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A fact of life is that pets are not immortal. With hamsters, their life span is considerably shorter than ours, living, at best, from two to three years.

While they are alive, a pet owner has the responsibility to help the hamster maintain a healthy existence. It is important to know your hamster's behavior so if there is a change, professional help can be obtained. Knowing its eating patterns, its appearance, density of its hair, natural aroma, etc. can help an owner obtain help at the first sign of a problem.

Some of the more common signs of illness are:

--uncharacteristic lethargy, especially at playtime (late afternoon and evening)
--a lack of appetite
--diarrhea
--presence of moisture around the hamster's rear end (classic sign of wet tail)
--a deterioration in the quality, density, and texture of its hair
--swollen abdomen,
--incessant scratching
--failure to tend to routine grooming
--unusual odor
--drinking excessive amounts of water or excessive urination (kidney disease, diabetes, or adrenal disease)
--circling behavior (acute sign of ear infection)
--development of lumps or bumps under the skin (tumors or abscesses)
--eye discharge

The owner who interacts regularly with his hamster will notice these things and be able to attend to them rapidly.

Prevention is most important. Proper diet is fundamental. Feeding the hamster the highest quality in a balance keeps fat to a minimum. Fresh clean water is vital. The hamster's cage must be kept clean and dry and away from drafts or direct sunlight. It is also important to keep the pet's stress level to a minimum.

Even with the most diligent care, hamsters are not immortal. After his first or second birthday, changes will be evident. A diligent owner will know when the changes are due to age or if age is part of it. If not, a veterinarian can help.

Some ailments to be aware of are:

Allergies: Symptoms such as red feet, sneezing, watery eyes, and hair loss or dry skin in an otherwise healthy hamster indicates allergy. This is either an allergy to certain foods or bedding products. Monitoring food intake and eliminating one thing at a time can help you determine what it is an allergy to. In addition, try changing the bedding to something different. Suggestions for food substitutes are white rice, white bread, fresh vegetables and fruit, or cereal such as corn flakes. Stay away from anything with high sugar content, as hamsters (especially dwarf Russians) are prone to diabetes.

Colds: Just like humans, hamsters get colds. Keep them away from drafts and dampness. If the hamster has symptoms such as watery eyes, runny nose, sneezing, and lethargy, he most likely has a cold. He will probably be curled up in a corner and feel cool to the touch. Colds in hamsters can become deadly if not monitored. Keep the cage away from drafts and provide an artificial light source to add warmth. A lukewarm solution of equal parts milk and water with a touch of honey can be given to the hamster. If the hamster shows no improvement after two days, see the veterinarian.

Diarrhea: Do not feed the hamster EXCESSIVE green vegetables or change the diet EXCESSIVELY as this might cause diarrhea. Green vegetables are good, but not an excessive amount. A hamster with diarrhea has a dirty cage and is dirty as well. Go to all dry food until the condition stops.

Heatstroke: If a hamster’s cage is kept too close to a heat source or in direct sunlight it can overheat. If the fur is damp and the hamster is unresponsive, you should immediately start cooling him down by pouring cool water over him and making him drink. If he doesn’t seem to come back to himself shortly, go right to the veterinarian.

Wet Tail: This most prevalent hamster disease (proliferative ileitis) is a bacterial illness causing sever diarrhea and can prove fatal. It is common in newly acquired hamsters. Stress and sudden change are common causes as are habitat overcrowding, extreme temperatures, and unsanitary living conditions. The telltale sign is a wet tail. Treatment includes antibiotics, fluid therapy, and anti-diarrhea medicine that must be gotten at a veterinarian since hamsters can have severe reactions to medication. Survival is directly linked to the quality of nursing and the quality of the environment.

Hair Loss: If hair loss is accompanied by increased thirst, it is a classic sign of adrenal disease, which may require surgery. It may also be a sign of thyroid disease or, in females, reproductive tract diseases.

Parasites: Hair loss and skin problems can be caused by parasites (mites) that cause mange. These mites are usually a dormant resident on hamsters, but become active when another serious internal illness arises. A veterinarian should be contacted.

Abscesses: Hamsters are prone to these, so the owner should look for bumps and lumps on the skin. Tumors are also a possibility. See the veterinarian for anything found on the hamster’s body that doesn’t look normal.

A pet owner has the responsibility to help the hamster maintain a healthy existence and care for him when and if problems arise.