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Successfully calming down a stressed hamster depends on the cause of their stress. The first goal should always be to identify the cause and (if possible) remove it. The next step is to alleviate your hamster’s symptoms by helping them to feel safe.
As small “prey animals” (animals are often eaten by larger animals in the wild,) hamsters are remarkably sensitive to their environment. Knowing when to flee is a matter of survival and it’s an instinct that isn’t simply going to vanish due to domestication.
This hypersensitivity to their surroundings and the natural “flight” (as in “fight or flight”) response often causes domestic hamsters to feel stressed in a variety of situations (particularly when they are unable to flee.) As Hammy parents, it’s our job to reduce that stress as much as possible.
Signs Of A Stressed Hamster
If you are new to hamsters, you may not be able to immediately identify signs of stress in your hamster. We recommend looking for the following signs of stress:
- Pacing or repetitive behavior
- Climbing the bars of the cage
- Escape attempts
- Biting the bars of the cage
- Biting you when you reach into their cage
- Being overly active
- Losing hair
- Snorting, grunting, or shrieking noises
Identify The Cause
There are more than a few things in our everyday environment that can cause a hamster stress. These include:
- Poor socialization
- Loud noises
- Sudden movements
- Sudden change
- The inability to shelter or hide
- Handling your hamster
- Illness or pain
- Lack of space
If you have a brand new hammy or you have rescued a hammy from a less than ideal situation, they may not be used to being handled. This lack of socialization means that when you reach in to touch your hamster, they don’t know what is happening. They see a large hand coming towards them and the instinct is to run and hide or bite.
If your hamster begins to show signs of stress due to poor socialization you have to invest time in desensitizing them to your presence and your touch.
When your hamster first comes home, give them time to adjust. To give them time to adjust leave them be to explore their new hamster cage and get used to their surroundings. As they become more comfortable, gradually introduce some treats.
Start offering treats by feeding them by hand through the bars of their cage. As they feel safe with this arrangement, begin placing the treats on your hand and offering them inside the cage.
As they become more comfortable, move the treats further into your hand so that your hamster must climb up to reach them.
Let your hamster get used to climbing on your hand – don’t try to grab them or pet them. Spending time investigating your hand and making the association with treats is very important for your hammy.
As your hamster gets comfortable on your hand and exploring, try gently picking them up and hold your hamster. Don’t be surprised if they run, but be patient. Soon enough your hamster will realize that you mean no harm and being with you means getting treats!
Another common reason that hamsters will become stressed is when they have “cage troubles.” Oftentimes this means that their cage is too small, but it can also be that their cage is in an area of the home that is too loud or too busy.
Begin by looking at the size of your hamster’s cage. The Humane Society of the United States recommends a cage that is at least a 2 sq. ft. wire cage for one hamster– although bigger is better!
If your hamster’s cage is too small, you may notice them climbing, biting, or hanging from the bars. They may also try to escape at any chance they get.
Resolving cage size problems is easy enough – invest in a larger cage!
If your hamster’s cage is in a busy area of the house or in an area where it gets particularly loud, you will notice stress patterns worsening when activity worsens in this area of the home.
Resolving cage positioning problems is also quite easy – put your hamster’s cage in a quiet area of the home where life doesn’t get so busy!
Illness And Pain
Another common reason for stressed hamsters is illness. If your hamster is ill, its normal habits may change, or you may notice physical changes.
Make sure that you regularly check your hammy over for any changes such as cuts, abrasions, growths, discharges, etc. If you find any physical signs of illness, head to your vet right away.
If your hammy is showing non-physical changes but you have ruled out cage troubles, socialization issues, and boredom (we will cover this below,) head to your vet for a physical (to check teeth, parasites, and bloodwork in particular.)
It’s also important to mention here that when hamsters become stressed, they can cause physical manifestations of that stress. For example, wet tail. In this situation it can be difficult to determine the order of things – did the stress cause wet tail or did illness cause diarrhea? In either scenario, it is best to head to your vet for treatment and supportive care.
Once your hammy has received any necessary care from their vet, take stock of their cage and environment at home – could this have caused them stress? Make changes if necessary!
Lastly, hamsters also frequently feel stressed when they are bored! Like any other living thing, hamsters need mental stimulation as well as physical exercise. If you aren’t giving your hamster enough stimulation, they are going to get bored and begin showing signs of stress like hair loss or pacing.
Some great ways to reduce hamster stress due to boredom are to:
- Provide plenty of chew toys and switch them out periodically.
- Incorporate exercise toys or obstacles into their environment.
- Add grapevines to the bottom of their cage for a new texture.
- Scatter their food around their cage and encourage “foraging.”
- Make sure your hammy has the appropriate substrate for burrowing.
- Add hamster-safe dried flowers to their cage.
Is Your Hamster Still Showing Signs Of Stress?
Above are some of the most common causes of stress in hamsters, but there are other possible causes that we did not cover. For example, Syrian hamsters must be kept as solitary pets, and being forced to live with another Syrian will result in fighting as well as stress.
If your hammy seems stressed, but none of the above explanations seem to fit, it’s time to talk to your vet. Take note of your hamster’s behavior, when their behavior changes, and any triggers that seem to set them off. Share this information with your vet and they will be able to help you to find answers!