Hamster Health
By Doran Jones
It's a good thing hamsters are relatively healthy creatures.   With their high metabolism and fragile nature, a  propensity for illness would be devastating to them.  This  would be especially true for those in captivity where they are  in contact with many more pathogens than they  would normally be exposed to in the wild.   Because of  their hardiness, they have made excellent lab study animals  and great pets.
When you see how seldom hamsters get sick, you  might believe that their constitution is very strong and can  fight off illness with no help.  The truth is that their  metabolisms are so very high that most illnesses a hamster  might get can kill them before we have time to react.  For  this reason, as a hamster owner, you must be observant of  your hamster's habits and physical traits so that any change  or unusual occurrence can be identified quickly.
Hamsters are usually healthy and can stay that way  their whole lives if we are willing to follow some guidelines.     In this issue I will mostly be dwelling on prevention.   In later issues I expect to cover some specific ailments  that your hamster might contract.
Hamsters are very clean animals.  They groom  themselves, keep their nest and toilets separate, and clean  their nests making them safe, warm, and comfortable  for themselves and their pups.  Because they live in a  cage, however, you have total control over their environment.   Your hamster can't get up and move to a new cage if  there is something bothering him.  This means you'll need  to monitor his cage and the environment for him
Keeping a cage cleaning schedule is important.   Hamsters will suffer from stress if either their cage is cleaned  too often or not often enough.  If you don't clean enough,  the hamster's natural cleanliness instinct is thwarted.   He'll soon not be able to tell his toilet from his nest  because everything will start to smell the same.  If you clean  too often, ironically he'll have the same problem.  He  won't find any of the scents he used to mark certain territories.
A routine cleaning schedule is probably more  important than cleaning his cage sometime during the week.   Get your hamster used to a cleaning routine and stick too it.   Try to make him as comfortable with his cage after  a cleaning as possible.  The first thing you need to do  before handling your hamster or cleaning his cage is wash  your hands.  There are illnesses that hamsters can get from  us and some we can get from them.  Hand washing is the  best way to avoid these.
Many books will tell you the whole cage and all his  toys need to be scrubbed and disinfected at each cleaning.   I don't believe this is entirely necessary.  The reason  is simple.  Hamsters are creatures that rely on scent.   Campbells Dwarves, for instance, have 6 types of  olfactory markers they use.  If you clean off all the scents in  the cage, you are removing his territorial markings every  time you clean.   This causes an amazing amount of stress  for the animal and stress can lead to illness.
So what I do is pick some things in the cage that I  don't clean; each time it is usually something different than  at the last cleaning.  Also I keep some of the cleanest  nest bedding to place back into the cage when the cleaning  is done.    I clean my cages every other week.  You may  want to clean every week.  Just use common sense when  it comes to cleaning.   Remember, you are cleaning for  your hamsters health and not, as some people think, to keep  the smell from becoming too thick around the cage.   Reducing the odor is a side benefit of cleaning.  Hamsters  don't mind their own smell.
You may be tempted as I was when I first started  raising hamsters to get a large water bottle so your hamster  won't run out of water and so you don't have to refill the  water as often.   The rule is to change your hamster's water  every day.  This is important to keep bacteria from breeding  in the bottle and to keep the water nozzle from  getting clogged.  You may want to get instead a bottle that is  a practically sized for your hamster and his cage.
Choosing a place for your hamster's cage is an  equally important decision.  It should not be in a drafty location.   The temperature should remain between 65 to 85  degrees Fahrenheit and not fluctuate by more than about 4  degrees in 24 hours.  Under some conditions 65 can be too  cold for a syrian hamster causing them to hibernate.  We'll  talk about this more in a later issue.
Diet is perhaps the single most important factor  which determines how healthy your hamster remains.  Again,  as with the cleaning, a routine is important.  I find  nightly feedings are the best.  This way hamsters are usually  up and ready to eat, and you have more of a chance to  interact with your hamster.
Most health problems can be avoided with the proper diet.   Hamsters need to have a balanced hamster mix as a  staple in their diet.  These are mixes of grains and seed  specifically selected to give a hamster the right amount of  crude fiber, protein, and fat.  Don't get rat or mouse food for  a hamster.  Fortunately, there are many good hamster  mixes out there.  Find one you like and stick with it.
For syrians put two tablespoons of dry mix in his bowl  every day.    Empty the bowl before you fill it.   The fact is that  I clean my food bowls and water bottles very often —  nearly every day at feedings.   Contaminated  food can be a killer.     Dwarves are small enough to sit in their bowls to eat, and  all hamsters bury their food at times.    For dwarves one  tablespoon per hamster is fine.  Too much of a good thing can  be bad for a hamster.  So if you see that your hamster is  getting fat on this diet, you may have to remove most of the high  fat seeds like sunflower seeds which can be saved as treats.
It's also important to give your hamster fresh foods with  the mix about every three days.  This keeps the hamster  from becoming constipated or obese.  Don't feed him these  foods too often.  You don't want any lying around so after couple  of hours you should remove uneaten portions.  You also  don't want to give him so much he feels compelled to store  any fresh food away where it can rot.  Anything you feed  your hamster that is fresh needs to be completely clean so wash  it first.
Here is a list of things that a hamster can eat as fresh food:   Apple, asparagus, banana, broccoli, calarese,  cantaloupe, carrots, cauliflower leaves and stalk, celery, chard,  chestnuts, chicory, corn on the cob, courettes, cress, cucumber,  grapes, green beans, kale, marrow, parsley, pear, peas,  strawberries, sweet corn, water chestnuts, watermelon.  Also egg,  bread, crickets, mealworms, and raisins are good healthy treats.
Now remember, do not feed any of these good things  too often.  They can cause diarrhea in quantity.   If you  suspect constipation or if your hamster is gaining excess weight  (and is not pregnant), feed more of these veggies and things.   If your hamster is pregnant, feeding them fresh foods  more often is actually a good thing, especially the apple which  can help avoid a number of birthing problems as well as  improving the health of the litter.
Things you should avoid giving to you hamster:  Lettuce, cabbage and brussel sprouts since they will cause gastritis, bladder trouble, and in the case of lettuce, liver or  kidney problems.    Also avoid tomato, pickles, chocolate,  orange, potato tops, rhubarb, onion and garlic since acidic foods  are not good for your hamster.  Steer away from any  excessively sticky foods as these may gum up the hamster's dry  pouches and may actually cause a pouch to become impacted.
Exercise is important too.  If you don't have a wheel for  your hamster, see to it that he gets out of his cage and is allowed  to move around under your supervision.  The movement  is important to his digestion and can help avoid constipation.   The exercise also helps to relieve stress which as I  mentioned earlier can cause illness if allowed to escalate.   Another component of exercise a hamster needs is something to  gnaw on.  Without this his teeth can over grow making it  impossible for the hamster to eat.  There are chews available at  pet stores but there are plenty of things you can find around  the house that will work just as well.  Clean fruit tree  branches, toilet paper tubes, or dog biscuits will work.  I even use  metal spoons which my dwarves seem to like better than  anything else in their cages.  Nylabones from the pet store are  another good choice.
Always pay attention to the hamster's teeth, fur,  eyes, underside, and habits.  Sometimes a little change in these  can indicate illness before it goes too far.  As always, if  you suspect something is wrong with your hamster, it's best to  get him to a vet right away rather than trying to diagnose  the trouble or waiting to see what develops.  The sooner  a hamster receives treatment the better chance there is for  a complete recovery.
So remember the guidelines for hamster health:   environment, diet, and exercise.  If you pay attention to these, your  hamster will remain healthy and happy.  Next time, we will  be discussing some specific simple ailments and what  treatments you might be able to provide.
Back to Newsletter Page