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HAMSTERS

This information is provided by Provet for educational purposes only.

You should seek the advice of your veterinarian if your pet is ill as only he or she can correctly advise on the diagnosis and recommend the treatment that is most appropriate for your pet.

Note for Pet Owners:
If your Hamster is unwell  take it to your veterinarian as soon as you can. The earlier treatment is started the better is the chance of successful treatment.

Topics on this Page:


Are Hamsters Good Pets ?

Hamsters are very popular pets with families, and are often the first pet that young children are given BUT are they good pets ?

YES - because they are quite easy to keep, relatively cheap to look after and have interesting habits which inquisitive and interested people can learn from . When they are well behaved they are cute, furry and cuddly to handle .

NO - because they are nocturnal animals - which means that most of the time when children are awake the Hamster wants to sleep ! Also, when they are behaving badly they can be aggressive and BITE.

 

HOW LONG DO HAMSTERS LIVE ?

Hamsters live for 1-3 years and sometimes longer with an average lifespan of about 2 years.

Evolution

Wild Hamsters are still found in China, Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Siberia. They are rodents classified in the Family Cricetidae. The most common Hamster kept as a pet is the Golden or Syrian Hamster (Mesocricetus autratus)  and the other common Hamster is the Chinese or Striped Hamster (Cricetulus griseus). Other breeds which are less common are the European Hamster(Cricetus cricetus) and the Russian or hairy footed or Djungarian Hamster (Phodopus sungorus).

In the UK all domesticated pet hamsters are allegedly descended from a single pair of Syrian hamsters imported into the UK in 1931. Short and longhaired varieties are available in 5 different coat colours : Agouti (commonest), cinammon, cream, piebald and white.

 


HOW ARE HAMSTERS KEPT ?

Should hamsters be kept in groups or single ?

Hamsters usually prefer to be solitary creatures and they often don't mix well with other animals - even members of their own species. Adult hamsters of the same sex will often fight ferociously if they are kept together. So males and females should only be put together when they are being mated and they should be separated immediately afterwards.

Housing

Hamsters have excellent teeth for gnawing and they can easily chew their way out of cardboard or wooden accommodation. For that reason commercially available housing is made of plastic, glass or metal. There are many different constructions from simple tanks to fancy designs with tubes connecting different levels of accommodation but such an elaborate (and relatively expensive) home is not necessary. 

A hamster will be happy in it's home if it :

  • Is dry
  • Is drought-free
  • It is warmIs kept clean
  • Allows in day light during the day
  • Is dark during the night
  • Has a private, secluded nest area for sleeping and storing food. This can be a screened off area within the house - or a separate box.
  • Has a separate area for use as a toilet
  • Has an exercise area.
  • It has no materials that will easily splinter when gnawed.

Toilet area

Hamsters will usually use one area of their home as a toilet - but sometimes that can be a large area of the floor. Because they are rodents - if you don't clean them out regularly their home will develop an unpleasant, pungent musty smell…which the hamster will happily live with - but you, your family or your friends may not !

Absorbent material (paper, sawdust) can be used on the floor of the home to soak up urine - BUT this does not mean that the mess can be left on the floor for a long time. Hamsters should be cleaned out every few days otherwise they may urinate and pass droppings in their nest area - which can lead to contamination of food stores and so create a health risk.

Hamsters eat their own droppings (called coprophagia , and this is thought to be important as a source of vitamins B and K. Some droppings should be left down - so don't be over fussy and remove them all as soon as they are passed.

Bedding materials should be provided (cellulose wadding, hay, shredded paper or woodchips) for the hamster to construct it's nest with. Nylon fibre wool and cotton wool should be avoided as bedding materials because they have been associated with obstruction of the intestine and injury to toes and limbs if the fibres wrap tightly around them cutting off the blood supply

Exercise

Hamsters are agile, inquisitive creatures and love to run around. They are deceptively fast for a small creature and you must be careful to restrict them to a confined area or they can easily escape. Also, most owners do not realise how agile they are and how easily they can squeeze through a very small aperture. Many owners have lost their hamster under doors, through cracks in walls, and under gaps around skirting boards and the floor.

Plastic balls (with air spaces so the hamsters can breath) are also popular to provide exercise. Hamsters seem to enjoy them BUT we do not know for a fact that they enjoy them. If the hamster moves it's feet forwards or backwards the ball will role - but do they like it - or are they trapped in an exercise prison ?? Provet would like your opinion on this. Feedback@provet.co.uk 

Exercise wheels are very popular, and hamsters seem to enjoy running on them - because they frequently return to them when they don't have to. If you buy a wheel make sure that it is positioned so that there is plenty of space behind it and to the side of it - there have been reports of hamsters getting trapped.

Environmental temperature

Textbooks recommend that hamsters be kept at a room temperature of between 18o-21o C (65o - 70o F). In reality most hamsters are kept at the ambient temperature of general households in the UK and they do very well without the need to maintain a constant environmental temperature. However, when hamsters are kept in countries where they could be subjected to extremes of hot or cold temperatures, control of environmental temperature using heater pads and thermostats will be needed.

Temperature can be retained in a hamsters home by choosing housing made from materials that are poor thermal conductors e.g. plastic.

Environmental humidity

Textbooks recommend that hamsters be kept at 40% - 60% relative humidity. In reality very few owners maintain a constant humidity for their hamsters, and no health problems are associated with the humidity found in typical UK households. In other countries however, extreme humidity can be a problem and artificial humidity control systems are needed.


Feeding
Food

Hamsters will eat almost any cereal grain or plant material and in the wild they are reported to eat insects as well BUT do not attempt to make your own ration. It is highly unlikely that you will provide a complete and balanced diet with all the nutrients that the hamster needs in the correct proportions. Feed a proprietary hamster food which has been manufactured by a reputable company. Don't be afraid to ASK the manufacturers for confirmation that the food you wish to give has been put through rigorous feeding trials with hamsters to ensure that it is satisfactory for long term feeding.

Textbooks recommend supplementing prepared hamster foods with vegetable greens, fruit and milk. BUT only give small amounts - only give milk occasionally (once a week) - and remove unused materials from the home after 2-3 hours.

Adult hamsters will eat 10-15g of prepared food per day and an interesting feature of Hamsters is their huge cheek pouches which they can fill with food.

Being rodents, Hamster's teeth grow continuously. The front teeth (incisors) should meet squarely at the front of the mouth. NEVER buy a Hamster if it's teeth do not meet perfectly  because they will overgrow frequently, can cause injury to the lips, gums or roof of the mouth, and prevent your Hamster from eating properly. In such cases the teeth can be clipped short regularly but there is a danger that they might split leading to root infection.

Hamsters are gnawing animals so some material (e.g. wood) should be supplied to help keep their teeth worn down.

Water

Adult hamsters drink about 20ml-30ml water per day. Fresh, clean, still human quality drinking water should be available at all times. Hamsters readily accept gravity-fed nipple-feed water bottles or will drink from flat bowls. Avoid using water dispensers that are easy to spill. Water bottles or bowls should be thoroughly cleaned every 3-4 weeks or more frequently if they develop a film of green slime on the surface. This is most likely to occur if they are exposed to bright sunlight.


Handling

Hamsters can be placid or aggressive. They particularly do not like being woken up (a characteristic they share with many humans !) and they don't like to be handled when they are pregnant. Chinese hamsters are said to be the most placid of the breeds. Usually hamsters will accept gentle handling in open cupped hands  but they do not like rough handling, being squeezed or being swung about. If a difficult hamster has to be handled it needs to be grasped firmly and confidently by the skin on the scruff of the neck .Contrary to popular belief it's eyes will not "pop out" when handled properly like this. BUT beware - hamsters are very agile and can swivel round very quickly if they don't like your attentions !

 


Breeding

Hamsters are very easy to breed. Youngsters are sexually active from as young as 6 weeks of age and remain reproductively active until they are about 15 months old. Once they start they are sexually active all year round except in countries with dark winters or prolonged nights (e.g. within the arctic circle) when oestrus is less frequent, and when they are hibernating. Females come into oestrus (commonly called being "on heat") and are receptive to males every 4 days. "On heat" females are easy to recognise because they arch their backs and hold their rear end in the air. They initially have a clear mucous discharge from the vulva, which becomes thicker and opaque the day after oestrus. Males should only be put with females when they are receptive. Mating usually occurs at night and it is one of the times when male and female hamsters don't fight when put together ! Once mating has occurred the two Hamsters should be separated to avoid fighting.

Sexing can be difficult if you haven't got one of each sex available to compare. Basically if you examine the undersurface females have an anus near the tail base, and the vulval opening to the combined reproductive and urinary tracts lies a short distance in front of it. In the male the penis is further forward , and can be exposed by retracting the foreskin with the fingers.

Pregnancy

Hamsters are pregnant (called the gestation period) for 15-21 days (longest in Chinese Hamsters) and they usually have a litter of 4-7 babies. According to the Guinness Book of Records (1997) the largest litter recorded was in a Golden Hamster in Louisiana, USA in 1974 which produced 26 young. Unfortunately the mother killed 18 of them after the birth.

Sadly, infanticide is common in Hamsters, and it is usually associated with stress - so nursing mothers should not be handled for at least 10 days after the birth. It is important that sufficient bedding, food and water is available throughout the lactation period when the mother is producing milk to the feed her young.

Raising Young

Baby hamsters are naked at birth and are born with their eyes closed. There eyes open at 5 days of age and they suckle their mothers milk until they are about 7 days old when they will start to eat solid food and drink water in the environment. Make sure that they can reach it easily, and avoid deep bowls of water, in case a baby falls in and cannot get out. The young can be weaned at 20-25 days of age - which means that they should be totally separated from their mother.

If a mother rejects her offspring hand rearing and attempts to foster the babies to other females are usually unsuccessful.

One unusual behavioural trait which is observed sometimes is frightened mothers protecting their young by putting them into the cheek pouches.

Hibernation

One of the most fascinating behavioural patterns of Hamsters is Hibernation. There are two phases to hibernation which are related to the environmental temperature :

"Sleeper Disease" - occurs when the temperature drops to 22o - 25o C (75o - 80o F) . The Hamster appears lifeless, stiff, trembles when disturbed and nods it's head from side to side.

True hibernation occurs when the temperature falls below 5o C (40o F). The Hamster's metabolic rate falls dramatically, resulting in very slow heart rate and slow breathing. Although Hamsters are mammals and usually maintain a constant body temperature during hibernation it drops to just 1o - 2o above the environmental temperature. They do not eat for weeks and appear to be "dead" !.

An "apparently dead", hibernating Hamster can be revived by placing it in a warm environment e.g. on a heater pad at 30o C (90o F) for 45 minutes. NOTE hibernating animals should never be warmed in cooking ovens or microwaves !!

 


Physiological information

For further information about the physiology of hamsters CLICK HERE



Being derived from wild animals Hamsters tend to be able to mask the fact that they are ill until they are so debilitated that they can no longer behave normally. As a result diseases are often quite advanced by the time an owner presents their Hamster to a veterinarian and this is one of the reasons why treatment may be unsuccessful

NOTE TO OWNERS Take your Hamster to your veterinarian as soon as you notice it is ill. The earlier therapy is started the better is the chance of successful treatment.

Many diseases are commonly recognised in Hamsters - follow the links to specific diseases for more information

Cancer

All rodents are prone to develop cancer, and the Hamster is no exception. Cancers are more common in older animals and can either be local or can spread to other parts of the body. Benign cancers (e.g.lipomas, intestinal polyps, adrenal cortex adenomas) rarely spread and generally carry a good prognosis if they can be removed surgically. Malignant forms of cancer (e.g. lymphosarcoma) are more difficult to treat and can be fatal if they spread to vital organ systems.

Digestive system

  • Cheek pouches - impaction . The large facial cheek pouches are quite dry and sometimes food can get impacted in them This should be removed and the pouch (or pouches if both sides are affected) flushed with water
  • Dental disease Teeth-related problems are common in Hamsters
  • Diarrhoea Diarrhoea is very common in Hamsters here are many causes - some of which can be fatal
      • Salmonella
      • Tyzzer's disease
      • Wet tail 
      • Antibiotic-related enteriti
  • Constipation Constipation usually results from the presence of indigestible material obstructing the digestive tract (e.g. cottonwool, nylon wool) It also occurs of the hamster is dehydrated so plenty of drinking water needs to be available at all times.
  • Parasites . Several types of parasitic worm can infect hamsters including :
  • Tapeworms
  • Pinworms 

Eye diseases

Cataracts are seen in hamsters with advancing age

Hormonal diseases

A hormonal basis is suspected (but not proved) for the bilateral hair loss (alopecia) that occurs in some individuals.

 

Liver diseases

Liver disease is the sequel to infection with Salmonella and Tyzzer's disease

Miscellaneous diseases

Amyloidosis

Amyloidosis is a common condition of Hamsters in which amyloid is deposited in many major organ tissues. It starts early in life (under 1 year of age) and progresses with advancing age. The cause is unknown but it is found at postmortem.

Polycystic disease

In this disease multiple cysts form in many organs including the epididymis, liver. Pancreas and seminal vescicles of the testes. The cause is unknown but it is found at postmortem.

Nervous diseases

Lymphocytic choriomeningitis (LCM)

This disease is caused by LCM virus and wild rodents and Hamsters can carry the virus without showing any symptoms. The virus is excreted in the urine and saliva. This virus is transmissible to humans in whom it causes mild influenza-type symptoms to fatal meningitis. Outbreaks of meningitis have been reported to have been contracted from Hamsters (1974).

NOTE Lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus is transmissible to humans, and so it is a zoonosis

Orthopaedic diseases

Spinal Injury 

Spinal injury is common following falls or being dropped from a height. Paresis or paralysis my result, and these signs need to differentiated from other causes such as nutritional myopathy (vitamin D or E deficiency) or weakness due to lack of exercise. A sex-linked "cage paralysis" has been reported to occur in 8-10 month old males.

Long Bone Fractures 

Fractures are common following a fall or being dropped from a height. They heal quite well with external support - unless they are compound when the wound needs to be closed under sterile conditions to avoid infection

Respiratory diseases

Respiratory infections are very common in Hamsters - particularly pneumonia. There are three main infectious agents involved, and sometimes more than one organism is present at the same time :

  • Viral causes
  • Bacterial causes
  • Mycoplasma causes 

 

Skin diseases

Hairloss (alopecia)

Hamsters are frequently presented with hairloss, scratching, pigmentation and flaky skin. In most cases the cause is likely to be parasitic infestation, except when there is bilaterally symmetrical hairloss (alopecia) which is likely to have a hormonal basis in older animals.

The most common parasites are :

  • Mites
  • Ringworm 

 


Treatments

Many therapeutic agents are TOXIC to Hamsters so care is needed in choosing the most appropriate treatment. The following is a list of agents that have been recommended - and those that are TOXIC.

Anaesthesia

Pre-medication (anaesthesia)

Atropine - 0.1 - 3.0 mg/kg body weight subcutaneously.

Opiate antagonist

Naloxone - 0.01 - 0.1 mg/kg body weight intraperitoneal or intravenous. (used to reverse Fentanyl/fluanisone/midazolam combination anaesthesia)

Gaseous anaesthetics

Isofluorane - safe

Methoxyfluorane - safe

Halothane - overdosage can occur - needs careful monitoring

Ether - too irritant and hazardous

Injectable anaesthetic agents

Ketamine - 200mg/kg body weight intraperitoneal. Poor analgesia.

Ketamine/ xylazine combination - 200mg/kg (ketamine) and 10mg/kg xylazine intraperitoneal

Alphaxalone/alphadolone combination - 150mg/kg body weight intraperitoneal

Fentanyl/fluanisone and midazolam combination*. 4ml/kg body weight intraperitoneal

Pentobarbitone - not recommended due respiratory depression

(* Mixture of 2 parts sterile water, one part Hypnorm (Janssen) and one part Hypnovel (5mg/ml) -Roche)

 

Respiratory stimulants

Doxapram - 10-15mg/kg body weight subcutaneously or intramuscularly, or applied to tongue. Action 5-15 minutes so may need to repeat

Analgesics

Pethidine - 20mg/kg body weight intramuscularly every 2 hours

Buprenorphine (Temgesic) - 0.5mg/kg body weight subcutaneously three times daily. Drug of choice.

         

Antibiotics

Ampicillin - TOXIC

Amoxycillin - TOXIC

Cephaloridine - 30mg/kg body weight intramuscularly twice daily

Chloramphenicol - 20mg/kg body weight intramuscularly twice daily

Clindamycin - TOXIC

Dimetronidazole - 0.25-0.1% in water for 5-7 days

Lincomycin - TOXIC

Tetracycline -  10-20mg/kg body weight orally three times daily

Trimethoprim/sulphadiazine - 0.2ml/kg body weight. subcutaneously once daily for 5-7 days

Tylosin - 10mg/kg body weight intramuscularly or subcutaneously once daily for 5-7 days

 

Antifungal

Griseofulvin - 25-30mg/kg body weight by mouth once daily for 3 weeks

Antiparasiticide

Niclosamide - 100mg/kg body weight by mouth

Piperazine - 2-3mg/ml water for 1 week. Retreat after 1 week off treatment.

 

Fluid therapy

Dextrose saline (4% dextrose 0.18% saline) or saline (0.9%) - 8-10 ml per day - orally, subcutaneously or intraperitoneal

Sedatives

Acepromazine - 0.5-1.0mg/kg body weight intramuscularly.

Diazepam -5-10mg/kg body weight intramuscularly

 

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