Hamster health checks
These small, special animals rely on us to ensure they’re healthy and happy. As well as providing nutritious hamster food and creating a suitable hamster habitat for them to thrive in, there are some important health checks that you should carry our regularly to ensure your hamster is in the pink.
Getting to know your hamster’s normal behaviour and habits will help you be able to spot if something is not quite right. This is very important because, as the RSPCA points out: “Hamsters can become unwell and go downhill very quickly, but may often only show subtle signs of being in pain or distress, or that they are suffering, until it is very severe.”
As well as providing suitable accommodation, company of their own kind (it’s only the Syrian hamster that prefers to go it alone) and the right nutrition, there are some regular checks that you can carry out to ensure your hamster is hale and hearty. And, by doing this, you’ll also be able to identify if your hamster is suffering from a potentially serious condition so you can take them straight to the vet for treatment.
A healthy hamster
A healthy hamster will have a normal, smooth gait, bright, clear eyes, healthy skin and a soft, shiny coat that’s free of dry patches, parasites, cuts and swellings. Their teeth will be of a relatively even length and not overgrown. Their mouths will not have any cuts, or scabs. Their nails will be a good length, and their feet and legs will be free of scabs and swellings and their bottom will be clear of any discharge, blood or wetness.
If you’re not sure where to start when it comes to hamster health checks, the RSPCA has some useful tips: “Visually check that they are well every day, see that they are behaving normally, moving, breathing well, sitting normally, that they have bright eyes and a shiny coat, and do not have wounds or lumps. Physically examine your hamster(s) when you handle them by running your fingers gently over their body to check for lumps and bumps and that they are not too skinny or fat. It is best to do this at the same time as cleaning, just before lights out to minimise disturbance. Always handle your hamster(s) in a safe, considerate and confident manner.”
To help you and your hamster, follow here's our easy-to-follow hamster once-a-week health check list:
Healthy eyes are clear and bright. Do your hamster’s eyes open properly? Are they covered with a crust? Is one of them protruding from their head? Is there anything in their eye? Does your hamster have cataracts (grey areas in the eye)? Are they watery or producing a discharge? There could be a number of causes.
- Eye infections If your hamster is pawing at their eye, or if the eye area is swollen, then there may be something stuck in there that he or she can’t get rid of. Don’t try to treat this problem yourself as you could make it worse – you’ll need to ask your vet to take a look.
- Protruding eyes Look at your hamster from above to judge whether or not their eyes are symmetrical. If one eye is sticking out more than the other, then your hamster may have a protruding eye caused by an infection or injury, which needs to be treated by a vet.
- Eyelid rub Sometimes, hamster’s eyelids will change shape slightly and rub against their eye, causing the painful condition known as entropion, which needs veterinary treatment.
Healthy hamster teeth will be of even lengths, and quite yellow. As hamsters grow up, it’s natural that their teeth will be a little darker than when they were very young.
While holding your hamster, gently examine their teeth. Are they of a relatively even length to the one next to them? Can you see any signs of chipping or bleeding? Does the area around your hamster’s mouth bleed or show any signs of having bled recently? Has one of their teeth become a lot shorter recently? Has one of the teeth on the opposite side grown longer than it should have? Common dental problems in hamsters often involve tooth breakages and overgrown teeth, which can prevent your hamster from eating.
If your hamster’s teeth have become overgrown, then they may have blood around their mouth, chew hard objects around their cage, or stop eating altogether. Tooth loss is a big problem for these small animals, as it can mean that the opposite tooth will grow very long, potentially damaging their mouth. If you suspect overgrown teeth, tooth loss or injury, it’s essential to take your hamster to the vet as soon as possible.
You can help to keep your hamster’s teeth healthy by giving them plenty of things to gnaw on, such untreated softwood branches or gnaw sticks.
The right nutrition is also essential. Don’t feed muesli-style food mixes because your hamster may selectively feed, only picking out the high sugar components of their food. Burgess Hamster Food is a single component nugget that prevents selective feeding and contains the nutrition your hamster needs to support their health. High quality hay, such as Excel Feeding Hay with Dandelion & Marigold can provide your hamsters with beneficial fibre for chewing and digestion, which also helps keep their continually growing teeth in good shape.
Hamster’s ears can suffer from dry skin and ear mites. Are your hamster’s ears free of dry flaky skin? Do they have a lot of dark wax in them? Mites are very irritating for your pet. If your hamster has very dry skin, a high level of ear wax and hair loss then they may be suffering from a mite infestation, which your vet will be able to treat.
A wet or runny nose can indicate a cold or an allergy. Some hamsters can be irritated by dusty wood shavings or strong-smelling dyes in bedding, which is why it’s essential to choose suitable, hamster-safe bedding.
Hamsters who rub their noses against the bars of their cage can end up with a bald spot. In severe cases, bar rub can cause wounds, scabs and even infections or scarring to develop on the nose. Bar rubbing is often an indication of boredom, which is why it’s essential you provide your hamster with the right accommodation with lots of things to do and a selection of things to chew such as untreated softwood branches and gnaw sticks.
Are your hamster’s nails a good length? If they become overgrown, then they can start growing back towards your pet’s foot causing a lot of discomfort. If you’re not sure, ask your vet for advice on the correct nail length and how to trim them.
Is your hamster’s coat in good condition, or are there bald patches? Does your hamster scratch a lot? Is there a lot of black or dark-coloured material in your hamster’s fur? Any of these signs could indicate that your hamster may be suffering from an injury, infection or parasite such as fleas.
Signs of fleas to look out for are tiny insects that jump and move rapidly, which you can see with the naked eye, and flea droppings. These will look like black dust in your hamster’s fur, but if you place them on white kitchen paper and add a drop of water, they’ll become dark red as they’re mainly formed from your hamster’s blood. Your vet will be able to provide a flea treatment that’s suitable for small rodents.
Is your hamster’s skin free of cuts and scrapes? Can you see any dry skin, or crusty patches? Does your hamster have any lumps or red, swollen areas? Checking your hamster’s skin can tell you if they’re suffering from parasites, itchy dry skin, bar rub, a tumour or infection.
Hamsters can suffer from a nasty condition called sarcoptic mange, which is a type of mite that burrows underneath their skin. Symptoms include dry, scabby skin and lots of scratching. Your pet also may develop thinning hair and bald patches. It’s a really painful condition, so treating it quickly with medication from your vet is essential.
If your hamster is urinating less frequently than usual then feel his or her stomach. If It's hard and bloated, this could mean a bladder stone, which can result in a partial or complete blockage of their urinary system and requires urgent veterinary treatment.
A hamster’s weight can reveal a number of things about their health. For example, losing weight rapidly can indicate conditions such as overgrown or broken teeth, parasites, or a respiratory infection. Another common cause of weight loss is dehydration, so check their water bottle is working properly. Be on the look-out for weight loss and diarrhoea together, as this could mean your pet has been infected by an internal parasite such as worms.
Having a peek round the back might not sound very appealing but it can tell you a great deal about your hamster’s health. Discharge, blood, faecal matter, or moisture could all indicate there’s a problem.
Wet tail is a disease to watch out for. Hamsters, particularly Syrian hamsters, can be affected by this painful condition, which can be fatal. Symptoms include diarrhoea, an unusual posture, and loss of weight. If you have a pair or small group of hamsters, isolate the infected one immediately as wet tail can spread rapidly. You’ll also need to replace all bedding materials and clean their accommodation with pet-safe disinfectant. Your poorly hamster will need to see your vet as soon as possible to get antibiotics to help fight the infection.
Sneezing, coughing, and a wet nose? Hamsters can catch colds just as we can, and these illnesses can even be passed from human to hamster. If you or someone in your household is not very well, then it’s a good idea to stay away from your pet until the illness has passed. It also may be best to keep a hamster with sniffles away from any other hamsters you have for a little while. If your hamster is coughing, wheezing, sneezing, has a runny nose or eyes, or difficulty breathing, this could mean they’re suffering from a respiratory infection and you’ll need to seek veterinary treatment as soon as possible.
Circling round and round? Running round and round for no apparent reason could be a behaviour known as ‘circling’ or ‘twirling’, which means there’s something wrong. There are a number of potential causes, but one of the most common is also one of the most treatable – an ear infection – which your vet can prescribe medicine for.
Inactivity? Boredom can be a really big problem for small pets. Quite simply, if your hamster doesn't have enough to keep them occupied, they might eat too much to fill their time or develop other health or behavioural problems. Keep your hamster active by giving them lots of suitable toys and activities such as things to climb on and explore, a hamster-safe wheel (not one with open rungs that can injure their feet and legs), a thick layer of suitable bedding in which they can dig and burrow to their heart’s content. (there should be enough nesting material to make a proper, cup- shaped nest), a sand bath – a shallow dish filled with chinchilla dust that they can roll about in to help keep their coat in good condition, and cardboard boxes and loo rolls to hide in and chew. Also help them to engage in natural behaviours such as foraging – scatter their hamster nuggets around their accommodation and hide some in tubes or paper bags so they can enjoy a treasure hunt.
Extra checks for senior hamsters
Hamsters live on average for three years and, as animal charity Wood Green points out: “Often, most illnesses come with age. Make sure you find a vet who has chosen to specialise in small mammals to get the best possible care for your hamsters. Parasites, such as fur mites, can be fairly common in hamsters, particularly in Syrian hamsters. One of the most common causes of this is incorrect bedding. However, in some cases, your hamster may be suffering from hormonal changes or tumours, which may cause hair loss that appears to be symmetrical.”
Consult your vet if your hamster is showing any of these signs of a parasite infestation:
- Hair loss
- Red, irritated skin
- Severe dandruff
- Small scratches all over their body
- Visible lice or mites which look like orange or black dots within the fur
“Tumours are fairly common in an elderly hamster. They can grow very quickly because hamsters have a fast metabolic rate. Mammary tumours are the most common. When you handle your hamster – and you should do this regularly – check for unusual lumps and bumps on their body.”
Sticky eye is a condition that mainly affects older hamsters and is caused by eye secretions when the hamster is sleeping. These secretions dry up and stick the eyelids together, meaning that the hamster is unable to open one or both of its eyes when they wake up. You can help by putting a little lukewarm water on a cotton bud and gently holding on the crust for a couple of minutes to loosen it to so it’s easier for your hamster to open their eyes. If the eyes remain shut then enlist the help of veterinary nurse. Never try to prise open a hamster’s eyes as this could cause serious damage.
Signs that mean you must contact your vet urgently
There are definite signs that your hamster is not well such as sunken or dull looking eyes, sitting in a hunched-up position and acting disinterested at times when they’d normally be really active. PDSA advises that you should contact your vet if you notice:
- Loss of appetite or overeating
- Drinking much more or less than normal
- Lack of energy/sleeping more than usual
- Unusual swellings or lumps
- Skin condition
- Unusual bleeding
- Signs of pain, such as sensitivity to touch
- Runny eyes or nose
- Overgrown teeth
- Changes in your hamster’s behaviour
Cuts and scrapes
If you notice that your hamster has a little cut, try to work out the cause so that you can remove the danger and minimise the risk of future injuries. If it’s just a little cut, then you can put a little lukewarm water on a ball of cotton wool and dab at the cut very gently to clean it. Avoid using anything intended to help human cuts heal, such as antiseptic cream. If the wound is large, deep or will not stop bleeding, then the hamster needs to see a vet.
If a hamster develops an infection, it can sometimes cause an abscess to form. The main symptom of an abscess is a swelling, which may be soft or hard. This swelling is full of pus that the hamster’s body has produced during its fight with the infection. Abscesses can occur in any area of the body or mouth and can be very painful and need draining and cleansing by a vet or veterinary nurse.
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As a family-owned business with over 300 years of history, the health and wellbeing of pet animals is Burgess Pet Care’s number one goal and we’re proud of our expert knowledge in animal nutrition. All our pet food is produced in line with FEDIAF (the European pet food industry federation) nutritional guidelines. These guidelines, which are based on many pieces of published research, helps us to calculate the nutrient content and dietary components such as protein, fat, carbohydrate and vitamins and minerals required to ensure all our foods meet the detailed nutritional requirements for the pets they are designed for.
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