Feature Hamsters:
Sputnik's and Kosmo's Glaucoma
by Miko Schmid
Sputnik and Kosmo came into my life in April, 2003.  Sputnik first - I got her from a little local petshop in the hopes of having her be the new cagemate to my hamster whose cagemate had recently died.  But no!  My recently soloed hamster made it loud and clear she was having none of that.  She made noises and motions I've never seen a hamster make and it was not the open arms of welcome motion.  That left me with a problem - Sputnik had just left the confines of her exuberant littermates back at the petshop and was now alone.  So before she could get too used to it, I rushed back to the same petshop to pick up one of her sisters, or at least an ex-cagemate.  That's how Kosmo came to be with Sputnik.

Sputnik was named in keeping with the theme of Russian dwarf hamsters.  I also had the Spacestation cage, whose "tower" Sputnik kept "launching" (jumping) off of, so there we go!  Kosmo was named for cosmonaut, but with the letter "K."  I found out more recently that there was in fact a Russian Mars orbiter named Cosmos, so it worked out even better.

Sputnik and Kosmo got along great (just the occasional squabble) and what a thrill it was watching them interact and wheel together!  Actually, I had two cages connected together, with a wheel in each cage.  Sometimes they wheeled separately.  Sometimes they traded sides - in perfect synchro like a circus act.  When one hopped on the same wheel, the other jumped off, ran through the connector and hopped onto the other wheel - all without skipping a heartbeat.  But the most hilarious of all was when they wheeled together; wonderfully smooth one moment, tossing each other the next!
Sputnik and Kosmo Sputnik and Kosmo
Sputnik and Kosmo:  Wonderfully smooth one moment, tossing each other the next!
Two months later, in June, 2003, I noticed Sputnik's right eye looking a little bulgy.  I kept close watch for any further changes.  I noticed that sometimes it looked  fine, then at other times, it looked alarmingly bulgy.  Although we've always heard it was the Winter Whites that were most susceptible, my husband and I had a sneaking suspicion it was glaucoma.  We decided it best to have it checked out by a vet.   Our vet told us it could be glaucoma, but that it could also be an eye infection behind a part of the eye, causing the eye to bulge out.  He gave us antibiotic eyedrops to use for one week.  After that period of time, if the bulging did not go down, we were to call an animal eye specialist he recommended.  He also told us that antiglaucoma medication would be more harmful than helpful.  He said such a small animal like a dwarf hamster would not hold up well - it would experience a loss of appetite and most likely harm its well-being.  As to surgery, he said the area around their eyes is so small with such important blood vessels that it was more risky than it was worth.  So off we went with that information and the eyedrop medication.

With each passing day of Sputnik's treatment, I hoped the bulging would go down.  But I soon saw the medication did nothing for her eye.  That confirmed it was probably glaucoma rather than an infection.  In the meantime, Sputnik and Kosmo began fighting often and with more intensity.  Previously, although Sputnik was the larger, dominant hamster, she was quite gentle and long-suffering with Kosmo, usually letting her have her way.  But Sputnik was becoming less tolerant.  Although they never came to bloodshed and after giving them adequate chances to become friendly again, it never improved, so I had to make the decision of splitting them.  I was most concerned about the possibility of Sputnik's eye getting hurt in a squabble.

Having ruled out an infection, our next trip was to the animal eye specialist.  He was a wonderfully kind man.  He darkened the room, and with a lighted instrument, spent a long time looking into Sputnik's eye.  He also had an instrument to touch to her eyes which I believe checks pressure in the eye.  Do you remember those glaucoma eye tests where they surprise you with that big puff of air?  I guess this instrument is the new way they check for high pressure.  His diagnosis was that Sputnik had both glaucoma and a very rare congenital condition know as keratoconus, where the cornea of the eye is cone-shaped.  He also confirmed what the vet had told us - that antiglaucoma medication would be more harmful than good and that surgery would be more risky than just leaving it alone.  He differed from the vet though in that he was not happy with the type of antibiotic eyedrops we had received from that vet.  It contained a steroidal component, and that was a no-no.  He told us not to use those drops anymore.
Sputnik Sputnik
If you study her, you can see that Sputnik's right eye is bulgy.  Hers tended to have a large amount of clear matter - basically her cornea - the clear part of the eye.
Sputnik was also diagnosed with keratoconus, "cone shaped" lenses.  You can see it here.  Also, you can see that her right eye bulges.
The inside of the eye can appear to fill up with blood.  I've seen both the dark brown/red "dead" blood and also the "living" red blood inside their eyes.  The apex of the the glaucoma stages is the outward bleeding of the eye.  It can also "bleed" a clear liquid.  A white film over their eye can develop before or after this event.  Afterwards, the eye becomes small and opaque.
We asked our animal eye specialist what is the worst that can happen at this point, and what do we do when it does?  He told us the eye could actually sort of  pop out of its socket and that she wouldn't be able to close her eye.  And without being able to blink or close her eye when she slept, it would cause her eye to desiccate (dry up).  Our goal was to prevent dryness by using a lubricating eye ointment he recommended.  He said the ointment form lasts much longer on the eye than the liquid form of eyedrops.  So back at home, part of my watch was to make sure her eye stayed lubricated.  I personally used the back tip of a clean metal spoon to which I applied a small amount of lubricant.  I would then swipe that slightly rounded back part of the spoon to the eye area, getting the ointment especially on the fur of her upper eyelid.  Her grooming action would do the rest of the work of distributing it in and around her eye.  Sputnik was still able to close her bulging eye, so that was a great relief to me.  The hamsters do have to go without their sand potty part of the time for obvious reasons.

A long time passed and nothing more happened.  When the next set of events occurred, we were surprised that it was Kosmo and not Sputnik, who had the eye problems.  But knowing they were most likely sisters, it did reiterate the fact that this tends to be a genetically inherited disease.  It was late August when I first noticed Kosmo's left eye bulging a little.  Then through October and November, I observed a day that her troubled eye was especially bulgy and wet.  Afterwards, she developed a "film" over that left eye.  Throughout this episode, I applied lubricating ointment to her eye.  This eye went through its "stages" without too much trouble and reached its final one - when the eye becomes small and "milky" looking.  It looks like pinkish tea with cream in it.  Or like an opaque, rose colored stone.
Sputnik Kosmo
On the picture on the left you can see the white film or "cloud" over Sputnik's right eye.  You can also see that the eye has turned opaque.  Also notice her left eye with the bulging clear cornea.  The picture on the right shows Kosmo with the smaller, opaque left eye.
In December, Kosmo's other (right) eye started to bulge and I could see blood inside her eye.  It was dark, wine colored blood, which made me believe it was blood that had leaked and was no longer circulating through blood vessels (much like a bruise).  Then four days before Christmas, the dreaded thing happened - her eye sort of "popped" out - she could no longer close that eye and it was bleeding.  We got an animal eye specialist appointment the very next day, but not before finding out a sad turn of events.  We could not get an appointment sooner than a month with our usual animal eye specialist.  During a phone call to that office, we were told he had learned he had cancer and was taking only a few appointments between breaks.  I was greatly saddened for that kind, wonderful man.  We were, however, given a referral to another excellent animal eye care facility which gave us an appointment that afternoon.

Our new animal eye doctor told us we had been doing all the right things - and to continue lubricating the eye with the ointment.  She too concurred that antiglaucoma medication would cause significant systemic side effects.  She said that Kosmo was a very playful hamster and that she was most likely fairly comfortable despite the somewhat disfiguring appearance of the eye.  She also said that the bulging would subside and that it would become small, like the other eye was now.

Now if you knew how alarming a "popped" out eye looked, you would understand why my husband and I were rather disbelieving of what the doctor said; we could not imagine her eye becoming small again.  But sure enough, Kosmo healed up quickly; within a week, her eye was smaller, and had developed a film over it.  That soon turned into the final stage where the eye is opaque-looking and most likely blind.  I've concluded that in the last stage, the hamster most likely cannot see.  I deduced that because Kosmo now just keeps her eyes closed and I presume it's because she cannot see anyway.

For Sputnik, it wasn't until January of 2004, a long 7 months since first noticing her bulgy right eye, that it finally went through its next stages.  First the dark, wine colored blood inside her eye, then a film developing over her eye, then finally, bleeding from the eye.  A couple weeks later, the familiar opaque, "milky" eye.  Currently, her left eye is at the bulging stage, sometimes alarmingly so - that I think any minute it will "pop" out or bleed.  But strangely, with her, the initial bulging symptoms have lasted long without much happening for some time.  I am prepared though when it does.  I've already undergone the experience with three of their eyes - I KNOW right along with that fourth eye, Sputnik will bravely pull through!  In my opinion, this disease is not terminal.  Barring any other disease or disaster, I thankfully expect both of them to enjoy a  regular lifespan.

Some people will think of their closed, blind eyes as a cosmetic defect.  Not me.  It represents to me a kiss of mercy.  The closed eye no longer needs to suffer the stages that at the very least must be uncomfortable for the hamster.  For the owner, those active stages are heartbreaking, creating a feeling of stark helplessness and panic.

Out of the senses hamsters can go without, sightlessness isn't so bad for a hamster.  I've made the observation that in a familiar situation, they depend surprising a lot on spatial memory.  I now know why, when they first go into a new or fresh cage, they go slower, sniffing everything out and doing the once around!  When the hamster is placed in that cage again, my observation is that they know where everything is.  I've seen this theory proven by the fact that a blind hamster will run into something if you place it in there AFTER they've already cased the place out.  Sometimes they'll even bump into my hand if they haven't got a whiff or heard a sound first.  But if nothing has been changed in their cage, they surprisingly get around easily without bumping into anything, even while running.

There are times  I just sit quietly and watch Sputnik and Kosmo without them knowing I am there.  With Kosmo (the completely blind one), when I decide to finally pick her up, I lean my face forward near her cage and let out a gentle, gentle breath.  She stops what she's doing, her body stock-still, only her head turning and craning; her nose up, sniffing the air.  I then speak and make the cage opening noise.  Excitedly, she runs up the bars and climbs onto my awaiting hand.
Sputnik and Kosmo today:  Despite their disease, and for Kosmo, being completely blind, they are active, happy and content.  They are also still the adorable little hammies!
I love Sputnik and Kosmo just as much as I always have and they bring me great joy!  Instead of acting debilitated in any way, they are active, happy and content.  And despite their handicap, they innocently go about their crazy hamster business like they always have, seemingly without a care in the world.  As a friend of mine once said:  "I'm amazed how brave little hamsters are.  They keep fighting the bad times and are so happy to be alive doing their hamster things, it's really a lesson for us humans!"
Back to Newsletter Page