How do I know if my hamster is sick?
The best answer is that you do regular health checks and pay attention to any changes in the behavior of your hamster. So, how do you do that?
The first thing to do is simply observe. Make sure you are checking on your hamster at least once a day and pay attention to any changes from normal behavior. Most of these things you can observe without even picking up your hamster. Some of the things you’ll want to check include:
- Activity: Is your hamster using its wheel as much as it normally does? Does it come out to greet you as quickly as usual? Is your hamster responsive to stimuli (light, sound, touch, smell)? Is your hamster doing the things it normally enjoys doing? Is your hamster moving normally (not stumbling, not dragging any limbs, not falling over, etc.?
- Urine: Are there fresh urine spots in the cage? Does the urine smell normal? Is it a normal color? Is there more or less urine than usual?
- Feces: Is there poop in your hamster’s cage? Is it too soft? Is it too hard? Is it the normal color? Is it shaped like it usually is (too small, too large, round, long and skinny, etc.)? Does it smell? Are there less droppings than normal? Are there more droppings than normal?
- Fluid Intake: Is your hamster drinking more than normal? Is your hamster drinking less than normal? (If you need to keep track of this accurately you can weigh the water bottle once a day. One gram is the same as 1 milliliter of water)
- Food Intake: This one is more difficult to track since hamsters tend to hoard food. Has your hamster removed food from its bowl? Will your hamster eat a treat if offered? If there are treats in the cage have they been consumed?
The second easy way to keep track of your hamster’s health is by doing regular weight checks. Monitoring a hamsters weight is the easiest and fastest way to know if your hamster is sick. A bit of regular fluctuation in weight is normal, but a continuous or sudden loss of weight usually isn’t normal. We usually start to worry if the gain or loss of weight is more than 10% of the hamster’s normal weight. We try to do weight checks once a month for every hamster (and record it in a spread sheet), but we will do them more often for hamsters with known issues. For example, A.J. (the diabetic hamster with no teeth) was weighed daily.
The third thing you will want to do is pick up your hamster and do a physical health check. The most common problems in our experience that will need vet care are diarrhea, teeth problems, eye infections, respiratory illnesses, and accidental injuries. To check for these things you will want to pick up your hamster and start examining it. As you are doing this pay attention to anything unusual you feel, see or smell.
You may want to have a small towel or small piece of fleece on hand to wrap your hamster in if it needs to be restrained for anything, and you will want to have a safe place you can put your hamster down if it gets upset by the check. It can also be helpful to have a second person and some yummy hamster treats on hand! You’ll want to check the hamster’s:
- Nose: Is there any unusual discharge or blood coming from the hamster’s nose? Are there any injuries?
- Teeth: Are the teeth too long? Are the teeth to short? Have any of the teeth been broken? Are the teeth even in length? Are the teeth curling in any abnormal directions?
- Mouth: Are there any injuries inside the mouth? Cut on the lips? Do the gums look healthy and pink? Does the tongue look normal?
- Eyes: Can the hamster open and close its eyes easily? Is there any unusual discharge? Do the eyes look cloudy? Is there any swelling around the eyes? Are the eyes bulging?
- Cheek pouches: Do the cheek pouches feel normal from the outside (feel for abnormal lumps in particular)? If you smell near your hamster’s mouth is there any foul odor coming from the cheek pouches? Can the hamster fill and empty its cheek pouches normally?
- Ears: Are the ears clean? Are there any injuries? Any inflammation?
- Feet: Are the nails too short or too long? Have any of the nails been broken or pulled out? Do the pads of the feet have any injuries or sores on them?
- Skin: Are there any sores on the skin? Cuts? Scabs? Rashes? Bruising? General Irritation? Does the skin feel scaly? Is the skin flaky? Are there any black spots moving on your hamster? Any discoloration? Do you feel any abnormal growths on or under the skin? Remember syrian hamsters have scent glands on their flanks Syrian Hamster Scent Glands and dwarf hamsters have scent glands on their stomachs!
- Anus: Is the anus pink and healthy? Are there any sores? Is there any blood coming from the anus? Is there anything protruding from the anus? Is it clean? Is there feces stuck on it?
- Genitals (for males): Are the testes discolored? Are they abnormally swollen? Is there anything blocking the urethra? Is there any blood coming from the urethra? Is there any discharge coming from the urethra? Is the penis retracting normally?
- Genitals (for females): Is there any discoloration? Is there any unusual vaginal discharge? Is there any unusual smell coming from the genitals? Is there any blood coming from the vaginal opening? Is there any discharge coming from the urethra? Is there any blood coming from the urethra? If you gently press on the abdomen does any discharge appear?
- Abdomen: Is the abdomen swollen? Is the abdomen discolored (any purple or black skin is particularly concerning)? If you gently press on the abdomen does the hamster appear to be in any pain? Do you feel any abnormal lumps when you gently press on the abdomen? Does the abdomen feel soft? Does the abdomen feel hard (this is concerning)?
- Fur: Is the fur falling out? Are there bald patches? Does the fur look thin? Is the fur greasy?
- Respiratory system: Can your hamster easily breath? Is it making clicking or squeaking sounds when it inhales or exhales? Does it make any gurgling sounds? Is it breathing too fast? Is it breathing too slow? Are its sides fluttering quickly when it breathes? Do its lungs sound clear (this is probably something you can’t tell without quite a lot of experience and a quality pediatric stethoscope)?
- All Over: Does your hamster look like it usually looks to you? If you think something is off but can’t quite figure out what is wrong you may want to consider seeking help. My general rule is that if you need to ask, ask an expert, and actually listen to that expert. The expert in this case is a veterinarian.
Once you get used to doing all of this you don’t have to go through the checklist every time. You start to notice these things simple by handling your hamster and spending time with it. Don’t beat yourself up if you miss something though. Hamsters are very good at hiding illness and unless you are very used to looking for problems it can be really hard to catch. If you do notice a problem please seek out professional help from your local veterinarian.
Thank you to The Pipsqueakery for sharing your well written article with the OHC.