Hamsters are fairly hardy pets, but there are lots of health issues that these furry little creatures can suffer from. We've collated some of the more common problems that a paw-rent should look out for. It's helpful to know some of the signs of illness so that the problem can be addressed before it becomes life-threatening.
If your hamster appears to be in pain, is having trouble breathing or is bleeding, the best thing you can do is to take it to a small mammal vet as soon as possible. If he's sich and inactive, his fur looks dirty or, if he starts to sneeze or has a runny nose or eyes, it's best to bring him to the veterinarian immediately.
Other problems to look for include the following:
Abscesses are walled off pockets of infection and can form from cuts in the skin or mouth area.
Abrasions from food or the environment can hurt your hamster by causing a lesion in its skin or mouth area. Abscesses form to prevent bacteria from spreading around the body and can become quite big. They are typically filled with pus, which may burst and begin draining on its own. Draining may occur outside or inside of the body. However, it is more dangerous if it drains inside the body, as the pus will contaminate.
Regular handling of your hamster will allow you to check for irregularities forming on your hamster's body. Any lumps or bumps should be checked so visit your vet if necessary. Abscesses can be excised and your hamster will be prescribed antibiotics. You will also need to flush the abscess for a period of time after the excision to ensure that it does not grow back.
Hamsters are quite prone to cancers – benign or malignant. Malignant cancers are aggressive and affected hamsters usually die quickly. Benign cancers, on the other hand, are slow-growing and are not necessarily fatal.
The most common cancers in hamsters are those involving the thyroid and adrenal glands as well as skin cancers. Signs include hair loss and changes in their behaviour. Surgery is a viable option when it comes to dealing with cancer. Owners must be careful not to euthanise hamsters with benign cancers.
Overfeeding of fresh fruits and vegetables can lead to diarrhoea and this, in turn, may lead to dehydration. Dehydration in an animal this small is dangerous; so make sure your hamster is drinking well if diarrhoea occurs.
Withhold fresh foods for a few days until your hamster is fully recovered. You may re-introduce fresh food gradually and slowly after your hamster is well.
Do not confuse diarrhoea with Wet Tail diarrhoea.
Mange is usually caused by mites and is highly infectious. If you notice your hamster scratching a lot, and especially around its ears it may indicate a mite infection. Other signs to note are dry flaky skin with obvious fur loss, particularly on the back. There may also be scabs around the ears, nose, and genitals.
If you have more than one hamster, it should be isolated. Check the others for the same presenting signs. Disinfect its cage, toys, and anything it usually comes into contact with. Hay should be removed and replaced with paper bedding. Take your hamster to your vet as soon as possible. Your vet may take a skin scraping to confirm that the hamster is suffering from mange.
Treatment includes antibiotics and a series of injections over a period of a few weeks.
Hamsters can get respiratory infections that can lead to pneumonia. While occasional sneezing is not a cause for concern, wheezing, laboured breathing, loss of appetite and decreased activity may indicate something serious. Hamsters may also have discharge from their eyes and nose. Take your hamster to a vet immediately if you notice any of those symptoms.
Wet tail is highly contagious and is most common in recently weaned hamsters (the weaning period is very stressful for a young hamster). The exact cause is uncertain but wet tail can be caused by stress, crowding and diet changes. Wet tail may also be caused by a bacteria or an imbalance of the natural bacteria in the hamster's stomach and is often mistaken for diarrhoea.
Although diarrhoea is a symptom, it usually is more severe than regular diarrhoea. Wet tail diarrhoea is so bad that the hamster is not only wet and dirty around the anus but at the top of the tail as well.
It is often accompanied by strong unpleasant smells and droppings are pale in colour and are extremely soft and may contain mucus. The hamster is often weak and lethargic and may squeal in pain.
The problem can be fatal; symptoms take seven days to appear but death may occur as early as a day after the appearance of the symptoms. Take your hamster to its vet immediately after any sign of symptoms show.
Hamsters with wet tail tend to have a poor appetite and do not eat and drink often resulting in dehydration. Dehydration is more often the cause of death than the problem itself. However, because of severe wet tail diarrhoea, rectal prolapse (where the intestine is pushed outside of the body through the anus) can occur.
Treatment will consist of antibiotics, anti-diarrhoeal medication and rehydration. Aim to give your hamster as much quiet and rest in a warm and clean environment. The affected hamster should be isolated as wet tail is highly contagious.
Disinfect the hamster's home as well as all items that it usually comes into contact with. Throw out all litter and bedding and replace with fresh ones.
This problem is more commonly associated with the Syrian Hamster and not the dwarf hamsters. It is also thought to be hereditary, thus it is best not to buy a hamster whose parents have a history of wet tail. Likewise, avoid breeding from a hamster that has a history of wet tail.
* The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified pet health care professional and is not intended as medical advice. Always make a pet health care decision in partnership with a qualified veterinary or pet health care professional.
*This article was updated on 6 Oct 2020. It first appeared in PetsMagazine.com.sg on 5 Oct 2015.