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Hamsters Activity At Night

The nocturnal nature of hamsters is rooted in wild ancestors who adapted to being active at night for better survival.

Martha Boden
Posted: December 18, 2014, 8:40 p.m. EST

Syrian hamster
© I-5 Publishing
in the wild used the darkness of night to help them survive.

Q: Why do hamsters stay up at night?

A: We call people who are active late into the night "night owls,” and for those people hamsters would seem to be the perfect pet. It’s ironic, because if any animal were to make an appearance in a hamster’s nightmare, it might be the owl — a bird that is also nocturnal and thrives on a diet of small rodents. But that leads to the answer to your question. It’s because hamsters are so vulnerable that they become most active when the sun goes down.

Hamsters might more accurately be called crepuscular, rather than nocturnal, meaning that they’re more active at dusk and dawn than in the wee hours or during the day. Dwarf varieties come closer to this activity pattern; and very generally speaking, Syrians tend to be more traditionally nocturnal. To get a clearer picture of what led to hamsters being nocturnal, let’s focus on Syrian hamsters in their native habitat.

Desert life is difficult for humans and animals alike. Water is scarce, which means vegetation is scarce. Hamsters are primarily vegetarian, living on nuts, fruits, seeds and grain. Look at who their neighbors are: birds of prey that, unlike the owl, hunt the desert skies by day. Big cats prowl the open spaces, and snakes dart out from among the rocks. They’re besieged in every direction by animals with excellent vision that instinct has attuned to movement, and because there’s little brush to hide in, they’re extremely visible. They also don’t move especially fast, and apart from their sharp but tiny teeth, they have very little physical power to defend themselves.

So nighttime is the hamster’s friend. Their vision is poor, many are nearly blind, but their sense of smell is extraordinary. They can follow a trail of scent to a patch of vegetation like the legendary bloodhound, and their hearing is nearly as good, so they can halt in their tracks and seek cover if danger approaches in the form of padding feet. The desert is cold at night, so the hamster’s layers of fat and fur serve it well, unlike the naked snake, which must lie out in the sun to regulate its body temperature. Hamsters have one other skill in their kit, and that’s the endurance to run long distances. Again, there’s not much food on the desert floor, and they are known to run as far as 5 miles per night, foraging for provisions. So when your hamster keeps you up all night running in his wheel remember, he’s on a mission!

That’s how the species came to adapt to nocturnal life. Any who couldn’t weren’t likely to have offspring. But when people ask me about this characteristic of hamster life it’s usually because they’re concerned that they can’t spend enough quality time with their pet. There’s a remedy for this that’s not guaranteed, but generally offers good results. When you clean the dish and change your hamster’s food each day (which you should be doing; you can learn more about hamster daily feeding and fresh food), time it as consistently and as early in the evening as possible. Consistency is crucial. Your hamster won’t always respond to fresh food, as hamsters tend to pouch and cache food near where they sleep for the express reason that they dislike being awakened, but most will be stimulated by the aroma of new food and the prospect of playtime. Especially when they’re young, they’ll orient their internal clock around this event, and hopefully let you set the schedule to one that’s a bit more convenient for you.

Like this article? Check out:
Understanding Your Hamster's Sleep Schedule
Hamster Facts And Answers
Hamster Health Center
See all questions and answers about hamster behavior 
See all questions and answers about hamster health 
See Martha Boden's author bio

Posted: December 18, 2014, 8:40 p.m. EST

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