The purpose of this blog is to share general information and is written to the author's best knowledge. It is not intended to be used in place of veterinary advice. For health concerns, please seek proper veterinary care.
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A few weeks ago found myself in an odd situation with a hamster that made me wonder about hamster’s acting ability. My daughter came into the room with sad eyes, telling me she thought her hamster was dead.
She was so sad, but when I went to look, the hamster was fine and eating. So that made me wonder, do hamsters play dead?
When a hamster is stressed, anxious, or gets a fright, they can play dead. In the wild, they use this dramatic technique as a defense mechanism. Domesticated hamsters still have and use this ability. It may look like an award-winning performance, but it’s an instinctual behavior they can’t control.
After discovering my hamster could give Oscar winners lessons on acting in fake death scenes, I wanted to know more. I researched several species of animals that play dead, and hamsters are among them. I thought I would share what I found about hamsters playing dead in this post.
Do Hamsters Play Dead?
Hamsters, like many other small mammals, can play dead. It’s a natural behavior that helps keep them alive in the wild. I had no idea that hamsters were so good at acting. When my daughter’s hamster thought a moth wanted to attack, it dropped to the floor, tongue sticking out of the side of its mouth and legs stiffly in the air; I was so surprised at how real it looked.
Why Do Hamsters Play Dead?
Hamsters play dead when they get a sudden scare, are stressed, depressed or anxious. In the wild, hamsters would use this technique as a defense mechanism. It’s an involuntary natural reaction to fear and stress. This act of playing dead or looking shocked when it’s scared is called thanatosis.
Hamsters have not been domesticated for long, with the pet hamster craze only starting at the end of 1939 when breeders thought hamsters made good pets. Playing dead or thanatosis is in their DNA, and domestication has done nothing to curb their body’s natural protective instinct.
Hamsters in the wild developed this protective method because their predators are not scavengers and don’t eat dead prey. The natural predator that hamsters have to deal with are snakes, hawks, eagles, and owls. These predators will usually leave the hamsters alone if they think it’s already dead.
How Does Thanatosis Work?
The way thanatosis works is when a hamster senses danger, whether real or perceived, and is out in the open with no place to hide; its body stops all voluntary movement. It leaves the hamster with a frightened/shocked look; they fall on the spot and appear dead.
Their breathing is also so shallow that it looks like they have stopped breathing, adding to the authenticity of the act. When the danger has passed, or the hamster feels no threat, it can move again and go on as nothing happened.
Is It Dangerous to the Hamster’s Health to Play Dead?
Hamsters play dead because they are scared, stressed, or anxious. They are easily frightened, and an innocent act of picking them up too quickly can cause them to play dead. While it can look funny when they act dead, you should never intentionally try to make them play dead.
It is very stressful on their bodies, putting them in a constant state of fear and anxiety. None of us like feeling that way, so we shouldn’t do that to our hamsters. It’s essential to learn to move slowly, so your hammy knows you are coming, don’t sneak up on it or try to scare it.
The other issue is when you aren’t sure where your hamster is, and you intentionally scare it, it might be busy climbing, so when their body reacts to the fright and the hamster freezes in place, it might fall and get severely injured.
How Would You Know If Your Hamster Is Dead?
There is nothing worse for a pet owner than checking if a pet is dead. Unfortunately, it goes hand in hand with having a pet hamster. Because hamsters can play dead when they are frightened, and they can hibernate, it might look like they are dead when they are pretending; here are a few ways to tell if your hamster is dead and not playing or hibernating:
Hamsters Get into the Fetal Position
One of the signs a hamster has unfortunately died is when you see your hamster curled up in the fetal position. A dying hamster will go to a corner of the cage where it feels safe and lay on its side with its head bowed, and front paws curled into its chest. Its back paws will be near the front paws, and the hamster will curve its back inwards.
Hamsters do sometimes sleep in a similar position, but if your hamster is still in this position when at a time in the day when it’s usually active, it might be dead.
When a Hamster Is Dead, Rigor Mortis Sets In
Another sign that your hamster is dead is that Rigor Mortis will set in. So when you pick up your hamster, it will feel hard and stiff. As Rigor Mortis takes hold, the muscles in your hamster’s body lose elasticity and will become stiff and rigid; the body will stay in the position that it died in, and it will feel cold to the touch.
You can check for Rigot Mortis by moving a limb up and down; if the limb feels stiff, unyielding, and won’t easily bend, then your hamster is likely dead.
Check Your Hamster’s Breathing and Heartbeat
When a hamster is dead, you won’t see it breathing. You will need to look carefully for signs of breathing because when a hamster plays dead or goes into hibernation, its body slows down its breathing to about a breath every two minutes or so.
Because of this, you won’t quickly tell if it’s breathing or not, so it might take a few minutes to be sure. One way you can tell if your hamster is breathing is by putting a small mirror up to its nose (yes, it’s cliché, but it works). If you don’t see any vapor on the mirror, the hamster has stopped breathing and has passed away.
The other thing that you need to check is the heartbeat. You place your finger on the hamster’s chest and feel for a heartbeat. Your hamster is likely dead if you don’t feel a heartbeat after a full minute.
Check Your Hamster’s Temperature
The body temperature of your hamster can also help you determine if it’s dead. When you touch your hamster’s body, and it feels cold to the touch, no matter where on the body you touch it, then it has probably passed away.
Check for Signs of Movement
It might sound silly and obvious, but limb or body movement is the last thing you can check for. When you have done all the other checks, and your hamster still has not moved, twitched, or made any attempt to move its eyes, this indicates death.
Is the Hamster Dead or Hibernating?
In cold winter weather, your hamster can go into hibernation. It’s a natural way hamsters stay alive in cold climates in the wild. Should your hamster hibernate, and how to tell if it’s hibernating or dead? I was curious about this, so here is what I found.
Hamsters enter into a form of hibernation called torpor. Torpor is the same as hibernation, with torpor only being for a shorter time. When the temperatures change from warm to cold, a hamster will start to show signs of torpor or hamster hibernation.
Hamsters will go into torpor or hibernation if the temperature falls below 65F. Hamsters prefer temperatures between 65-75F. Not all hamster species have the same hibernation pattern. So you need to be sure what type of hamster you have so you can check more accurately if your hamster is dead or hibernating.
Dwarf hamsters don’t usually hibernate, European hamsters are true hibernators, and they can hibernate for days or even weeks at a time, and Syrian hamsters only hibernate under certain circumstances. Lastly, you need to know if you have a male or female hamster because females hibernate for a shorter period than male hamsters.
Signs to Tell If Your Hamster Is Hibernating
Hamster hibernation or torpor can leave you wondering if your hamster is doing ok; here are some signs to look for when a hamster is hibernating:
- Hamsters in torpor or hibernation will sleep for hours or even days at a time in colder temperatures.
- A hibernating hamster will slow its breathing down to a breath every two minutes so that you can check to see if you see it breathing.
- When a hamster hibernates, you can check for a heartbeat by placing a finger on each side of its torso where its elbows are and feel for a heartbeat; remember they slow its heartbeat down, so you need to keep your fingers there for at least a full minute.
- Before they go into torpor or hibernation, they will gorge on food as if their life depends on it; it helps them store enough fat for the hibernation.
If you have been keeping a close eye on your hamster and given more food and kept its enclosure nice and warm but see in the summertime, it’s not moving; you need to check; your hamster might have passed away before or during hibernation, or it was not hibernating.
Is Hibernating Dangerous for Hamsters?
Domesticated hamsters should not hibernate. Hibernation can be dangerous to hamsters who are not living in the wild; hamsters can quickly go into hibernation. If they didn’t have enough food and water before hibernating, they could easily die of dehydration.
You can wake your hamster up from hibernation by doing the following things:
Get the Hamster to the Vet ASAP
As soon as you realize it is hibernating, take your hammy to the vet. Try to warm it up on the way with a warm cloth and massage its muscles to try and wake it up. If it wakes up before you get to the vet, give it a few drops of water with an eyedropper to combat dehydration.
Wake It Up at Home
If you can’t get to the vet when you realize your hamster is in hibernation, you need to get a vet on the phone for instructions. While you are calling, you can wrap a warm water bottle in a towel and place the hamster next to it with a blanket over it to keep the warmth in.
It will need water as soon as it wakes up; you can help the hamster by giving it a few drops with an eyedropper. It would be best if you got it to a vet as soon as possible to get intravenous fluids etc.
How Can You Prevent Your Hamster from Hibernating?
Hibernation is not good for the health of your hamster, and it would be better to stop it from hibernating in the first place; here are a few tips to help keep your hamster from hibernating:
- Regularly check on the temperature; hamsters need a temperature between 65-75F to feel comfortable.
- Don’t put the cage in large open areas that can get too cold or near windows in the winter months.
- Ensure your hamster has enough bedding, food, and water because lack of food and water combined with cold can lead to hibernation.
- You can get heating pads for your hamster cage that can keep the temperatures just right in wintertime.
- Keep an eye on blankets and bedding; if you see the hamster building a giant nest and moving slower than usual, it might be going into hibernation, and you need to get it warmed up(not too hot) and massage its tiny body to keep it awake.
If you find your hamster is not moving, there are several reasons that you need to look at, like playing dead, hibernation, and, unfortunately, actual death. It will be fine after a few minutes when it plays dead, but hibernation or death is different. You must know how to tell the difference between hibernation and death.
If you don’t feel a pulse or see breathing within a 2-minute window, you need to consult a vet as your hamster might have died. If you do see breathing, it’s probably hibernating, and you need to wake it up. You can take the hamster to the vet or call a vet to get further instructions.