Pyometra in Hamsters
Pyometra is an infection of the womb or uterus therefore only affects female hamsters. It can follow on from a respiratory infection with Streptococccus or Pasteurella pneumotropica (1,2) or occur for no apparent reason. It can also follow complications of pregnancy, such as a phantom pregnancy or retention of part of the placenta following delivery (2). Very rarely, it can be caused by lymphocytic coriomeningitis virus (1,2). In my experience it affects both hamsters who have and who have not been bred, and can affect them at all ages though it seems more common in older girls.
Signs and Symptoms
- Swelling of the stomach
- Discharge from the vent
- Foul smell
- Bleeding from the vent
- Increased drinking and urinating
- Reduced appetite
- Irritability, or unusual biting
- Hunched posture
Although it can be normal for some hamsters to have a little discharge from the vent when they are on heat, this lasts for only the one day they are on heat and doesn’t have any associated swelling of the stomach/abdomen and the hamster shows no signs of being unwell. Hamsters do not have periods - any bleeding from the vent is abnormal and should be checked by a vet.
If you suspect your hamster may have a pyometra or is displaying any of the symptoms listed, please seek veterinary attention as soon as possible.
Types of Pyometra
There are two types of pyometra: open and closed.
In an open pyometra, pus leaves the uterus/womb through the cervix (neck of the womb) resulting in a discharge form the vent. This discharge is usually utterly foul smelling and seems to cling to clothes and hands. There may also be bleeding. An open pyometra may be confused with a bladder problem if the discharged is flushed out during urination (2). Although there can be abdominal swelling with an open pyometra, I've found that this tends to be less obvious, if at all.
In a closed pyometra there is no outlet for the pus to escape. Therefore there is no discharge, but the hamster tends to become more swollen more quickly as the pus accumulates. Hamsters usually become more unwell with a closed pyometra as they are not as easy to detect and the toxins accumulate more with the lack of outlet for the pus. The uterus may rupture and release pus into the abdomen causing peritonitis.
Often pyometra is a diagnosis made based on the symptoms and signs found on clinical examination. Sometimes tests are done if the diagnosis is not clear, such as x-rays, an ultrasound scan or a swab sample of any discharge. X-rays and ultrasounds usually need the hamster to have an anaesthetic and can be difficult to perform and/or interpret given the hamster's small size.
Management of Pyometra in Hamsters
Pyometra should be managed with the advice of your vet and the following information is not intended for self-management without veterinary advice.
When deciding on a management plan with your vet it is important to consider whether it is appropriate and proportionate to the age of the hamster, how unwell she is, level of cost, and how invasive or dangerous the treatment is.
Where the names of drugs are mentioned by brand name below, the generic name of the drug is included in brackets for those with different brands of the medication.
Treatment with antibiotics may provide temporary improvement, but it is rarely curative (1,2). The usual antibiotic is Baytril (enrofloxacin) although Septrin (co-trimoxazole) is sometimes used either alone or in combination with Baytril. In young, previously healthy girls, I have used antibiotic treatment to help them get as fit as they can be in preparation for surgery. They often improve within a couple of days of being on it and gain condition before an anaesthetic.
Pyometra in an old hamster or one not suitable for surgery produces a difficult dilemma. Often older hamsters become more unwell with the infection than a younger hamster and the risks of surgery are against them both because of being ill and also because of their age. In some cases long-term antibiotics can be used (using probiotic supplements to help counter the effects of this on the bowel bacteria which are vital to a hamster’s digestion). I have used Galastop (cabergoline) in such cases in addition to high dose Baytril.
There is no scientific literature on using Galastop for pyometra in hamsters although there is a brief mention of it in Hamsterlopaedia (2): “Some vets have found the drug Galastop to be effective.” On the basis of this my vet undertook enquiries and agreed to treat one of my hamsters with it when she were unlikely to survive surgery and we have used it several times since. It isn’t clear how or why Galastop works in pyometra in hamsters.
If you do use Galastop, then store the solution in a glass bottle as it caused cracks in the plastic bottle I initially used, and get plenty of syringes as it seems to cause the markings to wear off. Handle it with care and using gloves if you are, or may be, pregnant yourself. It's main side effect is nausea and vomiting in other animals it's used on. Although hamsters can't vomit, it is worth monitoring your hamster’s appetite. I have noted no side effects or reactions to date in my use of it.
Surgery will produce a definitive cure (2), but carries risks, particularly in older or unwell hamsters. The surgery done for a pyometra is a spay, or ovariohysterectomy, where the womb and ovaries of the hamster are removed. It is small and delicate work! Surgery can be expensive, so it is worth having a vet fund in case of such emergencies.
I have had surgery performed on Syrian hamsters but not on dwarf hamsters.
Generally hamsters are taken to the vet on the morning of the surgery in a carrier and are collected later the same day when they have recovered from the anaesthetic and no longer need monitoring by the vets and nurses. Hamsters don’t need to be stopped from eating prior to surgery. Sometimes the hamster may need to stay in overnight and you may need to take them with a small travel cage. When you collect your hamster, you will be told any specific instruction or medications that are needed. Ongoing antibiotics or painkillers may be required.
After surgery the hamster may be a little wobbly due to the effects of the anaesthetic and painkillers. Therefore I recommend putting her in a ‘hospital cage’ instead of their usual cage. I use a tank-style cage to remove any temptation to climb the bars as well as keep out draughts. The wide access at the top also is helpful for monitoring the hamster and accessing the cage without too much disturbance.
I keep the cage furnishing simple and use a soft substrate on the floor such as Carefresh or Fitch so it doesn’t aggravate the stitches. I don’t usually allow girls a wheel to run in until after their post-op check-up a few days to a week following surgery to allow the wound time to heal properly.
As hamsters can get quite cold during surgery, I place a heat source on the outside of one corner of the cage for the first day, either a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel or a Snugglesafe. As well as the usual hamster mix and water bottle, I also give my recovering girls a shallow bowl of water and some soft food such as baby food. Hamsters tend to recover very fast after surgery and special measures such as water bowls and additional heat are usually not needed beyond the first 24 hours.
This is Lympy’s wound shortly after surgery. The hamsters I have had spayed have had dissolvable stitches in the skin wound, although sometimes skin glue is used. Only one hamster has fiddled with one of her stitches which then didn’t dissolve as it should have and needed removing.
Sometimes hamsters, especially elderly hamsters, become too unwell too fast with pyometra and there is little that can be done to cure them. At this stage, they are managed palliatively with TLC (tender loving care).
If the hamster isn’t in pain currently, but curative options are not considered to be suitable in discussion with the vet, then I tend to give Baytril as a palliative measure to ease some of the symptoms from the toxins. A vet may also prescribe painkillers such as Metacam (meloxicam).
If the hamster starts to suffer more discomfort, then the hard decision may need to be taken to have the hamster put to sleep. When I am taking a hamster to the vet for euthanasia, I put their familiar bedding in the carrier as well as a little treat. To minimise the disturbance on the journey, I cover the carrier with a towel.
If untreated, pyometra is usually fatal. Some of my elderly or already unwell hamsters deteriorated very rapidly and either needed putting to sleep or died in their own home.
Surgery in a younger fit hamster often has a good result and is curative. I have had several hamsters spayed for pyometra, aged between 5 and 17 months old, with good result. They all had antibiotics for a time before their surgery. One who had a difficult recovery and lived only a few months after surgery had bowel involved in her infection and had been found as a stray.
The hamsters I have used Galastop with have all had recurrence of their symptoms after one to four weeks. Some recovered again with a second course of medical treatment, but some (the older and more unwell) died of their recurrence. One girl who had a recurrence recovered well with further medical treatment and she remained symptom free until she died 5 months later from an unrelated cause.
1. Richardson V. Diseases of domestic small animals (2nd edition). Blackwell Publishing, Oxford. 2003
2. Logsdail C & P, Hovers, K. Hamsterlopaedia: a complete guide to hamster care. Ringpress Books, Surrey. 2002
In memory of Genta, Bella, Tia, Delilah, Bobbi, Luna, Lotus, Lympy, Pocahontas and Cadie