I wanted to come at you with something a little different for Blogmas today, something that I care about a lot and hope you will find interesting/useful too! Many people don’t realize that I have a little old Syrian hamster and have had him for about 2 years now. I don’t tend to post about him too much, just as he’s a bit of a solitary wanderer who likes his space but now he’s definitely getting on in life I thought it would be helpful to do a little post about what it’s like to care for an elderly hamster, what adjustments you might need to make, and preparing yourself for the inevitable!
Faolan throughout his years: aged 4 months – 2 years
Hamsters do not tend to have very long life spans, living on average between 2-3 years, and are regarded as being elderly/senior at around 18 months-2 years. During this time, you may notice some changes in their behaviour and physical appearance which can be worrying for their owners. Please remember that all hamsters are different and as such age differently. Some breeds of hamsters may age more rapidly than others, and even individuals within a breed will go through the aging process differently. Knowing some of the aging signs can make this time easier for both you and your hamster to ensure you’re not unduly worried and to help make your little ones lives easier in their old age.
Once again, each hamster will go through the aging process differently so they may display some or all of these symptoms, and these can happen over varying lengths of times. Some hamsters may age very rapidly during the course of a few weeks, while others may only demonstrate changes over a period of a few months. Please remember, if you are EVER concerned about your hamster or your hamster displays very sudden changes, contact a vet immediately. Illness in elderly hamsters can be particularly serious due to a weakened immune system so it’s important to consult a vet sooner rather than later!
- Weight Loss – Elderly hamsters can look a little bit like a bag of bones or much slimmer than they used to be. This is quite normal although it is important to keep an eye on your hamster’s weight, weighing them if you can, to ensure that they are not losing weight rapidly.
- Mobility Issues – Hamsters may develop mobility issues due to stiffness in their joints and less muscle mass as they had when they were younger, causing them to tremble or fall over when moving around, and move around much slower than they used to.
- Coat Changes – Their coat tends to become a lot less shiny and fluffy, and they may lose some of fur and become a bit bald. If this happens, make sure to check the skin for any signs of skin infections or mites rather than assuming it’s age-related.
- Eyesight – They may experience a decline in their eyesight and find it harder to navigate because of this. Hamsters can also develop cataracts – a white filmy substance on their eyes. Always approach your hamster carefully, talking to them to let them know that you are there and lowering your hand slowly – never stick your hand in a hamsters face!
- Teeth – Teeth can become more brittle and they may find it difficult to eat. In this case, you may want to consider giving them soft food rather than their usual hard food.
- Breathing difficulties – This can sound like a wheezing or rasping noise, they may breathe more rapidly and loudly especially when they’re asleep. This can be a sign of a respiratory infection which can rapidly become more serious in elderly hamsters. If you can, check with a vet over the phone, rather than taking them out into the cold for a stressful trip to the vet. Faolan exhibited signs of breathing difficulties a few weeks ago and after contacting the vet we decided to wait a day or two under close supervision – turns out it was just a little cold but it is always important to take precautions.
- Sleeping Habits – Hamsters sleep A LOT anyway, but elderly hamsters may be inclined to sleep more and wake up at unusual times. This is normal for older hamsters, but again, always check to make sure your hamster has not gone into a state of torpor (hibernation) as a result of being too cold as it is extremely dangerous!
- Solitary – Older hamsters may become more solitary as they get older and want to spend more time sleeping than running around with you! Accept that your hamster may not want to be bothered too much and strike a balance between enjoying each other’s company and giving them some space. Please note that certain breeds, like Syrians, should always be kept as solitary pets and never with another hamster.
- Reduced Desire to Exercise – This one really depends on the individual. Some elderly hamsters show no interest in their wheel at all and some owners make the decision to remove the wheel from the cage, while others will continue to want to use it. Observe your hamsters behavior and react accordingly, but it may be better to leave the wheel in to give them the choice rather than decide for them.
- Hygiene – Older hamsters may become a little bit more messy, peeing in unusual spots (such as in their bed) or having a messy bottom. Check the cage daily for any signs of messy toileting and have a look at their bum to check it isn’t soiled. If they need any help cleaning it, you can clean it every day with a little cotton bud for them.
- Eating Less – Older hamsters may not need to each as much as they used to when they become less active. If this happens, encourage them to eat more by providing soft foods or more food. Always keep an eye on their food intake as lack of interest in food can also be a sign of illness!
Changes in cage layouts can be really important to consider as your hamster becomes older, especially if they display many of the symptoms listed above. With younger hamsters, you should always give them the biggest cage possible but this may be worth reconsidering with older hamsters if they are finding it hard to get around.
- Simplify the layout and textures – Many hamster owners are now using a lot of variety in their layouts and cage substrates which is really great as it provides lots of stimulation for them. However, elderly hamsters may find it hard to navigate different terrains, lots of obstacles and up/down levels. Consider making the cage much simpler or, if the cage is very big, you may want to consider moving them into a smaller cage. Avoid this if possible, as the sudden change in environment can cause more stress than help but it can be helpful for some.
Big natural cages are great for younger hamsters, but smaller cages may be a lot easier for older hamsters to navigate. Always provides lots of enrichment and that cages meet minimum cage measurements.
- Adjust ladders and tubes so that they’re not too steep for your hamster to climb
- Make sure food and water are within easy reach – If they used to be on a higher level, move them to the ground floor within each access of their bed (but not too close to minimise any water getting into their bed).
- Provide lots and lots of bedding – Put more substrate in and any paper-based bedding you provide them (always, always check that the bedding you use is safe. NO COTTON WOOL as it is a serious choking hazard). It’s important that elderly hamsters, like elderly people, are kept warm. Avoid any fluctuation in temperature and keep the room they’re kept in warm especially when it’s now so cold!
- Keep the cage clean – Check daily for any unusual toileting habits and that their bed is clean. Remove any soiled substrate or bedding and top up with fresh bedding. Avoid doing a complete clean too often to minimise stress for your hamster. Once every 2-3 weeks is enough to keep it clean!
All the information so far has been about keeping your elderly friend as comfortable as possible and this is obviously really important. But it is also important to look after yourself and face the reality of old age in a hamster. It is always hard to lose a pet, especially one who might be suffering from age-related illnesses or problems towards the end. The best thing you can do is to give them as much care as possible, ensure that they’re comfortable, make the best of the time you have left with them, and accept that they may die soon. It can be difficult to tell when a hamster will pass, sometimes they can live past 3 years old and other times they may only make it a month past the age of 2. Always prepare as early as possible to make the best of the time you have and so it will not be too much of a shock when they do pass. Remind yourself of the wonderful times you have had together, but also remember that sadly everything must die. Never feel ashamed at grieving for a pets death – reach out to others for support when it does happen and look after yourself as much as you looked after them.
We’re very lucky that, despite being over 2 years old now, Faolan hasn’t shown much sign of slowing down. Apart from his fur thinning, he seems as lively as ever and continued to run on his wheel, eat ALL the food, and climb up and down his cage with much enthusiasm. This won’t always be the way though, so we continue to check on him every day to make sure he’s getting on okay.
If you want any more information on caring for elderly hamsters or hamsters in general, I heartily recommend watching any of Erin’s videos over at ErinsAnimals on Youtube. She’s a fantastic owner who has been vlogging about hamster care for many years now and also posts lots of cute little blogs about her hamsters and gives cage tours! Hamster Central is also a great forum for hamster owners.