Why Does My Hamster Run Back and Forth?

Hamsters are highly active animals that need plenty of opportunity to run, but a hamster that runs back and forth obsessively may be suffering from issues beyond excess energy. As a responsible pet owner, it’s important to take stock of your hamster’s lifestyle and health before dismissing this behavior as normal.

So, why does my hamster run back and forth? A hamster may run back and forth because it is stressed or bored or because its habitat is too small. Running in a repeated loop, pacing an exact pattern, or spinning in circles may indicate a neurological disorder that can be traced to genetics.

This article will examine all of the known reasons hamsters may run back and forth. We’ll take a look at curable issues like boredom and stress and how you can address them. Then, we’ll dive into genetic disorders that can cause obsessive running as well as what you can do to minimize their expression in your pet.

Your Hamster is Bored

One of the most common reasons hamsters will run back and forth in their cage is that their life lacks enrichment, and they are bored. Thankfully, this is also one of the easiest problems to treat. Bored running may include repetitive circuits of the cage, including any tunnels and toys that are provided. Your hamster may have a manic appearance as it dashes here, there, and everywhere.

photo provided by @misohammy

Other Symptoms of Boredom

Along with the running and pacing, a hamster may exhibit other symptoms to clue you in that it is bored. If its cage has barred sections, your hamster may chew and jerk on the bars. In a smooth-sided cage, it may repeatedly stand on its hind legs as if trying to climb out.

A bored hamster may eat far more than it needs, just to have something to do. If your hamster always seems to be hungry, especially if it’s gaining unnecessary weight, boredom may be the culprit. If these behaviors fail to alleviate a hamster’s boredom, it may withdraw, sleeping for long periods of time when it would usually be active or seeming disinterested in its surroundings.

Weight-gain and lethargy can also be symptoms of illness or poor diet, so you don’t want to automatically assume they’re connected to boredom. Always check with your vet if you’re unsure.

Dangers of Boredom

A state of boredom is a very unhappy one for a hamster, which can lead to increasing stress and behavior abnormalities. This stress can lead to illness or become so habitual that your hamster is no longer eating, sleeping, or interacting normally.

Boredom behaviors that accompany manic running, like chewing the bars can also negatively affect your hamster’s health by damaging its teeth or causing mouth sores. Overeating or withdrawal can cause obesity, along with a long list of connected issues.

Your Hamster is Stressed

Hamster pacing can also be a sign of stress. If you recently brought your hamster home, it may just need to get used to its new surroundings. A hamster also may be stressed by loud noises, by having its sleep constantly interrupted, or by the presence of other household pets.

Small or Dirty Habitat

One of the most common causes of stress for hamsters are enclosures that are too small or too crowded. Many cages sold for hamsters are actually inadequate for their needs.

Although a little saucer-shaped dome with tons of twisty tunnels make look like fun, it can be claustrophobic for many hamsters. Hamsters naturally enjoy a few tunnels, but they also need open spaces in which to run around and explore.

A hamster may also become stressed in a habitat that is not being cleaned often enough. Their sensitive sense of smell can quickly cause a small or unsanitary cage to become almost unbearable.

Other Hamsters

Syrian hamsters—and often Chinese hamsters, as well—are solitary creatures that can become very stressed if housed with other hamsters. It’s best for them to be kept alone. Dwarf varieties like Roborovskis and Winter Whites can be kept in small groups, but even with these breeds, a hamster can easily be stressed by its companions.

Keeping hamsters together demands careful introductions—usually when the hamsters are still babies. You’ll also need to make sure your habitat is plenty large enough for them to get away from one another if they wish and offer separate food dishes.

Additionally, you need to be careful about the sex of hamsters you’re keeping together. Mixing sexes can lead to territorial behavior—and babies. Males are also prone to territorial fighting, even if no females are present.

No matter how many precautions you take, hamsters may still struggle to get along in a shared habitat, and one or more may become noticeably stressed, leading to fighting, cage running, and other stereotypic behaviors.

Dangers of Stress

It’s important to watch for signs of stress and remedy your hamster’s situation as soon as possible. These behaviors will only become worse with time, and your hamster’s health and wellbeing can degenerate quickly.

Your Hamster Has a Neurological Disorder

If stressed by an unsuitable habitat for too long, a hamster can develop a full-blown case of cage rage. Syrian hamsters are especially prone to this disorder as they can grow quite large, and few commercially available cages allow them enough space.

Symptoms of Cage Rage

Running back and forth or racing wildly around its cage is one of the earliest symptoms of cage rage. It may be accompanied by bar biting, excessive marking of territory, and aggression. This behavior will progressively become more and more erratic.

Other symptoms include odd sleeping patterns, excessive hoarding of food, red eyes, and ruffled fur. A hamster with cage rage may lunge or bite when you try to open the door or pick it up. It may destroy items in the cage and even injure itself trying the escape.

Spinning and Stargazing

While cage rage is a disorder that develops over time, some hamster breeds are prone to another neurological disorder that can also cause obsessive running, pacing, and spinning.

Often known as “stargazing” or “spinning,” this disorder is most often caused by genetics, but it can also be caused by a brain injury, tumor, or ear infection. It’s most common in dwarf hamster varieties, especially Winter Whites.

A hamster with stargaze may involuntarily stand on its hind legs, looking upward over and over. It may even flip over backwards. Racing back and forth in an established pattern or loop and running in tight circles are also signs of this disorder.

How to Prevent Cage Running

As you can see, obsessive cage running can be a symptom of serious issues that should be addressed as quickly as possible. If you suspect that your hamster may be ill, your first step should be to consult an exotic vet.

If your hamster’s running is a symptom of boredom, stress, or an onset of cage rage, the sooner you treat it, the more likely it will be to recover and return to normal behaviors. If its pacing is due to a genetic disorder, you may be able to at least diminish its symptoms by minimizing the amount of stress in your hamster’s life.

Large Cage, Enrichment, and Adequate Interaction

The most important thing you can do to prevent boredom, stress, and cage rage is provide your hamster with adequate space—the bigger the better. Roomy bin cages have become a popular option for Syrian hamsters.

Your hamster should have plenty of room to move around without constantly needing to crawl over a toy or through a tunnel. Also make sure your cage is well-ventilated.

A wheel for your hamster to run in is also essential. Make sure it’s the proper size for your hamster—a wheel that is too big may be difficult to spin while a wheel that is too small can hurt your hamster’s back or keep it from using it altogether.

Try to provide your hamster with as much enrichment as possible. This could include different textures to chew and explore, toys to climb on or hide in, and a healthy, varied diet. You can even entertain your hamster by hiding food in cardboard tubes or twists of paper and encouraging them to forage for it.  

Finally, spend time with your hamster. Get it out to play regularly, especially when you see that it’s already awake and about. If possible, allow it to run around for a while each day in a hamster-safe room.

Support for Stargazing Hamsters

A hamster with a genetic “stargazing” disorder may be incurable, but stress will aggravate its symptoms. Keep your hamster in a quiet place, and do your best to minimize stress. This may include cleaning the cage one section at a time and always putting everything back exactly where it was. Also be sure food and water are easily accessible.

Conclusion

In most cases, obsessive pacing or running back and forth is easily preventable, but its underlying causes should be addressed as quickly as possible. It’s not necessary for you to determine if stress, boredom, or cage rage is the root cause immediately as all three have similar cures. Start by making sure your pet’s habitat is large enough and interesting enough, and work from there.

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