Feature Hamster:
A Precious Minute
by Holly Wilcox
Minute nursing a litter Minute
"Why she's no bigger than a minute!"  my mother exclaimed on seeing the tiny five-week old opal dwarf deftly scrambling up the bars of her purple travel cage.  The name stuck, and she's been Minute ever since.
Minute was to be a mate for Buster, my feisty pet-store platinum, and I had contacted a breeder with the CHA in hopes of finding a gentle temperament to balance Buster’s verve.  They had several cuties to choose from, but when this tiny little opal ran out of her box, up my arm to say “hi,” and prettily presented her nose for a kiss--that was that!

One year and eleven pups later, Min’s my little trouper/super mom and, like most of these wonder creatures, she’s survived a few close calls.  Between litters one and two she managed to hoist herself out of her cage, falling several feet to the floor.  During one of my frequent middle-of-the-night new “grandma” pup checks, I felt a pregnant Min scamper onto my foot, calmly waiting to be returned to her litter.  Min’s second litter of eight must have presented her with quite a challenge after the first litter of three, but my little mama organized two nursing piles of four and four (who knew she could count?) and all survived to maturity.  They were my little angels, and I kept all eleven.

At four months of age, Min’s kids began dying from weight loss and dehydration.  It was at this point I learned that hamsters, particularly dwarfs, are considered “exotics.”  While many vets will treat them, hamsters are not their area of expertise.  I described the symptoms they displayed prior to death, and kidney disease was suggested, as was Diabetes (the vet I visited wasn’t familiar with it in dwarfs), also some sort of brain disorder.  At any rate, the problem was no doubt congenital, and there was nothing to be done but wait and pray.  I changed everything I could think of, fed them liquids (milk) and feebly attempted to put weight on the thin ones.  I felt helpless, and, needless to say, for the next six months Min’s kids received most of the attention as I struggled to keep them alive. “This summer,” I told her, “we’re spending LOTS of time together.”  Of course that’s when I noticed the mammary tumor on her belly by her back leg--a large grey protuberance that meant the end for my little mama.

I was familiar with these tumors because Second, Minute’s daughter and my most recent death, had one.  I talked to some breeders at that time and learned that these tumors are extremely common in dwarf females, but usually at a year or so after they’ve had litters.  The advice was to wait until their mobility was limited (after about 3-6 weeks) and their weight had declined, at which point I should provide a merciful death before the condition worsened.  Second’s mammary tumor was a-typical in that she was only seven months old, had never nursed a litter, and died very shortly after the tumor appeared.

Scrambling for any encouraging words for Minute’s condition, I called various clinics, and all agreed that these tumors invariably reappear within 2-3 months or even days.  At that point I gave up--what was the point of putting Minute through the trauma of surgery just so I could spend a little more time with her?  I certainly wouldn’t elect surgery for myself with a prognosis of two or three more months.  The average life span of a dwarf hamster is 1 ˝ years and Min had just passed her first her birthday.

Then there was the expense.  For surgery on Second’s tumor (which was much smaller than Min’s), I received a quote of $400 for surgery (not including medication).  I swallowed hard, but elected to try with her, even thought she was obviously dehydrated and barely responsive.  At least a tumor was something you could see, not the nebulous warning signs I had experienced with her siblings before they died.  Mercifully Second passed away before surgery, but I wished later that I had let her die in her home, not in an incubator with strange sounds and smells.  I realized at that point that spending lots of money isn’t always the best way to show you love a pet.

I discovered Min’s tumor on Saturday and as the days passed, her general condition stayed hale and hearty—so hearty in fact, in contrast to the others I had lost, that I didn’t have the heart to give up on her without a fight.  I was fortunate at this point to have been referred to a superb vet who specializes in aviary and “exotics,” and I made an appointment for the earliest surgery date possible.  Unfortunately, this wasn’t until the following Thursday, but, after the bad experiences I had with other vets, I didn’t dare risk rushing her in to anyone else.  While Min and I waited in the clinic lobby in a none-too-fashionable area of town, I learned from other pet owners that people brought their pets in to this vet from all over the state, and that he had a reputation for being a miracle worker, knowledgeable, and very loving.  As it turned out, this vet not only knew exotics (and deer, and reptiles, and bobcats and…), he also charged considerably less than the others.  The total for Minute’s surgery was $215 and included a nice sized bottle of antibiotics.  It hurts to even think of money when a beloved pet is involved, but if I don’t eat--they don’t eat.

On seeing Min’s general condition, the vet was encouraged, suggesting that the growth might even be as minor as a cyst.  He stated that he had seen dwarfs live up to 2 ˝ years, and agreed that she certainly seemed “healthy as a little horse.”  He would operate that afternoon and I could pick her up that evening.  Min and I shared several nose kisses, and the vet assured Min that she would be going home.  I left the clinic feeling confident that, if anything could be done for my little mama, I had finally found the vet to do it.  When I phoned to check on Min’s post-operative condition, I was informed that they had found and removed a large malignant tumor spreading from her leg up into her belly, and that the kindly vet had arranged for a price break on the duration of the surgery, which had lasted much longer than expected.  Min had been given a very long steel suture, and I was instructed to watch her closely to make sure that she didn’t try to chew through the stitches, and to give her antibiotics twice daily.  I listened in horror while the nurse read the Vet’s notes that Min might never be the same.  I pictured my incredibly active angel crippled—what had I done?  They hadn’t warned me that Min’s fur on one side had been shaved and matted, and I jumped when they brought her out.  With the tumor removed Min looked like the letter ‘C’ and I thought I was only getting back 2/3 of my original pet!  My chagrin rapidly turned to joy, however, and we all watched in amazement as Min proceeded to toddle around her cage! 

For three days I hovered as much as possible through the night to make sure she didn’t try to chew through the stitches (the suture was so long, she would have died) but, trooper that she is, she left those stitches alone, continuing to get around as best she could.  I feel confident that under the care of most veterinarians, Min would have either had died on the table, or have been given up for lost when the enormity of the malignancy had been uncovered.

At her one week checkup, the vet weighed her and removed her stitches.  He was heartened to report that there were no new growths visible (apparently it is common to see recurrence this quickly) and that she appeared to be healing quite well.  While it is not uncommon to see recurrence of tumors in time, he continued, he felt confident that he had completely removed the malignancy, and that there was healthy tissue beneath.  If new growths occur, he continued, they should be easy to remove while small.  He also expressed admiration that I had sought help for my little friend, as many small animal owners do not bother.

Through all this, Minute has behaved like the trooper she is.  Frankly, I would have bitten the hand that had taken me for surgery, but all I got was a little “bap” when I tried to stroke her after the stitches were removed.  Somehow these little guys have more wisdom and trust than their size and age warrants.  And, thanks to a super vet and a little faith, I have my Min back.  And even if it’s only for a few months, at least we’ll have that time together.  I can do an awful lot of spoiling in two months, and every “minute” I spend with her is a precious one.  Besides two months for a dwarf is a lot longer than in human time.  So maybe she’s glad I gave her a chance.  I think so.

Update on Minute:

On Tuesday, April 1, 2003 ten miraculous months after Minute's surgery, and only one month from her 2nd Birthday, Minute left my life.  Since the surgery, she had been treated for vaginal bleeding (ovarian infection) with intermittent antibiotics, had her right pouch cleaned out three times (until I finally gave up and mixed ground up lablock and grains with water three times a day), and an outer mouth infection.  With each mishap, Min bounced back with her usual good humour, only showing her age in the eventual bit of grey that crowned her sweet little head.

On Sunday, March 30th, I discovered that Min had a 2 cm red protrusion from her rectum.  As her general condition was hale and hearty, I had to give her a chance, and rushed her into emergency surgery.  Min did her best to recuperate, surprising the emergency clinic by popping up from the anesthesia, looking for food, and hopping into her wheel.  That night, I continued to be encouraged by her appetite and gallant attempts to hamster dance.  Monday afternoon, she gently crawled up my hand and I had a nice cuddle and smooch with my little girl.  That night, her appetite decreased, but I still had
hopes.  By Tuesday morning Min's ever-active appetite finally failed her.

As she sat in a ball, ears up in sick hamster posture, I had to face the reality that Min, even with her feisty nature and remarkable constitution, would one day be unable to bounce back.  I rushed her into the vet who over the past year had saved her life over and over, and prepared for the worst.   Saddened to see our ever-perky girl semi-responsive, the vet pointed out that a rectal prolapse is frequently a symptom of other problems.  He weighed her (naturally, she had gained weight!), and listened to her lungs.  Unfortunately, he discovered lung congestion, also a frequent sign that something else is wrong.  He observed that my angel was nearly 100 in human years, and helped me to make the decision to stop her suffering.  Min and I had a few final moments alone together for smooches, and I asked her to say "hi" to her pups who had gone before her, asking that they all wait around for me to catch up to them.  Min was Min right up to the end, perking up enough to groom and check out her surroundings, impressing us all, once again, with her fortitude and feisty nature.

A little light has left my life, but I have so much to remember. I miss her sweet little milk mustache poking through the bedding when I called her name.  I miss that little squeaky, sleepy noise she'd make in her nest.  I even miss the way she'd cuss me out in later months when she'd become more vocal.  While I know that she has passed on to the great hamster playpen in the sky, I frequently feel her sweet furry presence on my left shoulder, reminding me that, no matter how tough things get, to always bounce back with feistiness, curiosity, and a hamster dance for good measure.

When I think back on June of 2002, and my feelings on first discovering Min's mammary tumor, I have the clarity that only hindsight can bring.  I shudder to think that I might not have given Min the last ten months of her life, and that I would have missed sharing them with her.  Thankfully, I made the decision I did, and gave her the chance to teach me that some things can't be valued in dollars and cents.  Things like love.
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