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When you get a pet hamster one way or another, either from a visit to the pet store, a child’s friend, or perhaps a school project, you might wonder, how long should we expect to have this fun, furry pet? How long do hamsters live? Hamster lifespan depends on a number of factors and this article should answer all questions related to hamster lifespan you might have.
So, how long do hamsters live?
Average lifespan can vary based on hamster breed. The Syrian, or Golden, hamster average longevity is 1.5-3 years.
Dwarf hamsters typically live 1.5-2 years. The “Dwarf” category contains the Campbell’s, Winter White, and Roborovski breeds. They often get lumped together due to their small size. Further references to Dwarf hamsters in this article will refer to the three breeds together, except where specifics are noted.
Finally, the Chinese, or Gray, hamster average lifespan is 2-3 years but some have lived up to 4 years. They are thought to live a little longer in the wild than in captivity. This might be due to the less varied diet and exercise in captivity.
Although some have lived as long as 4 years, hamsters have a very high metabolic rate – 76 beats per minute with a heart rate of 250-500 beats per minute. It’s easy to understand why the average lifespan is 24 months with these biological processes.
Choosing a Healthy Hamster
If you have the luxury of picking (instead of your six year old brining one home from a friend’s house, for example), look for one with bright eyes and an inquisitive attitude. Look for a full, even coat and take a look at its behind. Any signs of wetness could be “wet tail” (covered further below).
As you hold the hamster, run your fingers down its body – from the neck, down through the shoulders and back. If you feels any lumps or tender spots, that could be a sign to move on to another.
Obviously, the younger the hamster, the longer you will enjoy its company (lifespan by type discussed below). Side note – you will have a better chance of bonding from a young age as well.
Sex of the hamster really doesn’t matter too much when it comes to longevity unless you plan on breeding. However, remember if you plan to have more than one hamster you should plan on separating them once they reach maturity. Hamsters of opposite sex will fight and mate, same sex will fight.
The one exception to this is the Roborovski hamster (dwarf breed). They do live well in same-sex pairs, particularly if they are introduced to each other when they are young.
The Hamster Life Cycle
Gestation length (length of pregnancy) is 15-18 days with a litter size of 5-10 pups. Male Syrian hamsters reach maturity at 8 weeks. Female Syrian hamsters reach maturity at 6 weeks. The average lifespan is 1.5-3 years.
Hamster pups begin nibbling food at about 10 days old and are generally fully weaned by 3 weeks.
The Dwarf hamster category contains the Campbell’s, Winter White, and Roborovski breeds. For these hamsters, gestation length (length of pregnancy) is 18-25 days with a litter size of 4-6 pups on average. They reach maturity at 2 months and have an average lifespan of 1.5-2 years.
The one exception of the dwarf breeds is the Roborovski hamster with a slightly longer lifespan of about 3-3.5 years in captivity. Though they have also been known to live as long as 4 years.
Chinese, or Gray, Hamster
The Chinese, also known as Gray hamster, have a gestation length (length of pregnancy) of 19-21 days with an average litter size of 6 pups. These hamsters have a lifespan of 2-3 years.
Other Info Related to the Hamster Lifecycle
Pet (i.e., captive) hamsters can produce young about every month. However, fertility decreases in winter months and as the hamster ages. Generally, around 15 months fertility slows (but doesn’t stop).
Once they have reached maturity, hamsters should be separated from each other (and other animals). If different sexes, they will mate and fight, or if the same sex, they will fight. You’ll know they are fighting by the sounds (usually late at night) of tussling and shrieking. Smoke detectors needing a battery change in the middle of the night it enough – just separate your hamsters in their own housing.
Increasing the Lifespan of Your Hamster
Hamster husbandry can actually be pretty simple, particularly compared to other animals (looking at you, ferrets). Ultimately, though, any pet takes some work to maintain and provide a happy, healthy and full life. We will go through many of these aspects briefly here but will also make many of these topics the subject of post (or two) on their own. Like this article on hamsters cleaning themselves.
The easiest food to buy your pet hamster is commercial hamster food (our list of the best hamster foods). Supplementing with a few healthy treats, such as hay (timothy or alfalfa), fresh fruits, fresh vegetables or chewy treats sold in pet stores may be given but should be limited to not more than 10% of their total diet. A diet that provides your hamster with 12-15% protein, 3-6% fat and the remainder carbohydrates is well balanced.
Be on the lookout for any feed containing sunflower seeds and/or nuts. The hamsters will choose seeds and nuts over the more nutritional components, which can lead to obesity and calcium deficiency.
If you are hoping to extend your hamster’s longevity and health span, do not feed them high sugar foods. Dried fruits or molasses seed mixes can lead to cavities and the loss of teeth and abscesses. Hamsters need their teeth to live a long, healthy life.
Lastly on the list of things to be careful about are leafy vegetables. Though hamsters can eat almost any fresh fruit or vegetables, any leafy vegetable larger than a square inch can cause diarrhea.
Healthy treats your hamster will enjoy include (offer once or twice a week):
- Dry cereal – lowest in sugar. Cheerios seem to be one of the lowest in sugar we have found
- Eggs – scrambled or hard boiled (no salt!). Eggs provide some good protein
- Dog biscuits – the hard texture keeps the hamster busy (and teeth worn down) and they are high in protein
- Whole wheat bread
- Uncooked pasta – works those teeth!
And of course, be sure your hamster has access to fresh, clean water. The bottle should be cleaned daily to keep your hamster free of infections. We used our household water/vinegar mix in a squirt bottle to wash the bottle then rinse thoroughly.
Vitamins and Mineral Supplements
When it comes to vitamin and mineral supplements, you might think they would extend your hamster’s life. If your hamster is eating a commercial (non-seed) feed as previously discussed, that should be a complete diet for your furry friend.
If you are feeding your hamster a seed mix, they are picking and choosing what they eat. In this case, you might consider a supplement to ensure a complete diet for your hamster. You can pick up a supplement at your local pet store and they are usually added to food or water.
You can always make a food mix on your own. We will write a post on this in the future but you have to be sure you are providing the right balance of protein, fat and carbohydrates and vitamins and minerals.
Exercise and the Wheel
Everyone knows about the stereotypical hamster wheel. But do we know how necessary they are or if they help our pet hamsters live longer, healthier lives?
A couple of research studies have been conducted trying to answer just this question. In one case, they wondered if having a wheel in a pet hamster cage would influence litter size in female hamsters (Gebhardt-Henrich, Vonlanthen, Steiger, 2005). Their thought was that litter size could be a determinate of overall health in that healthier female hamsters produce larger litters of pups.
They found that litter sizes in hamsters with access to a running wheel were significantly larger potentially due to the hamsters being in better physical condition.
Additionally, they noticed less wire gnawing, or bar mouthing, activity as well as a decrease in cage climbing activity. Wire gnawing and cage climbing are considered stress responses in hamsters with poor housing conditions. They concluded that anything decreasing these activities, including access to a wheel, is beneficial to hamsters.
Other studies have looked at the importance of wheels for lab hamsters and providing an enriched environment. They have found they do lead to an enriched environment for hamsters, though the amount of benefit acquired can be hard to determine.
A couple tips regarding the wheel. Get a quiet wheel so any squeaking or noise doesn’t disturb you at night, when your pet will being the majority of its running. Also, if your hamster has long hair, keep it trimmed enough that it doesn’t get caught in the wheel (ouch!).
Finally, if you do buy one of those spherical balls for the hamster to run around your house, be careful around stairs, in direct sunlight, around kids and other animals.
Types of Wheels
A quick note on the type of wheel. We are planning on an entire post about wheels but for now it is good to know there are three types of hamster wheels commonly available at a pet store or online: mesh wheels, wire wheels, and solid wheels.
Since hamsters spend so much time on their feet, which are pretty delicate, a solid wheel is the way to go. As mentioned, I will speak further about this but this video explains the differences well and why a solid wheel is advantageous for your hamster pet (she starts with a great wheel pun but it’s not really that long and you get everything you need in the first couple minutes):
In 2007, researchers conducted a study to try to determine if cage size had an effect on hamster welfare. They looked at a number of stress related behaviors of Syrian hamsters: wire gnawing, use of their roof as shelter for the additional space, use of open space, and weight gain.
Check out our guide on the best hamster cages when it comes time to choose one.
All the stress symptoms increased with the smaller cage size. Although hamsters gnawed on the wire in all four cages sizes, they did it less the larger the cage and for shorter durations.
Additionally, in larger cages, they used their roof less often for shelter and instead used their open cage space more regularly.
Hamsters valued their wheel running time regardless of cage size.
So, as pet hamster owners, what can we glean from this study?
Generally, larger cage sizes are better for our hamsters. They will exhibit fewer stress-related responses with more space.
What is considered a large cage? In this study, the hamsters exhibited the least amount of wire gnawing at 10,000 cm squared (for us Americans, that’s roughly 10 square feet).
After reading this study, we realized our own cage was a bit on the small size for our family hamster. In an effort to provide him with the healthiest and happiest life, we upgraded to a larger cage (more on that in a later post) that isn’t quite 10 square feet but it is larger.
Here’s a good example of a DIY large hamster cage:
Finally, cage placement is an important consideration as well. Make sure it is in a quiet part of the house, perhaps in the corner of a room. Somewhere removed from constant loud noise and little hands reaching into their space.
Consider easy access for accessing the cage both to socialize with the hamster but also for cleaning. Hamsters are nocturnal and sensitive to light. Although constant light is too much, enough light to determine daytime from nighttime is important as well.
Finally, don’t put the cage in direct sunlight and risk overheating.
Hamsters do not pant or have sweat glands. For this reason, it is important to keep your hamster’s environment to between 75-85 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and between 40-60% humidity. A cool part of your home in the warm months is probably best.
Although relatively easy to care for, hamsters are very sensitive. If there is anything that will make your little guy or gal miserable, it is stress. In an effort to expand the healthy, happy life of your hamster, keep a few stressors in mind.
Here is a list of things that make cause significant stress in a pet hamster:
- Transporting your hamster
- Too small cage (see above cage size and stress response)
- A noisy environment, such as a cage in a noisy area
- Constant exposure to bright lights, disrupting their circadian rhythm
- Other household pets intruding on their space
- Handling or attempting to handle the hamster when it is burrowing, hissing or eating
As you spend more time with your hamster you will get to know its mannerisms and signs of stress (or calmness). As with humans, stress is exhausting. Consistent and persistent stress will eventually lead to breakdown of the systems in the body.
Additionally, the small intestines have a delicate flora balance that stress can throw off. When overwhelmed, a bacteria called Lawsonia intracellularis can take over and lead to wet tail (more on wet tail in the next section).
In addition to breakdown of the systems and wet tail, persistent stress can lead to depression, just like in people. A depressed hamster will either avoid food or overeat and becomes inactive.
With all of the negative effects of stress on hamsters, it is important to consider helping your friend avoid unnecessary stressors. As we have already discussed, provide a large enough cage (remember, 10 square feet is ideal), a good diet, a cage placement in a quiet part of the house, and access to clean, fresh water all go a long way to a cool, calm and happy hamster.
Remember, bathing your hamster is almost never necessary. A good sand bath should take care of any grooming needs outside of their normal self-care.
Diseases Affecting Hamsters (and Their Longevity)
The most common disease afflicting hamsters, particularly young hamsters, is “wet tail.” This disease, proliferative ileitis, is the most significant intestinal disease of 3 to 10 week old Syrian hamsters and results in high mortality. It’s caused by a bacteria, Lawsonia intracellularis, and is known as “wet tail” due to the diarrhea the hamster experiences. Go to the Merck Veterinary Manual site to review more information on “wet tail”.
If your young Syrian (AKA Golden) hamster is experiencing diarrhea, it calls for a trip to the vet. Treatment involves correcting life threatening electrolyte imbalance and dehydration, administering antibiotics and force feeding.
Diarrhea in adult hamsters is also serious and can be caused by a bacterial infection as well. Death may occur as early as 24 hours after the appearance of wet tail symptoms. It’s highly recommended that you visit your vet shortly after get your new hamster as hamsters tend to be the least hardy of the small rodents when newly acquired.
Routine Health Care of Hamsters
One way to maximize how long your hamster lives and its quality of life with your pet hamster, is to visit the vet as soon as you acquire the pet (or even before). An early health checkup assures the hamster coming into your home healthy. An early vet visit also establishes a basic medical record which your vet can then use in keeping your pet healthy and in treating any medical conditions which may arise.
Signs of Illness
How to tell if your hamster is sick:
Diarrhea (“wet tail”)
Loss of appetite or weight
Discharge from the eyes, ears, or nose
- Scruffy hair coat or hair loss
Spending time with your pet every day. Not only do you form a good bond with the hamster but you will then notice any changes in your pet’s routine or any of the signs and symptoms above. As mentioned with the wet tail, please take your hamster to the vet if you have any suspicions they are sick.
Hamsters have incisors that grow continuously throughout their lives. Hamsters need food and other things to chew that allow them to wear down their teeth naturally. Overgrown teeth can cause loss of appetite, drooling and weight loss. Your vet may need to trim your hamster’s teeth down on occasion if they aren’t worn from normal eating and gnawing.
The good news is hamsters tend to have fewer dental problems than many other rodents. It is a good idea to ask your vet to check your pet’s teeth for overgrowth and other problems.
Hamsters are notorious chewers and may chew on wires, carpet and base boards. Also, since they are so small, hamsters are easy to step on and even small children weigh enough to seriously injure or kill a hamster by crushing it underfoot. Hamsters should be kept safe from larger household pets such as dogs and cats. It is not recommended that you let your hamster out of its cage to run around the house or outside.
Wrapping it up
Although hamsters do not live much longer than 3 years at the high end, there are certainly things you do and provide to help ensure a long, healthy and happy life for your pet. We will work through many of these topics in full detail in later posts but we hope this is a good start and provided well researched, appropriate and applicable information for you and your hamster and most importantly answered the question, how long do hamsters live? Hope to see you back soon!
Merck Manual – Veterinary Manual. Hamsters by Thomas M. Donnelly, BVSc, DVP, DACLAM, DABVP(ECM). Accessed: https://www.merckvetmanual.com/exotic-and-laboratory-animals/rodents/hamsters
University of California, Davis – Hamster Care Sheet. Accessed: http://vetmed.ucdavis.edu/vmth/local_resources/pdfs/cape/Hamster_Care_Sheet.pdf
Bartlett, Patricia. The Hamster Handbook. Hauppauge, NY: Barron’s, 2015
Hill, Lorraine. Hamsters A to Z. Neptune City, NJ: TFH, 2001
Wołczuk K & Kobak J. (2014). Post-natal growth of the gastrointestinal tract of the Siberian hamster: morphometric analysis. Anat Histol Embryol , 43, 453-67
Katerina Fischer, Sabine G. Gebhardt-Henrich & Andreas Steiger. 2007. Behaviour of golden hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus) kept in four different cage sizes. Animal Welfare 16: 87 – 95.
Gebhardt-Henrich SG, Vonlanthen EM and Steiger A. 2005. How does the running wheel affect the behaviour and reproduction of golden hamsters kept as pets? Applied Animal Behaviour Sciences 95: 199-203
Reebs SG & Maillet D. 2003. Effect of cage enrichment on the daily use of running wheels by Syrian hamsters. Chronobiol Int, 20:9-20
Würbel H. Ideal homes? Housing effects on rodent brain and behaviour. Trends Neurosci., 24 (2001), pp. 207-211
Arnold CE, Estep DQ (1990) Effects of housing on social preferences and behaviour in male golden hamsters IMesocricetus auratus). Applied Animal Behaviour Science 27, 253-61
National Research Council (US) Subcommittee on Laboratory Animal Nutrition. Nutrient Requirements of Laboratory Animals: Fourth Revised Edition, 1995. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1995. 5, Nutrient Requirements of the Hamster. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK231928/