Hamster Illnesses And Injuries

Hamsters are hardy little fellows and, properly fed and caged, rarely suffer from disease. However, illness can occur even in the best of homes and it is wise to be aware of the various troubles which may arise. In this way, it should be possible to take action while the disease is in its early stages.

The most general sign of illness in small animals is listless behaviour, loss of appetite and bedraggled coat. The animal obviously “feels” ill and miserable, ceases to look for food and makes scarcely any effort to keep its coat carefully groomed. This is very bad because small animals have little fat reserves and they cannot go without food for long.

Their small size makes most sorts of medication more difficult than, for example, a cat or dog. However, this does not mean that nothing can be done. The art of success is to rally the resources of the animal so that it can fight its way back to good health.

There are a number of general principles which should be followed in the treatment of disease. The first and foremost is that the sickly hamster must be isolated from its fellows if you have several. This is a precaution in case the disease is infectious. It should be moved to another room and you should always tend to the healthy animals first. To move from the sick to the healthy is just asking for the disease to spread. Always wash your hands thoroughly after tending to the sick animal; use a mild germocide if you wish but old-fashioned soap and water are almost as good if you use plenty of soap and rinse your hands well. None of these precautions are necessary, of course, for an injury or other non-infectious disease.

Warmth is always beneficial. The sick animal should be moved to a heated room. Whether or not this is possible, the little invalid could be placed in a box with a hot-water bottle. A baby’s rubber hot-water bottle is ideal for a hamster (if this can be inserted into his usual cage, so much the better; a sick animal is not , likely to gnaw it). In any event, the nest should be placed alongside it, together with extra woodwool or hay. Make sure that the animal is snug in its nest and that the warmth is reaching him. Test the warmth with your hand. If it is too hot for comfort, it is too hot for the hamster. Similarly, when the hot water bottle has cooled, refill it immediately. Do not wait until the bottle is stone cold, obviously. Sick animals require rest, so do not disturb him unnecessarily. The warmth may revive the little fellow and, if you hear him moving, this is the occasion to tempt him with tasty morsels of food.


The most serious disease of hamsters is a severe form of diarrhoea known as “wet-tail” The whole vent area and tail become moist with watery fluid and droppings. There is usually an offensive smell. The onset of the disease is rapid, the animal loses condition, feels thin, and refuses to eat. Recovery is rare, despite all forms of treatment. The disease is very infectious. Before any thought is given to obtaining another hamster, all bedding and sawdust which has been in contact with the infected animal must be burned (or otherwise permanently disposed of). The cage, feeding pots and water bottles must be washed in a strong solution of Lysol (made up according to instructions on the bottle).


Most cases of diarrhoea are not due to the dreaded “wet-tail” disease. Mild cases are not infrequent and usually arise from the hamster eating something which has disagreed with it. Soiled food is a common cause and this can be avoided in the main by regular cage cleaning. The feeding of unaccustomed food or too much green food or fruit could bring on the diarrhoea. There may also be some loss of condition but recovery is almost certain so long as the animal retains its appetite. Stop feeding green food, fruits or roots immediately and allow the hamster only dry food and water. The normal diet can be resumed a few days after the diarrhoea has ceased.

For hygienic reasons, the cage should be cleaned out more regularly (daily, if possible), with frequent renewal of bedding. Hamsters can be peculiar in that certain foods upset some animals and not others. If certain foods do upset your hamster, you should not give them in the future.


Sniffy breathing, running noses and wheezing may be due to various causes. The most serious is an infectious “cold” which can distress the hamster by interfering with his breathing and producing a running nose. The symptoms can be relieved, if not cured, by keeping the invalid warm. The condition often clears spontaneously.

Snuffles and running eyes may result from draughts or too dry an atmosphere. Take care not to have the cage over a hot radiator or the like. Irritants in the sawdust or hay can be troublesome on occasions. A good test of these materials is to try them on oneself. If a deep breath causes one’s nose to tingle, they may be causing distress to the hamster. The offending material should be discarded.


Rather uncommon and exact cause unknown. The stomach often appears swollen. Incorrect feeding is a likely cause and reinforces the advice to feed a varied diet at all times. A pinch of Epsom salts dissolved in the water bottle may be of help.


Injuries may result from innumerable causes. Wounds arising from the animal catching itself on sharp edges of the cage or cage equipment are possible, although the coat gives surprisingly good protection in this respect. Accidents due to excitable play are a little more common. Falls also contribute their quota of cuts and bruises. Hamsters fall very awkwardly and they should be prevented from climbing into positions where a fall could be harmful. Fighting between animals can be vicious and nasty gashes can be opened up by their claws and teeth.

Treatment of wounds will depend on their seriousness. Slight wounds need no attention beyond that of checking that they do not turn septic. Hamsters are meticulous in their toilet and the continuous licking of the wound will keep it clean. Healing is usually rapid. Dressing would only irritate the animal and should not be attempted.

Hamsters with more serious wounds should be taken to a veterinary surgeon. Likewise, animals with broken limbs should be taken to a vet, for attention. It is probable that these will mend of their own accord but it is wise to seek expert advice.


The hamster is an inquisitive creature and has no respect for heights. It has the unfortunate habit of peering over the edge of tables or shelves, inching forward until it is hanging by the hind legs. Sooner or later it will drop. The animal seems unable to land on its feet but falls heavily on its back, side or stomach. If the fall is a short one, the little chap is quickly on its feet.

Alas, if the fall is a long one, the breath is knocked from its body and it may lie there for a while slowly recovering. It may even be stunned. It is best to allow the hamster to recover of its own accord and not to attempt to hasten the process. Be warned, however, and do not allow your hamster to be unattended in situations where a fall could be disastrous.

Overgrown Teeth

An occasional animal may have teeth which are not worn down by the normal eating and gnawing activities. Giving the hamster baked husks of bread and “Bonio” dog biscuits may help but not always.

The main reason is that the teeth are not occluding properly. In time, these will interfere with feeding and should be clipped. This is a job for a vet, and the affected animal should be taken along for attention.

Long Claws

These may occur in extremely old hamsters. They may be trimmed with sharp scissors. Hold the foot up to the light and be careful only to trim the clear portion of the nail. Cutting too close to the toe could cause bleeding. Trimming should not be attempted unless the overgrown nails are causing distress. A vet, will attend to the trimming if you do not wish to undertake it yourself.

Fleas and Mites

Neither of these pests need be a problem as a rule, if the cage is kept clean. Should they be suspected, the nest should be dusted with a flea powder stated to be harmless for hamsters or cats. The powder will find its way into the coat. A little can be used directly on the animal if you can do this without upsetting him.

Thin coat

The normally thick coat of the hamster may become thin in old animals, particularly on the stomach. This is quite natural and is only mentioned in case you should feel concerned. So long as the skin is not inflamed, there is nothing to be alarmed about. Should inflammation be present, it may be that the animal has developed a skin disease. If so, the hamster should be shown to a vet, for his advice.

Hip Glands

The two hip glands of the hamster secrete an oily substance and, on occasion, this may cause the fur around the glands to become “damp”. Since the glands are normally hidden by the fur, their sudden prominence may worry some people. It is easy to think that the hamster has a couple of sore spots. However, this is unlikely and an occasional oily patch is natural.


This is not a disease but may be noted because of the distress the condition may cause to the hamster’s owner. The little chap may appear lifeless—curled up, with his head pointing to his tail, cold and no obvious breathing. The condition used to be very common and be brought on by low temperature. Nowadays, it is rare for hamsters to hibernate even in very cold weather. Always provide plenty of bedding so that a warm nest can be built and hibernation will continue to be a thing of the past.

Should hibernation occur, however, it is essential to bring the animal out of it slowly. The hot-water bottle treatment described earlier is usually effective. Be sure to allow him to wake up naturally and he will soon be lively and running about. Once a hamster has hibernated it means that it may do so again if the temperature falls. Keeping the cage in a warm room or in a room which has been warm for most of the day, will help to prevent re-occurrences.

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