfort. At all times, keep your hamster's cage out of drafts. Check to see if the room your hamster is housed in is not cooler than other parts of the house. You may need to let him winter in a different room, or take steps to bring the room temperature higher. Electric space heaters are relatively inexpensive, and made to be safe, but they are difficult to maintain a constant temperature with. A good idea might be a heating pad under the cage. Heating pads for humans, though, are not designed to stay on full time and present a fire hazard. You can buy a reptile under-tank style heating pad for around $10-15. They are self-regulating and safe to leave on around the clock. It is best to either place the pad under one corner of the hamster's cage or to raise the cage about one inch and place the pad beneath. This will help the hamster stay warm, but not too warm. Heated rocks for reptiles are not safe- not even for reptiles- and can often melt the plastic of a cage or cause burns on feet and bellies.
Do not think that just because your hamster has built an enormous and cozy-looking nest that they are not going to be at risk of hibernation. In fact, an uncharacteristically large nest may be a clue that your hamster is trying desperately to keep warm in a cold room.
What are the symptoms of hibernation?
Many people remark that on first glance, the hamster appears dead. Looking closely, you will notice that it is still breathing, though not very strongly. The hamster will be very limp, as opposed to the stiffness that occurs soon after death. It will also be very cold to the touch. Check feet and noses and ears- places with less fur- and they will be quite icy.
What do I do if my hamster goes into hibernation?
Three things are key to bring a hamster out of hibernation- getting them warm, keeping them awake, and rehydration.
Immediately bring the hamster into a warm room. If possible, place the hamster on a heating pad or hot water bottle with several layers of towel between the hamster and the heat source. You may want to cover the hamster partly, too, to try to trap the heat next to their body. Rub the hamster- not roughly, but vigorously. The friction will help to warm them as well as wake them up.
A medicine dropper or syringe is always helpful to have around when you have pets. You will want to try to get the hamster to drink. Once awake, there will be little change at first, but offered liquid, a hamster will try to swallow or lick at it. This is a very good first sign. Children's Pedialite, a drink containing fast energy-producing electrolytes, is even better than water. If you do not have any Pedialite on hand, you can add one teaspoon of sugar to one cup of water. The sugar will add a boost of energy and the flavor will be more tempting.
As the hamster begins to perk up more- to the point of actively drinking and opening their eyes a little, you might need to add some safe, soft foods to grab their interest and help to keep them awake. Baby foods, mashed potatoes, fat free chicken broth, oatmeal, pureed vegetables- anything they can lick off your finger is good. Just make sure you stick to the safe food list. Continue to offer the liquid as well. Keep some soft toilet paper on hand as it is very absorbent. Mop up any dribbles, as being wet is not going to help your hamster get warm.
What else should I expect?
In the beginning, your hamster will be totally limp. It probably will lay flat on its belly, its limbs outstretched. As your hamster begins to wake up some, you will notice slowly increased movement and control. First will be the eyes opening a bit and it may twitch its whiskers or nose. Then your hamster may soon be able to lift its head briefly, working up to where it will be able to hold its head up for some time. As wakefulness continues, your hamster may pull its limb beneath it, sitting quite crouched. Eventually, they will take slow steps to getting to their feet and wobble around a bit until they eventually have complete control of their body.
Some time around the point where your hamster is no longer lying flat, it may begin to shake and shiver quite a bit. It is very disconcerting to watch, but be assured it is quite normal. As his body temperature rises closer to normal, the muscle tissue begins to twitch or spasm awake. It may take as much as an hour to get to this point, but as long as some progress is being made, and you continue with the constant warming, rubbing, and feeding, he should continue to improve. It may take three hours or more before he is able to walk around again, but rest assured, he will be himself again very soon, as if nothing had happened. If there have been no increased signs of life and strength within the first half hour to hour, but you are certain he is still with you, then you will probably want to take him in to the emergency vet straight away.
What sort of after care will my hamster need?
Once your hamster is to his feet, place him back in his cage in a warm, quiet place. Be sure he has plenty of food and water and leave him to finish recovering on his own. You may want to add half Pedialite to his water for the next two or three days for added energy. Now will be the time to take steps to insure that he will be quite warm. Give him plenty of fresh bedding and/or toilet paper to build a nest with. He will still be quite weak, so he will be grateful if you help him shred it. He may want to sleep, or he might be more interested in food and water. At any rate, you should check on him every hour for the next half day or so to make sure that all conditions are favorable and he has not tried to slip back into hibernation. Do not be surprised if he is up running in his wheel or picking up on his favorite activities again in just a few hours.