Illnesses

GENERAL HEALTH

Body Size
Being too large is just as bad for a hamster’s health as being too thin. When you hold a hamster, you should be able to feel their bones under a layer of flesh, but the bones shouldn’t be protruding from their skin.

Species Average Weight

Syrian 120g-200g
Winter White 40g-60g
Campbell’s Dwarf 30g-60g
Chinese 30g-50g
Roborovski 20g-25g

Bald Spots
Hamsters should not have bald spots or any missing fur. The only exceptions are Syrian hamsters who have small bald patches on their hips where the scent glands are located.
You might find your hamster has missing fur on their nose, this is more than likely from bar chewing. If a hamster chews on the bars of their cage, the top of their nose will rub on the upper bar and this will cause fur loss.
Most hamsters chew bars when they don’t have enough to do in their cage, make sure you have enough enrichment to keep them occupied. Bar chewing = boredom!

Eyes
Your hamster’s eyes should be bright and clear with no discharge. They should not be sealed shut, look milky, or have a white or hazy circle.
Eye infections can occur but of they’re caught early, they are curable. See more on eye infections below.
It is normal for hamsters to have red eyes – this is a safe, genetic mutation.

Ears & Hearing
Ears should always be clean and clear of blood, they should not look red or flaky. You can make a clicking or squeaking sound to check their hearing. Their ears should twitch when you make an unusual sound.

Dry/Flaky Skin
Watch out for excessive scratching. If your hamster does scratch, or rub too often, resulting in dry or flaky skin, you may need to take them to a vet.

Respiratory Health
Your hamster’s breathing should be quiet and steady, not deep and fast, unless they have been recently active. It is not healthy for them to be squeaking, wheezing, sneezing or coughing.

Dental Health
If you are able to check the hamster’s teeth, they should have 2 at the top and 2 at the bottom. It is normal for them to be yellow or orange. A hamster’s teeth should never be white, broken, or missing.
You should also keep an eye on the length of the front teeth and make sure they don’t get too long. If this happens, it will make it very difficult for the hamster to eat. Always ensure your hamster has suitable chews, such as Whimzees, wooden chews or walnut shells.
Jelly Tot (pictured) has had problems with her teeth since birth and had to have them removed. 

Genital health
A hamster’s bottom should always be clean and free of any discharge. Discharge on a female hamster’s vagina could be a deadly bacterial infection called pyometra. Please see our specific guide on pyometra below for more information.

A male hamster’s testicles will protrude when they are warm. A female will have small nipples on her belly. The female’s vagina is close to the anus, compared to a male’s penis which is further from the anus.

FIRST AID KIT

It’s always best to be as prepared as you can when it comes to your hamster’s health. The most important part of any hamster first aid kit, is a VET FUND, and a list including the names and phone numbers of emergency and exotic VETS IN YOUR AREA. Taking your hamster to the vet is always the best course of action, whether it be an emergency situation, or if you just noticed your hamster behaving or appearing differently.

Due to their waking hours, it can be difficult to know if a hamster needs medical attention until night time, when veterinary practices are closed. Sometimes “out of hours” appointments can be made in an emergency scenario, and it is often costly. Ensure you have money to pay for a vet visit and medication at any given time, as you do not know when your hamster may become ill and need treatment.

There is NO excuse for not getting your hamster medical attention if it is unwell.

Not many hamster illnesses can be treated at home. However, there are a few items you can keep to hand that may help during aftercare or minor situations: 
Weighing Scales, Travel Pod,
Antiseptic Wipes, Cotton Buds,
Cloth/Tea Towel, Porridge Oats,
Critical Care, Feeding Syringes,
Baby Food

Weighing Scales: A hamster’s weight is very significant in determining their health. Sudden weight gain or weight loss could point to numerous issues. The vet will most likely weigh them at their appointment, but it’s best for the hamster to be weighed daily while they are ill, to monitor their condition. For this you will need a small weighing scales. Digital cooking scales are best as they can deal with the very small variations of a hamster’s weight.

Travel Pod: A travel pod is essential for bringing your hamster to the vet. See our section on transporting a hamster.

Antiseptic Wipes: An antiseptic wipe can be used to clean up any blood or other discharge on your hamster that may be present due to injury or illness. Hamsters can get scrapes from items in their enclosure, so these wipes provide an easy way to keep the cut clean.

Cotton Buds: Useful for applying ointments to injuries.

Cloth/ Tea Towel: Some hamsters can be hard to handle when administering medication. Wrapping them tightly in a cloth “burrito style” helps to keep them still, as well as helping yourself avoid any bites. Try to be as quick as possible to minimize stress to the hamster.
Cloths can also be warmed on a radiator and then placed on your lap or in the hamster’s enclosure to provide a warm place for them to rest. If a hamster is in a bad condition, heat will keep them comfortable and help in their recovery. However, do not use this method if your hamster is immobile and cannot move away from the heat if it should want to.

Porridge Oats: Hamsters need strength to fight illness, so they need something nutritious to help them feel better. We recommend giving them half a teaspoon of porridge. You can add chia seeds or flax seeds to give an extra energy boost. Make sure the porridge is cool before feeding it to them. The porridge oats will help fuel your hamster, and the water used to make it will help hydrate them.

Critical Care: You can also buy Critical Care formula to add to the porridge mix. Critical Care provides your hamster with the nutrients they may not be getting.

Feeding Syringes: These syringes are very useful for administering medication in liquid form. They can also be used to hydrate your hamster if they are not drinking by themselves, or are suffering from heatstroke. If your hamster has an eye infection, the syringe can be used as a dropper to apply a salt-water solution.

Baby food: If your hamster is ill for a few days, or if they’re off their food – baby food is another great alternative. It’s minimal effort for them to digest and you can keep an eye on how much they’re actually eating as they can’t pouch it. Baby food is also very helpful if you are trying to give medication to your hamster. Most hamsters love the taste of baby food, so they won’t notice the medicine mixed in. Please ensure any baby food you feed your hamster contains only hamster-safe ingredients.

REMEMBER: FIRST AID IS NEVER A REPLACEMENT FOR VET CARE.

PYOMETRA

What is pyometra?
Pyometra is a life threatening condition caused by a bacterial infection of the uterus/womb, typically affecting older female hamsters. There are two types of pyometra, open and closed.

Causes of pyometra
Pyometra can arise as part of the normal oestrus cycle when uterine secretions provide a good environment for bacteria to grow. Pyometra can also occur after mating, after pregnancy or after a phantom pregnancy. It is usually caused by bacteria that is normally found in the genital area, such as E-coli; or strep, following a respiratory infection.

Symptoms of open pyometra
This type is easier to diagnose. The female hamster will bleed from her vulva which is a very common symptom. You may notice her excessively drinking and urinating. This is a very early sign of the illness and you may not think anything of it until you see there is also blood/discharge.
Other symptoms to look out for are: swelling of the stomach, discharge (or pus) from the vulva, bad smell, reduced appetite, irritability or unusual biting, or a hunched posture. Fortunately, if it is open pyometra, the bleeding means the hamster’s body is trying to clear itself and get rid of the infection. Due to this, it is often noticed sooner and treatment from a vet can be received quickly.

Symptoms of closed pyometra
Closed pyometra is harder to diagnose because there won’t be many obvious symptoms in the early stage, as there is no outlet for discharge to escape. Therefore, the hamster tends to become more swollen quickly as the pus accumulates within the body. Hamsters usually become more unwell with closed pyometra. The uterus may rupture and release pus into the abdomen causing peritonitis.

If you think your hamster is showing signs of pyometra, take her to the vet straight away. This guide is not a substitute for professional advice and diagnosis. It’s very important to note that female hamsters do NOT menstruate, as many other mammals do. Any blood in the genital area is a cause for concern and the hamster should be taken to a vet.

Also, note that blood around a hamster’s rear end may not always be pyometra. Tumours, urinary tract infections, internal injuries, or even superficial cuts or scrapes can all result in bleeding around this area. Sometimes blood is noticed in the hamster’s nest area first. This is why it’s best to avoid using darker coloured substrates so that blood can be spotted easily.

Surgery
Surgery is the only treatment that will result in a definitive cure. The vet will perform a hysterectomy on the hamster and remove the uterus completely, thus removing the infection. There will also be no chance of the illness recurring as there will be nowhere for the bacteria to go. Most vets will try to avoid the surgical option due to a hamster’s size. Surgery carries risks, especially with an old or unwell hamster, and they would have a lower chance of survival.

Doctor Bobby Ortiz of Raheny Veterinary Hospital is a leading exotic vet who is trying to make it possible for hamsters to have hysterectomies as a preventative measure, thus eliminating the risk of pyometra completely.

Antibiotics 
Treatment with antibiotics may only provide temporary improvement. The antibiotic ‘Baytril’ is usually the ‘go-to’ medicine. In older/unwell hamsters, it may have less of an effect on the hamster’s health. After that, the best thing you can do for your hamster is make them as comfortable as possible. A course of antibiotics and pain killers will help ease some of the symptoms.

Euthanasia
If your hamster becomes more uncomfortable and suffers more from the illness, you will need to consider putting her to sleep. Trust your hamsters when they show you it’s time for them to go. A life of pain and suffering is no joy for them. This is the hardest part of keeping any animal, but any decision made from love is always better than allowing the hamster to suffer any longer than necessary.

This information on pyometra is for educational purposes only. Always follow the advice of an exotic vet when diagnosing and treating your hamster.

WET TAIL

Wet tail is a serious intestinal disease caused by contact with bacteria. This disease is spread when a hamster comes into contact with food or water that has been contaminated with feces that carry the bacteria. It is most common in young hamsters, and even more common in store bought hamsters, but rarely seen in adults.

There are a number of symptoms for wet tail so you should keep an eye out for all of them:

  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Failure to groom
  • Dehydration
  • Dull, sunken eyes
  • Irritability
  • Excessively watery diarrhoea
  • Hunched posture while sitting or walking
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Protruding rectum from constant straining
  • Blood in the stool or around the anus in very serious cases

Seek vet care immediately if you suspect your hamster is suffering with wet tail. It is deemed an emergency and therefore the vet must see the animal, even outside of normal open hours. Wet tail can kill a hamster very quickly, sometimes taking only 2 days. Immediate action may increase chance of survival, but survival rates are very low. Treatment consists of antibiotics, diarrhoea medication and subcutaneous and oral fluids to combat dehydration. As well as this, keep your hamster warm and clean, isolate them from any other animals and thoroughly sanitise their cage to prevent a recurrence/spread of disease. Wet tail is highly contagious among hamsters.

It’s important to note that whilst diarrhoea is a symptom of wet tail, it is possible for a hamster to have diarrhoea without it being wet tail. Wet tail is most common in Syrian hamsters under 12 weeks old. If you have a dwarf species of hamster, or an older Syrian hamster, it is less likely that they have wet tail.

In the case of wet tail, prevention is certainly better than cure. It’s important to provide a clean environment for your new hamster. Thoroughly disinfect the enclosure if it previously housed a hamster or other pet before using it for a new hamster. Water bottles and food bowls should also be cleaned with warm soapy water regularly.

While stress cannot cause wet tail directly, a stressed hamster will have a weakened immune system and so this makes it easier for wet tail to take hold if the hamster catches it. Allow a new hamster to settle into it’s enclosure for a few days before interacting too much. Using bedding from the hamsters old enclosure will help
it settle quicker.

EYE INFECTIONS

Eye infections are common in all animals. The most likely cause for eye infections is a build up of bacteria. It may also be caused if a foreign object enters the eye, by allergic reactions or viruses.

Redness around the edges of the eyelids is a sure sign of an eye infection. This is due to inflammation of the eye’s outermost layer. Other symptoms include excessive watery eye discharge, sticky eyelids, or swelling of the eye area.

It is important to catch eye infections early. If they are left for too long, infection can spread to other parts of the body such as the lungs; or the hamster’s eye could become very
damaged and they could lose it.

Most eye infection can be treated from home in the early stages. You must create a saline solution by dissolving a teaspoon of salt in a cup of boiled water. Allow the solution to cool to a warm termperature that will not burn your hamster. Using a cotton bud, dip it into the solution but do not soak it. Gently wipe the eye with the solution, you may need to scruff your hamster to do this. You must dip a new cotton bud each time you wipe the eye and repeat until the eye is clear.

  • Monitor your hamster’s condition every day. 
  • Make a fresh salt-water solution each day and keep your hamster quarantined until the infection has been clear for 48 hours.
  • If there is no improvement after 5 days, it’s time to call the vet who will be able to prescribe a course of medication to clear the infection.

Some hamsters can get sticky eyes. This is not always a sign of infection but can be caused when the mucus in the eye dries and glues the eye shut. It is most commonly seen in Syrian hamsters. You may need to help the hamster open their eyes by using the same method of gently applying a salt-water solution to the eye to dislodge the dried material.

TORPOR

Torpor is often thought to be hibernation. Hamsters do not hibernate. If the temperature drops below 15 degrees celcius, a hamster may go into a state of torpor. They have the ability to raise their temperature higher than their environment and lower their metabolism to conserve energy. For this reason, it is best to keep the temperature of the room your hamster is in above 18 degrees.
If you find your hamster in this state, it is important to start warming them slowly, this allows them to drop their temperature and start raising their metabolism. If it’s done too quick, the hamster may go into shock. Your own body warmth is sufficient at first.

As horrible as this may sound, there are three easy ways to tell the difference between a hamster in torpor and a hamster who has passed away: 

  • If their feet are blue, the hamster has passed away, but if they are still pink, then there is still blood flow. 
  • Check if rigor mortis has set in. It usually takes 20-30 minutes in hamsters, so if they are sill warm and limp (not stiff) they are in torpor.
  • You should be able to see them take very shallow breaths, so keep an eye out for that kind of movement.
Warm blankets and your own body heat will help bring your hamster out of this state. Try to lay them on your chest with a blanket on top of them.
Please note, the above measures are not guaranteed to work, sometimes it’s down to how soon you find them, there’s always a chance it’s too late. 
Prevention is better than cure. For information on how to keep your hamsters warm, click here.

PALLIATIVE CARE

Unfortunately hamsters have short lifespans, typically 2 years in length although this varies depending on many different things. While a hamster’s life is short, it is no less precious, so we always believe they should be given the best lives possible. All good things come to an end and there comes a time when your hamster will start to display signs of old age. Hamsters can be quite active up to the last few months of their life. They can also hide pain well, in the wild a sign of weakness would make them an easy target for predators, so it may be something that you don’t notice until much later.

What kinds of signs should you look out for?
Old hamsters have less energy and might not use their wheel as much as they used to. They might struggle with climbing and digging and might sleep more than usual. For this reason, we advise keeping their food, water, and wheel in a low, easy to reach place for them. Make sure not to have a water bottle set too high or too low so that they can easily reach it, or maybe provide more than one water source in different areas of the cage. Some people downsize a hamster’s cage as they get older, but this is completely unnecessary as they will still enjoy pottering about and exploring new smells and textures. Having an enriching enclosure will actually improve their health and overall lifespan.

Change in diet:
Older hamsters might start to drink more water. This can be a sign of kidney trouble so if you notice your hamster is suddenly drinking much more than usual, a vet check-up would be a good idea. Old hamsters don’t need as much protein in their diet, so it’s best to cut back a little on feeding insects, cooked chicken or egg and instead feed more vegetables. While it may seem a good idea to feed soft foods to them such as porridge, mashed veg or baby food (which can be beneficial in helping them build strength), please don’t forget that hamster’s teeth continue to grow even in their old age and so they still require hard foods to help wear their teeth down. Some seed mixes come in a “senior” variety, and they will be more tailored to the dietary needs of an older hamster.

An older hamster should be weighed more often than younger hamsters. Weight is one of the best ways to monitor your hamster’s health and they cannot hide this from you. Weight gain could indicate a growth such as a tumour or other swellings. Weight loss may indicate a sick hamster or that a hamster is struggling to feed itself (always be sure to check teeth length). We always recommend regular weight checks throughout your hamster’s life, but as they get older it would be a good idea to increase the frequency of weigh ins and also keep a record of it so you can monitor their condition. If a hamster is sick, then it’s weight should be monitored every day.

Check the hamster’s body for any lumps or growths which could be cancerous or cause other complications. If your hamster is skittish or aggressive, then you can get bite proof gloves to help with handling or try to restrain the hamster in a “burrito” (wrapping a cloth around them). Scruffing can also be done, if necessary, but try to keep any restraining short, as it can be very stressful for the hamster.

Having a tame hamster helps with health checks. These checks should also be done more regularly as your hamster ages. Check teeth to ensure they are not overgrown, and your hamster can eat comfortably. Check nail length too, a hamster that is less active means their nails will become long and may need to be trimmed down. If the nail is starting to curl, then it can be hard for the hamster to naturally wear them down. In this case they would need to be clipped by a vet (you can also do this yourself, but you need to ensure you don’t cut the blood supply to the nail and also be able to restrain your hamster correctly to prevent injury).

Sick hamsters will need to be brought to a vet. Some people laugh at the idea of a hamster going to a vet because they have the mindset that it’s “just a hamster”. Hamsters, however small, still have the right to a proper quality of life and should not have to suffer if they are sick. Please ensure you have money set aside for any vet trips your hamster may need throughout its lifetime. Hamsters are generally seen by exotic vets, who have the necessary equipment to do tests and operations on them. These vets can be costly, and bills can often be over €100, especially if medication or surgery is involved. Not having enough money is not an excuse for letting your hamster suffer. Not having a vet you can travel to is not an excuse to let your hamster live in pain. Please have a plan in place should these situations arise.

Older hamsters have less success being operated on and can pass away during or after surgery. A vet will give you advice on what your options are in these cases. Sometimes euthanasia is the kindest thing an owner can do for their pet. If the hamster is too old to survive a surgery or maybe a tumour has become too large or serious to be removed, then the owner needs to make the decision on what is best for their hamster. This can be an incredibly difficult decision that can also carry feelings of guilt or that you’re “abandoning” or “giving up” on your pet. This is far from the case, and it should be seen as a last act of kindness for your pet. It is much better to put a sick hamster to sleep than let it suffer in pain for the final few weeks of its life.

Example of a set up for a sick/old/disable hamster. Everything is easily accessible.