|When a Hamster Reaches the End|
|By David Imber|
| This is the thing that we who love hamsters hate the most. We know that a mere one thousand days is a typical life span for a Syrian hamster. Dwarves are given even less time with us. So if we care about our pets we try to compensate by making every day a good one. We try to learn the best ways to keep our hamsters healthy and comfortable – the most nutritious foods, safest bedding, daily exercise – and when illness occurs, we rush to the veterinarian, who may or may not be able to help, but if we did any less we’d feel remiss.
But the point of this is to let readers know that there’s a time when it’s OK to let go.
Some of the most common inquiries fielded by hamster care advocates, and asked on the various lists and forums, sound so alike that they seem like the same question, over and over again. In these inquiries the pet owner describes certain symptoms their hamster is exhibiting. By themselves, these symptoms resemble those of common hamster ailments, many of which can be treated with antibiotics and other medicines, diet change, tooth trimming and so on. But when the hamster advocate asks the age of the hamster a different picture emerges. It becomes clear that the pet owner is seeing the hamster gradually dying of natural causes. It has entered what I call the “twilight period” of a hamster’s life.
If one watches their hamster every day it’s easy to see the changes that come with maturity. Babies look perplexed and sound squealy all the time. Youngsters are brimming with manic energy. They’ll hang on the water bottle and bang it against the cage, gnaw on bars, destroy all their “furniture”, run like mad in the wheel. In short, they’ll look like they’ve got a lot of living to do and they’re raring to go. When they reach full maturity that crazy energy will have burned off, and their personality will become more rounded and dependable. They’ll come out for playtime at a certain hour every day, but otherwise retire to their lair and groom nonchalantly for hours on end. This is the longest sustained period of the ham’s life, and it’s the most satisfying for us, because we can get to know their subtle personality in detail. And if any problem presents itself, that knowledge makes it easier to assist with.
When late maturity sets in, a hamster will typically groom less and sleep more. It will become thinner. Sometimes this is not clearly noticeable because of the fur, but the carer will notice more muscularity. That “baby fat” look will have all but disappeared. One very noticeable area of aging is the neck. In their chubby youth, a hamster’s figure is hard to distinguish. They’re little more than fluffy blobs and it’s hard to tell where the head ends and the body begins. One thing you notice in an aging hamster is that a distinct neck begins to appear. That happens fairly early in the late maturation process, so don’t panic if you see it in a relatively young ham.
If you’re caring for your first ham it might be hard to notice, but a healthy ham has bright, liquid eyes and there’s a sheen to its fur (depending upon the type of hamster). In old age the eyes become more matte, and the fur becomes dull and sparse. Breathing may become labored, but even before that you can often see a very aged hamster’s rapid heartbeat when it’s at rest. A hamster in this stage may stagger when it walks, and it may tremble when it stands. If you’re seeing these things and your ham is two and a half years old or older, you may be watching the hamster declining toward the end of its life.
Other signs at this time: Lack of grooming has left the hamster’s hind parts messy, and it may not smell typically clean. There is a spot right behind the hamster’s head, on its back, that is the most difficult place for it to bathe itself. In youth a ham will pull and stretch this area to clean it as best it can, so when the ham no longer grooms that part of its body, it’s often because it can’t. It can’t physically, and it’s lost the will. A hamster in rapid decline may pouch food out of habit, but not eat it, because its digestive system is no longer fully functioning. A hamster deep in the twilight period will feel physically cool to the touch, and it may sleep and eat in a hunched posture.
Here’s the hard part: What to do? I mentioned that the eyes become dull. Well, that could also be a sign of respiratory infection in a younger ham, and then antibiotics may help. But you’ve got to be realistic about whether that’s the case. If you’re seeing a number of the conditions described above, and your hamster’s elderly, bringing it to a veterinarian, and putting it on antibiotics, which will further strain its digestive system, is just harsh, and there’s no medicine in existence that can cure old age.
So you’ve got to use common sense and intuition. You’ve got to ask yourself, if your ham’s stopped eating and you’re wondering if there’s an intestinal blockage, could a ham over two years old - late eighties in human terms - survive a major bowel resection, even if you could find a veterinarian willing to do it? Is medical intervention worth risking the panic the ham might feel being wrenched from its relatively comfortable environment, will it survive the shock of uncertain sights and smells, the prodding and poking of the doc, sounds of other animals, cars, and other unaccustomed stimulation?
When an old ham is shaky on its legs, breathing heavily after a few steps, no longer interested in play, and especially if it suddenly balks or complains about being touched, you have to assume that to attempt “heroic” techniques to restore its health would only cause it stress and hasten its decline. What can you do? Not much beyond showing it exceptional care and gentility. Add some soft, high protein foods, like scrambled egg, yogurt, tofu, cooked, mashed pumpkin, cooked oatmeal to its diet. If you can trim overgrown incisors without stressing the ham, that’s great, but if not, these soft, nutritious foods will go down easily and preserve some vigor. If you haven’t the time to prepare anything on given day, quality human baby food can help. If the ham isn’t bathing itself properly, a cotton swab dipped in a little olive oil can be used to clean its hind parts and help with constipation, a common problem at this stage. As systems shut down the ham will lose body heat easily, make sure it has lots of pre-torn, unscented toilet paper that it can easily gather around itself for a warm bed. Prevent drafts from reaching the cage, but there’s no need to dim the lights or quiet yourself around an aged ham. The stimulation is its connection to you, and that connection is the only concept the ham has of life ongoing, so it’s important to keep that up.
I must emphasize that some hams linger in their twilight period for months. Their decline hits a low plateau and there is no change from day to day, except for a subtle but noticeable advancing frailness. This can be disconcerting because while the ham is no longer the pet you knew, it is still vital and still fully dependent on your care. It’s not the purpose of this essay to get into the emotional and psychological aspects of pet care, but if I may indulge that thinking a bit, if your ham is healthy now, and playful, and making you smile, save a little of that happiness in your emotional piggy bank. During those long, quiet, dark days when you know your hamster is destined to leave you and there’s no longer anything you can reasonably do, that’s when you dip into the bank and give back a little something to the ham that’s given so much to you. Not trying to save its life when there’s no longer any reasonable way to do so doesn’t mean you’re uncaring. Your caring and strength are needed as much as ever, just in a different way.