Hamster Health 3
Playing Doctor
By Doran Jones
Ever since I first mentioned that I give my hamsters regular physical exams, I have been asked by people to describe how I go about doing a physical exam on a hamster.  Now Iím not a vet, and chances are that you are not a vet either.  Donít worry.  The fact that you are not a vet really isnít an issue in this case because you are the one who must determine when to call in a vet.

The more you know about your hamster, the better you will know when to make that call.  Usually by the time a hamster has major symptoms there isnít much time to get to a vet before your little friend is beyond help.  Hopefully the ideas in this article will help you keep your hamster in good shape and healthy for years to come by helping you know when he is in need of an important visit to the vet.  So sit back and relax as I layout a typical procedure for giving your hamster a physical exam.

I make a great deal of noise about routine, and this will be no different.   Routine is the means to reduce stress for the hamster and for you.  If you are doing regular maintenance for a large hamstery, a schedule is a must; you can pace yourself and do the job over time instead of being compelled to clean all the cages and handle every hamster in one session.  The hamster will appreciate a routine as well.  The less stress you exert on your hamster the happier he will be. 

The best time to schedule an examination is usually at cage cleanings since you are going to remove the hamster from his cage at that time anyway.  Itís not strictly necessary to do the exam then but this is when I do them.

The first step in any good exam is to just look at your hamster.  Watch him in his cage for a while.  Is he doing anything abnormal for him?  Does he walk funny?  Is he sleeping more than usual?  Is he breathing normally or does his breathing look labored?   Is he suddenly hiding away from the rest of the hamsters (dwarves) in the colony?  Is he not interested in something new introduced into the cage?  Make a note of these things.  Donít depend on your memory.  By the time youíve finished you may have forgotten something really helpful.

Next look at the cage.  To do this youíll want to place the hamster in a temporary container; he wonít be there long so donít worry about toy and things.  In the cage, look for feces (droppings).  Are they firm or are they loose?  Have they changed color?    Does the cage smell different than normal?

Are there more feces and urine in the cage than usual?  This will sound odd but if the feces are not firm you want to get some samples.  If you canít find any droppings, check the temporary container you placed your hamster in; he should have produced a few droppings there within minutes.  There are a number of things that may be the cause of loose or watery droppings; it may be that your vet will want to test these samples for parasites.  Look at the food bowl; observe how much your hamster has eaten, what he has eaten, what food has he stored.  Look at the water bottle.  How much did he drink since you refilled it?  Again record this information; youíll want to note anything that is a change from what is normal for him.  You also will want to preserve the samples by sealing them in a container and placing them in the refrigerator.

Itís time to move on to examining the hamster itself.   Youíll want to weight the hamster first.  This will not be easy if you donít have a laboratory scale.  You could get a cheaper balance and weights, postage scale, a grocery scale, a medical or lab scale.  Youíll want something that can gauge in grams or fractions of an ounce.  Weighting a hamster is one of the best ways to monitor hydration and general metabolic health.  Even a small change in weight can indicate abnormal drinking or urination patterns, dehydration, diarrhea, constipation, pregnancy, trouble with teeth or pouches, tape worm, or even tumor.  Record your hamstersí weights on a graph with the date so you can easily compare it with the last weigh in.

Take a good look at the hamsters skin and fur.  Is it normal and pink? Is it red or flaky?  Are there any wounds on the skin?  Is there swelling?   Does it look stretched?  Examining the skin is a good way to test hydration.   When you pull up on the fur and loose skin does it fall back in place or does it droop and seem to have lost some elasticity?  If so the hamster may be dehydrated.  Is the fur thick and clean or are there some bald patches?  Does the fur look greasy or wet?  Is there any discoloration of the fur around the anal vent and tail. If there is this could mean diarrhea or fever.  In this case I take some clear tape and get a sample from the fur about the tail.   Because I have a good microscope I can check for some parasites that are easy to recognize.  You may want to just let the vet do this part.

Youíre also able to tell if the hamster has an external parasite by examining the skin and hair.  Brush your hamsterís hair roughly with a finger over a white sheet of paper; any nits (parasite eggs), parasite dropping, pruritus (a brown scabby dermatitis), or parasites themselves may fall onto this sheet and be more readily seen with the naked eye.  Collect this material if present and be prepared to show it to your vet.

After youíve looked on the outside of the skin, itís time to check under the skin.  This is accomplished by feel.  Rub the hamsters skin softly with your fingers.  Donít press too hard; you donít want to bruise your hamster or injure his bones.  Youíre checking now for lumps or bumps.  Pay particularly close attention to the abdomen and area just below the ribs.  Youíre feeling for some stiffness or unusual firmness which may indicated a tumor or an enlarged internal organ.  The hamster should mostly be soft.  If his pouches bulge, you can usually tell by feel if it is food or a lump but not always.  If his pouches are full and you are comfortable with emptying them do so.   Itís not easy unless you know what you are doing.  So alternatively check him again later to see if the food mass or lump is still there or has moved.  

Look at the overall shape of the hamster.  Is his body symmetrical?  Has the hamster body shape dramatically changed?  If so this could mean constipation, pregnancy, or a tumor.  Remember the droppings.  If your hamster produced no droppings in the temporary container, he may be constipated -- especially if you noticed wet or discolored fur about the anal vent.  Make a note if this is the case. 

Next we want to look at the eyes.  The eyes should be clear and opened all the way -- unless you just woke the little guy.  Drooping eyes are another sign of dehydration or illness.  Check for redness, stickiness, or pruritus.   The eye is a favorite spot for some external parasites.  Weepy and sticky eyes can indicate a respiratory ailment or an eye infection.

While you are looking at his face see if you can get him to open his mouth so you can check his teeth and see his gums.  His gums should be pink not red.   If you can, check the color of the inner pouches.  They should also be pink.  A red spot can be an abscess or a tumor or even a cut.   If he is tight lipped, get a water bottle or treat like a carrot and use it to tempt him to open up. 

For his teeth, primarily you are going to be looking at his incisors -- the front teeth.  Are all four of them still there?  Are they lined up next to their companion tooth?   Do they line up with the teeth below or above?  Can your hamster bite the carrot without trouble?  There should be about 1 to 1.5 centimeters of gap between the bottom and the top teeth when his mouth is fully opened.  You may not be able to get a good look at this unless your hamster bares his teeth in self-defense.  Through normal gnawing the incisors should stay in good shape but occasionally a hamster will not gnaw or there may be a genetic malocclusion of the tooth or jaw.  If you feel the teeth are too long, you should plan a trip to the vet to get those teeth trimmed soon.

Check the ears for discharges, wounds, lumps, redness, or again pruritus.  Ears can harbor parasites and are a favored spot for some types of mites. 

Lastly, check each paw for wounds, swelling, redness, and of course overgrown toenails.  Trim them or get them trimmed if they are too long.  Youíll know they are too long if there is an arch of 90 degrees or more on them.  

A stethoscope may be handy for checking respiratory sounds if you have one.  Itís unlikely youíll be able to glean much from the hamsters heart sounds.  They are both fiercely fast and quiet.  But if you hear a whine, a click, or a whistle it could be fluid in the sinus or lungs.  This could be pneumonia,  a cold, or an allergy; in any case seek the help of a vet right away.  Most respiratory problems can be deadly for your little friend in a short time;  itís not only important to identify that there is a problem but to get veterinary help as soon as you make that determination.

Itís unlikely youíll have access to a small animal thermometer but if you do great.  Itís very difficult to get an accurate temperature reading on a hamster even using a veterinary tympanic thermometer (a meter for reading temperature from the ear).  The temperature should be about 37 to 38 c -- thatís 98.6 to 100.4 f.

When you are through with taking notes, updating records, and cleaning the cage, give your hamsters a treat and put him back in his cage.  Read through the notes and decide if there is any symptom or group of symptoms that are a cause for concern.  Sometimes a symptom all by itself will not be significant but in association with others could be something serious.  If there are sudden changes in behavior or on your hamsterís body, youíll want to see a vet about these soon. 

Keep in mind as you do these exams that you are not a vet (unless of course you are a vet).  Sometime in the future you may feel certain your hamster has a certain serious problem; I want to emphasize that should this happen you need to see a vet.  Never take it upon yourself to treat or medicate a hamster for serious problems.  You could be mistaken in your diagnosis and even a non-specialist vet would be better qualified to diagnose a symptomís true cause than yourself.

After youíve gone through these steps a few times, they will become natural and easier to do.  Hopefully they will also help you identify problems while they are still very treatable.  Your hamster may just be thanking you for saving his life.
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