Hamster Health Checks
As hamsters are prey animals they can be very good at hiding illnesses so it’s a good idea to check them regularly. It’s much easier to treat problems if they’re picked up early too. If a hamster needs to see a vet, it can be less stressful for them when they are used to being checked.
If you find anything different on a health check or you are worried your hamster is unwell then seek advice from your vet.
When to Check
You may not realise it, but you can do a mini-health check every time you handle your hamster. Part of playtime with my hams is me checking they are clean, alert and behaving as normal. When I stroke them, I notice any lumps or bumps and being too fat or too thin.
Stage 1: Observation
When I get a hamster out of their cage, I look at how much food have they eaten and what is in their store? Not eating can be a general sign of a hamster being unwell, or specific problems such as overgrown teeth. I also make sure I remove any fresh food from stores as mouldy food can cause stomach upsets.
How much water have they drunk? Hamsters usually drink a small amount of water each day, usually dropping the water bottle level less than a centimetre. It’s a good idea to know what your hamster usually drinks so you can spot if something changes. A blocked water bottle can make a hamster drink less and lead to dehydration. I have found that unwell hamsters can sometimes struggle to use a water bottle. Changes in room temperature can affect the fluid intake with my hamsters drinking more in warm summer weather than in the winter. Elderly hamsters tend to drink more water as their kidneys get less efficient. In Chinese hamsters, a significant increase in water intake can be a sign of diabetes.
I also check the nesting material and substrate. Syrian hamsters often have a wet corner which I check for its size and whether there’s any sign of blood. I have found Chinese hamsters don’t usually have a wet corner, but prefer to pee in their wheels! If a Chinese hamster suddenly develops a wet corner, I consider checking them for diabetes. I check that their poo looks normal and there are no signs of diarrhoea. I look at the nest for any signs of bleeding, especially for female hamsters.
I watch the hamster's behaviour. Is s/he active and alert, or sluggish and sleepy? Are his/her ears up and body posture normal, or are the ears held back and posture hunched? Is the hamster scratching itself? Is s/he acting out of character, such as being nippy?
Step 2: Nose-to-Tail Approach
Nose: Is there any running, snuffling or sneezing? Is there any fast breathing? Hamsters can catch human colds which can become chest infections and need antibiotics from a vet.
Eyes: Is there any watering, bulging, clouding or marks? Hamsters can get eye infections or bits of bedding in their eyes which can lead to soreness, watering or scars. Older hamsters can suffer from cataracts (clouding of the eye) or glaucoma (raised eye pressure and bulging).
Ears: Are they clean and held upright? Are there any new nicks or any scars? If a dwarf hamster lives with other hamsters they can get injuries to the ears.
Body: I then like to feel around the pouches, neck and down the body for any lumps or bumps. Does the hamster feel as chunky as usual or are the bones more prominent? Loss of weight can happen with age, but can also be caused by overgrown teeth, dehydration or imbalances in the diet.
Fur: While feeling the body, also look at the fur. Is it thick and plush or are there areas of thinning? Look for any signs of scratching. If a dwarf hamster lives with others, are there any bite wounds or areas of plucked fur? Chinese hamsters tend to favour noses, eyes and around the tail in arguments. There are lots of causes of fur loss, including age, hormones, mites, allergy and rarely Cushings. A vet opinion is often needed to tell them apart. Hamsters in barred cages can lose fur on their noses due to rubbing it on the bars while chewing them.
Paws: Are the paws clean? Are there any sore areas? Is the hamster limping or lame? Are the nails too long? Hamster nails can grow quickly and trimming can be easily done. If you are not confident, then seek guidance from your vet.
Bottom: Is the hamster clean underneath? Are there any signs of diarrhoea? In females, is there any discharge or bleeding from the vent? Syrian hamsters can suffer from diarrhoea due to wet tail. Although dwarves don’t, they can still develop bowel infections for other reasons. Too much fruit and veg can also cause diarrhoea. Female hamsters can suffer from pyometra (womb infection).
Tail: Is the tail straight and clean? Are there any bite marks? Hamsters can have kinked tails from injuries and certain Syrian colours, such as dark grey, can be prone to inherited kinks.
Teeth: Hamster teeth are supposed to be yellow! Check that they are equal length and not too long or curling inwards. These are normal Chinese hamster teeth: