Worried that your hamster might get sick? While it isn’t easy to think about, we all know that our animal companions can get sick or injured. Hamsters are vulnerable to a host of ailments that can shorten their 2-4 year lifespan, but adequate care throughout their lives can minimize their risks of contracting them. We've researched this and prepared this thorough guide about hamster diseases with worried owners in mind.
This post was written with the extensive help of Dr. Alicia McLaughlin, DVM. Dr. McLaughlin received her DVM degree from Oklahoma State University and is now an associate veterinarian at The Center for Bird and Exotic Animal Medicine in Bothell, WA. Dr. McLaughlin is a member of the American Veterinary Medical Association as well as the Association of Exotic Mammal Veterinarians, among other professional organizations.
There are 7 common hamster health problems which every owner needs to know about -
- Skin masses: Abscesses
- Skin masses: Cancer and tumors
- Respiratory Infections
- Heart Disease
- Kidney Disease
- Wet Tail Disease
Know that your hamster getting sick is not necessarily a reflection of the quality of care that you provide as an owner. These things can happen regardless of how well you try to safeguard your hamster against sickness. However, certain practices and cautionary behaviors can save their lives or even prevent them from getting sick in the first place.
Before we begin, please keep in mind that this article does not intend to replace the advice of your veterinarian. Never trust an online source over an educated professional that knows how to diagnose and treat illnesses in animals.
Abscesses in Hamsters
Hamsters are prone to developing a variety of lumps and bumps over their body. The two most common causes for skin masses in hamsters are abscesses and tumors. Unfortunately, there is no way to differentiate which of these problems that you are dealing with just by looking at the mass (unless the abscess has ruptured).
Just like humans, hamsters can form pus-filled abscesses anywhere on their body – including on the inside of their mouths. This results from infection gone undetected and left to persist until a noticeable bump grows somewhere on their body.
The formation of an abscess indicates that the hamster’s body has been attempting to fight off its infection, thus resulting in the accumulation of white blood cells at the site. Abscesses often form in response to a penetrating wound (such as an animal bite).
Symptoms of abscesses in hamsters
The most prominent symptom of your hamster having an abscess is, of course, the presence of the abscess itself. Sometimes these bumps are small, but even then, a simple visual examination of your pet can identify this problem.
This is a localized swelling, not full-bodied, so if your hamster seems to be swelling all over their body it is probably not an abscess that you are dealing with.
Sometimes you may notice a foul smelling white, yellow, or greenish liquid at the site of the bump if the abscess has ruptured.
Treatment of abscesses in hamsters
The only effective way to treat an abscess on your hamster is to have the abscess itself lanced and cleaned. Depending on the type and location of the abscess, surgery may be necessary to "marsupialize" the abscess to prevent it from continuing to fill up with infected debris.
Antibiotics (either localized or systemic) are usually required to ensure that the initial infection that caused the abscess won’t re-occur and cause further damage to the hamster. Only a veterinarian can diagnose and treat an abscess.
Never try to lance your hamster’s abscess yourself! This could end in the infection spreading and causing further harm.
If the hamster is experiencing swelling of the face due to an abscess, this may be indicative of tooth decay that may require some additional expertise and treatment. However, this could also be caused by a cheek pouch abscess or cheek pouch tumor.
Prevention of abscesses in hamsters
Most times, abscesses are caused by bacterial infections. This bacterium is introduced to their system typically via cuts and scrapes that they have experienced in their daily activities.
The best way to prevent abscesses from occurring is to address any scrapes and cuts as soon as you see them. Usually, a cotton ball with warm water applied to the site until bleeding stops is adequate. Never try to use disinfectant or other first aid agents that you would use on a human with a cut. These items contain chemicals that, while harmless to us, could agitate a hamster’s delicate skin.
Disinfecting the wound is not enough! It can be very difficult for an owner to judge the severity of a wound and there may be a need for further treatment, including a possible course of preventive antibiotics. Get your hamster to the vet immediately and don't delay treatment of any wound - even if it seems superficial.
Cancers and Tumors in Hamsters
There are two types of tumors that can emerge on a hamster’s body: benign and malignant tumors.
A benign tumor is an abnormal growth of cells that may be locally invasive and get very large but they do not metastasize. Benign tumors can cause harm to the hamster’s body if they grow to a point where they hinder the hamster’s mobility or his/her quality of life. When they appear in some areas - such as the adrenal glands - benign tumors can also affect your hamster's health by generating excessive hormone-producing tissue.
Malignant tumors, on the other hand, are not contained to their site of origin. These tumors spread elsewhere in the body in what is known as metastasizing.
Lymphoma, a type of tumor that appears on the lymph glands, most commonly affects older hamsters and can be seen in the lymphatic system (thymus, liver, spleen, lymph nodes). Lymphoma can also manifest itself as skin disease and may be mistaken for other skin conditions like parasite infections.
Symptoms of cancer in hamsters
A tumor can appear on any area of the hamster’s body, as well as on its internal organs, so identifying the presence of a tumor can be a tricky matter. If it appears somewhere obvious on the body, such as on one of the hamster’s limbs, you’ll be able to see it after it’s formed. Tumors on the brain, intestine, and womb will need to be identified via veterinarian imaging technology.
While a visible lump is the most obvious symptom of a benign or malignant tumor, there are other signs that you can look for in your hamster. They cannot tell you that they don’t feel so well, so you have to be well-versed on your hamster’s typical behavior and know what’s normal versus what’s not. Keep an eye out for these symptoms:
- Sudden aggression
- Excessive sleep
- Appetite loss/weight loss
- Unusual actions like circling and attempting somersaults, which can suggest the presence of a tumor on the brain
- Abdominal pain
- Skin inflammation (in the case of cutaneous lymphoma)
Treatment of cancer in hamsters
First, your veterinarian will do a visual exam of the hamster to identify any obvious tumors. He or she will need to biopsy the tumor in order to determine whether it's benign or malignant.
If the concern is about a possible internal tumor, your vet will have to make use of imaging technology like X-rays to find it. Once this is done, a part of the tumor will be taken for the purpose of being biopsied. From there, the vet will be able to diagnose its benign or malignant status.
Your vet will likely recommend the surgical removal of any tumor, whether it is malignant or not, due to the risk of tumor growth impeding the functionality of the hamster’s organs. If the tumor is detected early, there is a very strong chance that your hamster will make a full recovery.
Can hamsters get chemo?
"Hamsters can absolutely be treated for cancer beyond simple surgical removal," says the veterinarian Dr. McLaughlin. "It is often cheaper to treat them with chemotherapy as the dose of drug necessary to treat them is so much smaller compared to a dog, cat, or human. Consulting with a veterinary oncologist who is familiar with the treatment of cancer in exotic species is something I always recommend, as there are many options for palliative care and helping improve quality of life."
Prevention of cancer and tumors in hamsters
Genetics are the dominating factor behind the development of tumors and cancer in hamsters. Since your hamster’s genes aren’t something that you can change, there’s not much that you can do to prevent tumors from forming.
The best thing that you can do, in addition to providing quality hamster care year-round, is to routinely inspect your hamster for any new lumps and bumps. This way, you’ll notice any changes right away and can get in with your vet promptly.
Respiratory Infections in Hamsters
It is not uncommon for hamsters to develop respiratory infections. Respiratory infections can be caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi.
In hamsters, a respiratory infection is very likely to progress and become pneumonia. When the symptoms are caught in time and addressed by a veterinarian, respiratory infections don’t have to be life-threatening to hamsters.
Symptoms of respiratory infections in hamsters
Any of the following symptoms could indicate respiratory infections, especially when your hamster is exhibiting more than one symptom -
- runny eyes and/or nose
- appetite loss
Your hamster may find it difficult to breathe and might sound squeaky when they do. You may notice rapid chest movements as it tries to capture its breath, which the infection is actively suppressing his or her ability to do so.
Keep in mind that hamsters with heart disease or lung tumors can have identical symptoms to hamsters with respiratory infections. Your veterinarian will need to determine which of the above is causing your hamster’s illness with a combination of physical exam findings, clinical history, and diagnostic testing.
Treatment of respiratory infections in hamsters
As soon as you notice any of these symptoms, take a trip to the vet with their furry companion for an examination.
The vet will be able to determine with certainty whether your hamster is dealing with a respiratory infection or something else by performing a diagnostic workup, which may include x-rays, bloodwork, cultures, or cytologies.
If your hamster is sick enough, it may need to be hospitalized to receive oxygen therapy, fluid therapy, nebulization therapy, and other more intensive treatments. Because of how serious respiratory illnesses can be for hamsters, it is absolutely essential to follow the veterinarian’s orders to the letter. Pneumonia can be fatal!
Prevention of respiratory infections in hamsters
Generally speaking, attentive and thorough hamster care can prevent respiratory infections from taking place. A clean environment, a nutritious diet, adequate exercise, hydration, and warmth are the best things for preventing the majority of ailments that can get hamsters sick.
Humans and other animals who are sick should avoid interacting with the hamster as much as possible, as our illnesses can be transferred to our pets just like we can transmit these illnesses from person to person.
Dusty environments or dirty environments (particularly cages that are not frequently cleaned and have a lot of urine buildup; the ammonia in urine is extremely irritating to the lungs) contribute heavily to many cases of respiratory infection in hamsters and other small animals.
You can minimize this risk by ensuring that their enclosure is in a very clean area and that they do not have access to any areas that are dusty or otherwise dirty.
Certain types of bedding can create more dust than others, so be sure to use a bedding type that produces little to no dust.
Heart Disease in Hamsters
Hamsters are also prone to heart disease. Particular genetic lines of hamsters may be more at risk than others, as there is often a genetic component to cardiac conditions.
Symptoms of Heart Disease in Hamsters
Symptoms of heart disease are often very similar to respiratory infections. Affected hamsters may
- be more lethargic than normal and get tired quickly with any physical activity
- breath faster than normal
- make a wheezing, gurgling, or congested sound when breathing
- have a bluish tint to their gums, or even collapse and lose consciousness.
A hamster showing any of these symptoms needs emergency veterinary care!
Treatment of Heart Disease in Hamsters
Although heart disease cannot be cured, it can be managed with medical treatments.
The first step to treating heart disease is finding out what type of heart problem the hamster has. heart disease can be caused by cardiac muscle disorders, valvular disorders, hypertension, and many other conditions.
The best way to evaluate heart function is to have an ultrasound of the heart (called an echocardiogram) performed, along with x-rays to screen for signs of heart failure or other lung disorders. Other diagnostic tests may also be recommended depending on what is seen on x-rays and the echocardiogram.
Once the cause of the disease has been determined, your veterinarian will prescribe medications to help your hamster cope with the symptoms of heart disease (for example, if your hamster has high blood pressure, medications can be prescribed that will lower blood pressure).
If your hamster has gone into heart failure, more aggressive treatment may be necessary, including hospitalization with oxygen therapy, until your pet can be stabilized with medications.
Unfortunately, heart disease is always progressive, and eventually, the disease process will get bad enough that it will no longer respond well to medications. At that point, euthanasia will likely be recommended to prevent the hamster from suffering.
Prevention of Heart Disease in Hamsters
It may not be possible to prevent heart disease from occurring if your hamster is genetically predisposed to this condition.
However, you can minimize your hamster’s risk by preventing him/her from becoming obese (a common risk factor for heart conditions), providing him/her with a balanced diet (as some heart conditions have been linked to nutritional deficiencies), and plenty of opportunities for exercise (as this will help strengthen your pet’s cardiovascular system).
Dehydration in Hamsters
Even when their water bottle is kept full, it is entirely possible for a hamster to succumb to dehydration, which can be fatal if gone unnoticed and unattended for too long. Dehydration is especially common when the environment is warm, such as during the summer months.
Often, the presence of dehydration it is a sign that the hamster is dealing with another underlying health problem, such as diarrhea, respiratory infections, or other internal disorders.
Symptoms of Dehydration in Hamsters
If your hamster doesn’t seem to be its usual active self; if you lift up the skin on your hamster’s back and it takes more than 1 second to flatten back out (a symptom known as decreased skin turgor); and/or your hamster is urinating less than normal, he/she has become dehydrated, and likely has been for some time.
Listlessness and a decreased skin turgor are two of the telltale signs of dehydration in hamsters. The first indication that many hamster owners have is noticing that their pet is simply lying in its cage and not moving. They will likely ignore their food and toys and may not even touch their water if they feel too sick to fulfill this very basic need.
Treatment of Dehydration in Hamsters
Early detection of dehydration is the difference between a scary occurrence and a fatal one. Hamsters suffering from dehydration should be removed from their warm environment as quickly as possible and placed into a cooler one.
If dehydration is suspected, owners should take their hamster to the vet to have the dehydration addressed and treated as soon as possible (i.e., on an emergency basis).
If you can't get to the vet right away, you can try and smooth some cool (but not cold) water over its fur to bring down its body temperature. You can also place a small bowl of water temporarily into their enclosure to encourage them to drink more. Make sure not to use a dish that they can tip over onto themselves. You can also try to get them to drink some water by using a syringe or eye dropper to drip some water slowly into their mouth.
All of these are not as effective as getting your hamster to the vet ASAP, so if at all possible, do that and don't lose precious time trying to treat this on your own.
If dehydration is treated while it is still mild, subcutaneous fluids and oral hydration may be sufficient to save your hamster’s life. If medical treatment is delayed, IV fluids and hospitalization may be necessary to hydrate the small animal, and your hamster will have a much lower chance of survival.
Your vet will also need to find out whether the dehydration was caused any other short or long-term health problems for your hamster and treat any underlying diseases.
Prevention of Dehydration in Hamsters
The easiest and most effective way to safeguard your hamster against dehydration is to keep their enclosure away from direct sunlight. Excessive heat can cause dehydration in hamsters, especially if their enclosure is made of plastic or glass. Both materials trap and hold onto heat in a way that barred cages do not and provide less ventilation.
Hamster owners should also pay close attention to the water bottle that their pet uses. Check it daily to ensure that the water is free to flow without any blockages that could prevent it from getting to your hamster. If water will not come out of the bottle, or it does so dreadfully slowly, it is time to repair or replace the water bottle.
Pay special attention to a sick hamster, as he or she could be at risk for dehydration. Diarrhea can cause your hamster to lose fluids and become dehydrated. That's one more reason to get your hamster to the vet as soon as you suspect something may be wrong.
Kidney Disease in Hamsters
Kidney disease is one of the most common medical conditions that hamsters can suffer from. There are many different causes for kidney disease, including long-term consumption of high protein diets, infections, toxin exposure, chronic dehydration, cancer, and amyloidosis.
Amyloidosis is a condition that results from a certain protein, called amyloid, accumulating inside one or both of the animal’s kidneys. This condition mostly affects female hamsters, but male hamsters can also be affected by kidney disease.
Insatiable thirst and very frequent urination are symptoms of kidney disease, though they are also indicative of other disorders like Cushing’s and diabetes. Don’t assume kidney disease is the culprit if your hamster simply seems to be peeing and drinking a lot. You should look for these symptoms in addition to:
- Blood in the urine
- Weight loss
- Bloating/swelling caused by excessive water retention
- Hair loss
- Sticky eyes
If one or more of these symptoms accompany the thirst and urination symptoms, it’s time for a visit to the vet!
Kidneys can recover from a certain amount of damage if the underlying cause is identified and treated fast enough. However, by the time kidney damage is identifiable on bloodwork, more than 75% of kidney function is gone.
Alas, kidney transplants are not possible for hamsters at this time, so if the hamster has a complete failure of both kidneys, it will not survive. This means many hamsters are unable to recover by the time the disease is diagnosed.
This does not mean that it is a death sentence for every hamster, however. Some hamsters are capable of having their diseased kidney removed and living a happy life for their remaining years. “It is also possible for some mild cases of kidney disease to be managed with medical care.” For many hamsters, though, this is not the case. Most hamsters that experience kidney disease, especially in both kidneys, end up being euthanized.
The best thing that you can do to help protect your hamster from kidney disease is to feed them a balanced diet based on quality hamster feed and supplemented with a limited amount of healthy treats.
Adequate hydration is key to overall kidney health, so make sure that your hamster always has access to clean, fresh water.
Wet Tail Disease in Hamsters
Wet Tail is a collective term used to describe any disease that results in hamsters developing diarrhea. There are many different causes for diarrhea in hamsters, including exposure to certain bacteria, infection with internal parasites, inappropriate diet, or stress leading to changes in the normal bacterial population of the digestive tract.
It can be difficult to determine which disease process is responsible for this symptom, but it is well-known that wet tail tends to afflict stressed hamsters more than any others. Dwarf hamsters are less likely to contract this disease, while Syrian hamsters are more prone. Wet tail is an exceptionally common, life-threatening problem, so every owner should be aware of it.
Symptoms of Wet Tail Disease in Hamsters
There are many symptoms associated with wet tail, with the most notable symptoms being:
- A literal wet tail that is doused with fecal matter
- A foul odor
- Appetite loss
- Lack of energy
- Hunching of the back when they walk (a sign of pain)
- Folded ears
- Aggressive behaviors
Treatment of Wet Tail Disease in Hamsters
Wet tail is unfortunately often not noticed by the pet owner until the hamster is severely dehydrated and on death’s door.
The only way to improve your hamster’s likelihood of surviving this disease is to get them to a vet and have them treated within 24 hours of the emergence of symptoms.
As soon as you observe symptoms of wet tail, quarantine the hamster away from other animals – especially other hamsters – and get on the phone with your vet to schedule an emergency appointment.
The veterinarian will want to provide fluid support, antibiotics, and other treatments to your hamster to help stabilize him/her as soon as possible. The veterinarian will likely also recommend diagnostic testing to try to find out why wet tail has occurred, including (at bare minimum) fecal analysis to look for signs of internal parasites, bacterial overgrowth, and other disease causing organisms.
Unless the underlying cause for the illness is identified and treated properly, the hamster is not going to recover.
What you need to do at home until you get to the vet
In the time between the call and waiting for your appointment, you must take several precautions to avoid passing the disease onto another hamster or worsening your hamster’s current condition.
Clean everything that the hamster has come into contact with, including their enclosure and everything inside of it. Wash your hands very thoroughly after handling your hamster or any of their belongings. If they will eat, syringe-feed the hamster Oxbow Herbivore Critical Care, a high fiber recovery diet for ill hamsters that contains probiotics and may help rehydrate them.
If you feel that you have to clean their tail, do not submerge the hamster into a bath of any kind. Instead, make use of a Q-tip or cotton ball to lightly clean the tail of fecal matter. If this seems to further stress out your hamster, avoid this step in their treatment. Remember: stress can make wet tail worse.
Prevention of Wet Tail Disease in Hamsters
Preventing wet tail is much easier than treating the affected hamster once symptoms arise. Providing your hamster with a high quality of care consistently is the best safeguard against this often-fatal disease.
Avoid housing hamsters together, as this can raise their stress levels. Know when the time is right to separate offspring. Keep their enclosure clean and dry. Provide a balanced, healthy diet and consistent access to fresh, clean water.
Moving from one enclosure to another (or even worse, from home to home) is exceptionally stressful on hamsters and should be avoided whenever possible. If moving the hamster is necessary, make sure to meet all of the criteria listed in the paragraph above this one to ensure that you are minimizing the amount of stress that your hamster will experience.
High-Quality Care is the Number One Preventative
Most of these conditions can be mitigated entirely by ensuring that you are providing your hamster with the highest quality of care possible from day one.
A balanced diet of healthy foods, limitless access to water to hydrate themselves, and a clean environment go a long way toward ensuring that your hamster has a long and healthy life. Hamsters can live anywhere between two to four years when their owners implement proper care and learn how to identify the symptoms of these common hamster ailments.
Whenever you are in doubt about a condition that your hamster may or may not be facing, never hesitate to take a trip to the vet. They have the experience, the education and the tools to diagnose and treat any number of injuries, sicknesses and disorders that can befall your furry companion animal.
We'd like to once again thank Dr. Alicia McLaughlin, DVM, of The Center for Bird and Exotic Animal Medicine in Bothell, WA. Dr. McLaughlin's invaluable input helped us make sure we bring hamster owner the best and most up-to-date information about veterinary care for hamsters.