Hamster Health 2
Health Problems
By Doran Jones
Specific Health Problems

Because a hamsterís health can deteriorate so quickly, itís important to be aware of key signs of illness so that you can take action before the illness has a chance to get to tight a hold on your little friend.  Here are some things to watch for:

dull looking partly closed eyes,
weeping from the eyes,
hunched walking,
wet fur,
matted fur,
fur loss,
a loss of sheen on the fur,
discolored fur at the tail,
diarrhea,
not eating,
not drinking,
wasting or losing weight dramatically,
lethargy,
excessive drinking,
shaking,
wheezing,
sneezing,
coughing,
lumps,
bumps,
rashes,
or any sudden change of habit or temperament.

These symptoms alone or in different combinations indicate an assortment of problems, many of which can be life threatening.  If you value your hamsterís life, itís important that when you see these symptoms you seek the help of a trained veterinary specialist even if you may not be able to identify an illness. 

I will try to give a list of some common illnesses next - some are not life threatening while some will kill in 24 to 48 hours.  Itís important that you realize that this document is in no way intended as a complete list and that only a qualified vet should diagnose a hamster illness.


Teeth

Hamster teeth should be yellow or brownish white.  As you may know, hamster incisors grow perpetually.  This may be a problem if the hamster chooses not to gnaw to file down his teeth. You should inspect your hamsterís teeth regularly.  If they are getting too long, the hamster will not be able to eat properly.  Also there is a condition called malocclusion which is an inherited misalignment of the teeth.  A hamster can die from starvation with this problem, but there is also a risk that the teeth themselves will grow until they penetrate the skull, killing the hamster.   The teeth in this case need to be clipped.  A vet can trim them for you.  If your hamster has maloccluded teeth, you will have to have this done regularly, about every other month, but you should check his teeth routinely when you clean his cage.  The vet can show you how to use baby nail clippers or nippers to keep the teeth at the right length if you are brave enough or independent enough to do this yourself.  Do not feed your hamster sweets meant for humans and limit the amount of sweetened hamsters treats as they are not good for hamster molars.  Sticky foods can gum up the teeth and cheek pouches and cause problems.

Teeth can be knocked out on impacted during a fall.  This is not good.  Because hamster teeth are not rooted the way a humanís teeth are, there is probably no way to save the tooth. If it was an incisor that was knocked out, the hamster may have an awful time eating and will have to have his teeth clipped regularly as with the maloccluded teeth.

Ears

Ears are favorite sites for some parasites.  They can also become infected.  You should check your hamsterís ears regularly for any change.  Also, if your hamster walks funny or is generally lethargic, it could be an ear infection that has affected his inner ear.   Again a vet is your best chance to help your hamsters.

Eyes

Hamsters donít see well in the first place so an eye injury is usually not life threatening or even dehabilitating.  Wood shavings sometimes cause injury to a hamsterís eye.  Eyes may also become infected after a scratch during a struggle with other hamsters.  Sometimes this causes fur loss around the eye or bulging of the eye.  Some hamsters even have allergies.  All of these ailments will cause an eye to weep.  The weeping in turn can stick the eye shut.  Syrian hamsters can have a genetic disorder called entropion which chronically turns an eyelid in, causing the eye lashes to irritate the eye.  These ailments can be treated with warm water or warm saline solution and a cotton swab.  Gently swab the eye and pull it carefully open.  In the case of Entropion there is no permanent cure.  For infection you should see a vet to get an antibiotic cream or eye drops.  If your hamster has a bulging eye or has lost an eye, you should see a vet; many times the swelling will go down on itís own but there are some cases where it might not.  A hamsterís eye may also get cloudy, go white, gray or even blue.  This could be an infection or a cataract.  This condition also requires a vetís attention even though there may be nothing a vet can do for a cataract.  If itís an infection, your hamster will probably need medication.

Nails

Nails, like teeth, grow without end.  If you let them they will grow awkwardly long to the point your hamster may have a tough time eating.  To help your hamster remain manually dexterous, youíll have to keep his nails from getting out of control.  There are two good ways to do this:  baby nail clippers or sand paper.  With the nail clipper method, youíll have to hold your hamster while you trim each nail.  If you look closely, you will see that the nail has a thin part and a thicker part. The thickened part of the nail, the quick, is actually alive.  There are blood vessels inside that will bleed if you trim the nail too short.  So only trim the thin part of the nail.  Anyone who has tried this knows that it can be a challenge to hold the hamsters still while you give them a manicure.  Thatís where the ingenious sand paper method comes into play.  If you mount sand paper on a wooden ramp and lean it at a severe angle on a wall of the hamsterís cage, the hamster will try to climb it and subsequently file his own nails down.  The only hazard in this method is that if the hamster files too long on the ramp heíll get sore feet, so watch to make sure you get the ramp out of the cage before this happens.

Pouches

Hamsters usually do a good job taking care of their cheek pouches.  On rare occasions they might have a problem.  If they tried to stuff a large item or hazardous item into their pouch, they could become impacted.  In this case the hamster will look like he has a swollen face on one side.  (Hamsters look very puffy when their cheeks are full.)  If he has his pouch full for longer than a day and he is wet around he face, neck, and arm - itís likely he has an impacted pouch.  A vet will have to empty the pouch for the hamster.  You want to have this done soon.  If it goes too long, it could become abscessed and he could lose the pouch or even die.  Sometimes if there is a problem with a hamsterís cheek pouch, the hamster will turn the pouch out of his mouth.  This is usually due to soreness and infection.  Again a vet is the best answer.  You may try to turn the pouch back in, but I find this is not easy even if you know what you are doing.

Pouches are also a common site for tumors.  The accessibility of this pouch is one of the reasons hamsters have been used in tumor research so often.  You should pay attention to your hamsterís neck and pouch area for tumors or lumps and see a vet if you find one.   


Wounds

Sometimes if a hamster gets into a fight or is unlucky with a sharp edge on some plastic wheels they can get a wound.  For the most part your hamster will know what to do to keep these wounds clean.   But if it is in a hard to reach area or is bleeding you may want to help your hamster.  A hard to reach spot is a good place to use a little triple antibiotic ointment..  If the wound is closer to the face or in an easily accessible area you may want to use a 3% solution of hydrogen peroxide (approximately 3 parts water to 1 part peroxide).  If the wound becomes infected, you should take the hamster to a vet for treatment.  Some wounds can infect and become abscesses that will look a lot like a tumor.  In those cases the abscess may have to be drained.


Hibernation

Syrian hamsters are what is known permissive hibernators, meaning they lose weight in favor of storing food for the winter and then arenít obligated to hibernate at all or they will wake during hibernation and eat from their stores of food.  Obligatory hibernators will gain lots of weight for the winter and then sleep though it.  The trouble is that hamsters arenít good at hibernating.  Some hamsters can not hibernate at all; some hibernate and die of hypothermia.   There is no reason your pet hamster should need to hibernate.  There are a few things you can do to see that it doesnít happen.  First, see to it they have plenty of light during the day.  Next, make sure the temperature is at 70 degrees or higher.  Also, do not allow the hamster to make a huge storage cache of food.  Keep the hamster away from drafty locations.  And last, donít fill the cage with two inches or more of litter; one inch and some nesting material is fine.

If your hamster tries to hibernate, they will look shaky, their temperature will be low, and they will be less active than normal.  They may even look dead, though on close examination youíll see whiskers move.  If this happens youíll want to move the hamster into a warmer place and maybe hold him for a while next to you until his body temperature rises.


Lumps

There are a number of types of lump your hamster could develop.  Some are fatal and cause severe symptoms and some are relatively mild.  A lump may be a cyst or blocked gland or it can be a fatty mass or cancerous growth.  Most small surface lumps can now be fairly safely removed by a competent vet if caught early.  Some lumps arenít dangerous and may not need removal.

The most common site for lumps is the cheeks and neck but they may occur almost anywhere. Adult females especially nursing mothers have a risk of developing a mastitis.  The area around a nipple and breast may become red, hard, and swollen.  The hamster should see a vet for medication and in extreme cases surgery.  If the mother has nursing pups and they are older than a week, carefully take the whole cage to the vet.  If the pups are younger, I would probably wait to take her.  Scent glands can also become infected and swollen.  Dwarves have a scent gland on their bellies about where their naval should be.  Syrians have scent glands on their hips, the outside of their lower waist and thighs.  Young pups are most susceptible to this type of infection. 

Internal lumps can be more difficult.  Most internal lumps are usually inoperable mainly because the hamster can not survive long enough under general anesthesia.  Then too, there are conditions under which you may never see the lump until your hamsters passes away.  The best advice I could give here is play with your hamsters routinely; pay attention to the way they look and feel.  Every time I clean a cage the hamsters in that cage get a physical exam.  If I find a lump, which thankfully is very rare, the hamster goes to the vet to have it checked.

Remember anytime you have any trouble with your hamster a good veterinarian can be you and your hamsterís best friend.  I try to learn something new every time I visit a vet.  Since Iím paying for the visit, I expect the vet to communicate with me.  You should too.

Well, that wraps up this addition.  Next time Iím going to cover some of the serious problems - both diseases and parasites that are rare but can affect your hamsterís good health.  Until next time, take care of those hamsters.
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