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Find information on animal health topics, written for the veterinary professional.

Routine Health Care of Hamsters

By Katherine E. Quesenberry, DVM, MPH, DABVP (Avian) ; Kenneth R. Boschert, DVM, DACLAM, Associate Director, Division of Comparative Medicine, Washington University

Locating a veterinarian for your hamster should not pose problems. Most small animal veterinarians will treat hamsters.

If you do not already have a good relationship with a veterinarian in your area, check with other pet owners for recommendations or consult your phone book’s yellow pages. You can also go online and check the listings of your state’s veterinary medical society. Call several practices. Select one that makes you feel comfortable, has experience in treating hamsters, and offers access to a 24-hour emergency care program. If you travel regularly, you may also want to ask about boarding for your hamster when you must be away from home.

Importance of Veterinary Care

There are many reasons for you to bring your hamster to a veterinarian for a health checkup as soon as possible, even before purchasing your pet. A prepurchase health checkup assures you that the hamster coming into your home is healthy. An early medical visit also establishes a basic medical record which your veterinarian can then use in keeping your pet healthy and in treating any medical conditions which may arise.

Signs of Illness

Pay attention to the way your pet routinely looks and acts, and how it interacts with you or with any cage mates. One good way to do this is to spend time with your hamster every day. This is not only a good way to develop a warm relationship with your pet, it gives you a regular opportunity to check for signs of illness. Problems that are noticed early are easier to solve (see How to Tell when Your Hamster is Sick).

When a hamster is sick, it may also show signs of illness, such as weight loss, hunched posture, lack of energy, changes in the consistency of its fur or loss of fur, and difficulty breathing. Changes in behavior may also indicate illness; sick hamsters often stop exploring and playing in the cage as they usually do. Early signs of sickness include changes in the color, consistency, smell, and amount of urine and feces. The fur around a hamster’s genitals should be checked for stains from feces, urine, or vaginal discharge. You should also keep an eye out for any fight wounds or other cuts and bruises that might become infected.

Hunched posture or fluffed fur in a hamster may be signs of illness.

When you notice any changes in your hamster’s appearance or behavior, you should take your hamster to your veterinarian for a checkup. The veterinarian may ask for a sample of your hamster’s feces to check for worms or bacteria. He or she might check your hamster’s mouth for overgrown teeth or cheek pouches that are blocked. Your hamster’s ears and eyes will be examined to look for inflammation or oozing. Its feet should be examined for sores and overgrown or broken nails. Your veterinarian may push gently on your hamster’s belly to feel for growths or lumps. As with humans, high temperature is a common sign of illness. So, your veterinarian will likely check your pet’s temperature. A hamster’s normal body temperature usually ranges from 98 to 101°F (36.7 to 38.3°C).

Hamsters are not normally aggressive, but they can become aggressive if they are startled or suddenly awakened, are sick, or are not handled gently. Therefore it may be easier to carefully scoop a sick hamster up in a small container than to pick it up with your hands.

Giving Medication

There are several ways to give medicine to hamsters. For pet owners, the most common method is by mouth. Often, you will be instructed to use a dropper to provide needed liquid medication. Take care to provide only the dosage prescribed by your veterinarian. Hamsters are very small and it is easy to overdose these small pets.

Veterinarians have additional options for providing necessary medications. For example, the veterinarian can place medicines directly into a hamster’s stomach or give injections under the skin or into the abdomen.

Certain antibiotics can cause problems with hamsters’ digestive tracts, so your pet may not tolerate these medications. Do not use antibiotic creams or other medications containing antibiotics on your hamster without specific directions from your veterinarian. Using antibiotics on your hamster could endanger your pet’s life.

Diarrhea and other illnesses can cause hamsters to become dehydrated rapidly. If your pet becomes dehydrated, your veterinarian may need to provide fluid treatment.

Preventive Care

Prevention is the key to keeping your hamster healthy. To prevent illness, make sure your hamster has a proper diet, access to clean water and bedding, and a clean and sanitary cage.

The most important step you can take, after being sure your hamster’s home is kept clean, is to be sure your hamster cannot get out of its cage. Many hamsters are seriously injured when they escape from their cages.

When taking your hamster out of its cage, handle it gently but carefully. Active hamsters can be dropped or can fall off tables or other furniture. These falls often result in broken bones, head injuries, or other serious problems. Whenever your hamster is outside its cage (for example, when you are cleaning the cage), place the hamster in a secure place, such as a second hamster cage, to prevent the hamster from wandering off into dangerous areas. Do not assume that your hamster will sit idly on a table while you clean the cage. Their instinct is to wander off in search of food as their ancestors did in the wild. So be sure that any hamster outside of its cage is carefully protected and secure.

Vaccinations

There are currently no vaccines that are required or recommended for hamsters.

Dental Care

Like other rodents, hamsters have incisor teeth that grow continuously throughout their lives. All hamsters need food and other items to chew that allow them to wear down their teeth naturally. Overgrown teeth can cause drooling, loss of appetite, and weight loss. If your hamster’s teeth are not worn down through normal gnawing and eating, your veterinarian will need to trim them occasionally. Hamster food that is ground into a powder can get trapped in a hamster’s back teeth, causing cavities.

Hamsters tend to have fewer dental problems than some other rodents. However, it is a good idea to ask your veterinarian to check your pet’s teeth for overgrowth and other problems.

Household Hazards

The average home holds many hazards for hamsters. They love to gnaw on such things as electrical cords, telephone wires, and other potentially dangerous objects. They will also chew on furniture and take advantage of any opening to get into areas under the kitchen cabinets, beneath the refrigerator or the oven, or inside dryer vents. Because they are so small, hamsters are easy to step on, and even a small child weighs enough to seriously injure or kill a hamster by crushing it underfoot. Hamsters should be kept safe from larger household pets such as dogs and cats.

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