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Though we generally think of mental health as a primarily human concern, animals can show signs of mental and emotional problems as well. Chronic nervousness, fear and anxiety are not uncommon among hamsters, and can cause your pet significant distress. Understanding the signs of anxiety is key to preventing your hamster from living a stressful life.
According to the American Psychological Association, anxiety is an emotion characterized by a sense of unease, apprehension, stress and fear that can lead to intrusive thoughts and even physiological changes. Though this definition typically applies to humans, some researchers have applied the same parameters to the study of anxiety in hamsters. In a 2005 study of hamster depression and anxiety from Ohio State University, tests for anxiety in hamsters were very similar to tests used by pharmaceutical companies to measure the success of anti-anxiety medication in animal studies before use on human subjects.
Hamsters are unable to communicate vocally with their owners, but they can still display their anxiety. Anxiety and stress in hamsters are characterized by hiding or avoidance behaviors like spending time near walls, in their nest boxes or under their bedding, as well as aggressive behaviors like biting handlers or other hamsters, a decrease in or lack of eating, or freezing when in your presence.
The causes of anxious behavior in hamsters can vary widely. Introduction into a new home with new people can make a hamster initially anxious, according to Sue Fox, author of "Dwarf Hamster Care," as can the presence of dogs or cats in the home. Anything that disrupts your hamster's daily schedule can also cause anxiety -- be it a lack of exercise opportunity, a lack of social contact, a change in household activity levels or noise, a change in feeding or cleaning schedules or the addition of visitors your pet is not familiar with. Research from Ohio State University also suggests that some hamsters are susceptible to seasonal anxiety, which is tied to the reduction of light during shorter winter days.
Depending on the cause of your hamster's anxiety, there are steps that you can take to make her feel less stressed. If your hamster is a new pet, she will likely need time to adjust to her surroundings. Sue Fox suggests that three weeks are necessary for a hamster to feel secure in her new home. In addition to allowing your hamster plenty of time to adjust to a new environment, you can also speak to her in a calm, soothing voice without attempting to touch her or cover part of the hamster cage with paper for the first few days. Maintaining a consistent schedule, speaking to your hamster before you pick her up or approach her cage, keeping her cage in a quiet and low-traffic space, providing toys to chew on and eliminating loud or sudden noises from the immediate environment are all ways to reduce a hamster's stress.
Unfortunately, steps to alleviate a hamster's anxiety are not always successful. Consult with an experienced veterinarian if your hamster displays chronic anxiety that does not seem to go away, or if her nervousness interferes with normal behavior, like eating or socializing.
- Hamster image by Annekathrin Kohout from Fotolia.com