Q: My two-year-old hamster has been scratching excessively of late, to the point where he has bald patches and he bleeds. He is also losing weight. What could be wrong?

I’m sorry to hear that your hamster is so sick. Please bring him to see a vet as soon as you can as medical attention is needed. Your two-year-old hamster is considered a senior furkid with a compromised immune system. Any infection can be very dangerous for him. Since his skin is bleeding, he probably has open wounds that need topical and/or oral antibiotics to prevent infection.

Skin problems can have a few causes. Contact skin allergies are common, and are triggered by the skin’s reaction to environmental irritants like new litter beddings, toys, or even cleaning detergents. When a skin allergy occurs, there will be an intense itch, which is why your poor little hammy keeps scratching. Scratching will weaken the skin barrier, putting your hamster at risk of bacterial infections. Fungal infections are another possible complication as our climate is very humid, so make sure his cage is well-ventilated. Fungal infections can lead to dry, flaky and peeling skin. At times, there will also be a strong odour. If the infection worsens, then his appetite will be affected and weight loss will be very obvious.

Skin mites can also cause itchy skin and fur loss. Mites are often microscopic and invisible to the naked eye, which is why a test has to be done at the vet clinic. Skin samples collected will be checked under the microscope to confirm the presence of mites. There are two common mites—Sarcoptes and Demodex mites—and they burrow into the skin layers, which is why it itches. This can result in great stress, loss of appetite, and weight loss.

Lastly, hormonal changes in an aged hamster can also cause the symptoms described. One common condition is Cushing’s Syndrome, which is an imbalance of the stress hormone cortisol in the body. This causes the skin to get weaker and thinner, again leaving your hamster vulnerable to skin tears and infections, which usually lead to open wounds (bleeding) and fur loss. Unfortunately, it is very difficult and challenging to treat hormonal diseases in hamsters. Most times, treatment is focused on reducing the itch and keeping the hamster comfortable, so that he can enjoy a better quality of life.