Creature comforts

Hamsters, Part 3: Veterinary visits

PHOTO PROVIDED This is “Speedy” Roupp. He passed his physical examination with flying colors. And did not bite the doctor. Bonus!

Hamsters, like other rodents, are food for lots of other animals and they know it. Since the weak and sick get eaten first, hamsters are good at hiding illness until they absolutely can’t. It’s an adaptive behavior to avoid predation, but it means they may seem bright-eyed and bushy-tailed one minute, then deathly ill the next. Some simply die with no apparent warning. So, any signs of illness in a hamster may be serious.

Diarrhea often is fatal. So are respiratory infections. Hamsters can have allergic skin reactions to certain kinds of wood shavings used for bedding. They are subject to nasty abscesses and infected wounds when housed together with other hamsters, as most species are quite violent toward cage-mates, even ones they have known their whole lives. They are well-known for eating their young when stressed. They can develop cancerous tumors. They are prone to obesity, can have dental problems and are very susceptible to ingested toxins, as they do not have the ability to vomit. Caring for hamsters may involve having them seen by a veterinarian, which often costs more than the hamster itself. Frustrating? Indeed — for all parties, since hamsters are challenging patients.

As veterinary patients, hamsters are jerks. Honest truth. First, they’re not keen on being handled, especially by a stranger, and then having to be poked and prodded and made to hold still for a physical examination, however brief, is too much. They have a seriously short fuse, and will bite — hard, sometimes right out of the box. Sometimes, while still in the box. Having had those chisel teeth sunken into a thumb on more than one unhappy occasion, I can say with authority that hamster bites hurt like the dickens.

Every physical examination begins with some careful, hands-off observations, no matter the species. Much can be learned by just watching the animal in its carrier/box before any handling begins. Its general stance, movements, condition of eyes, ears, coat, nails, skin, color and cleanliness of lips and nose, rate and effort involved in breathing, alertness and mental status, response to stimuli, all can be very telling. Noticing the size and condition any droppings, urine, malodorous substances, partially chewed foods and other items in the enclosure are also important.

Now comes the physical exam.

Heavy sigh. OK … here goes … is what every veterinarian thinks before beginning the hands-on portion of an exam on a hamster. Because of the small size and wiggliness, listening to heart and lungs is often an exercise in futility, but in cooperative patients, and using a pediatric stethoscope, it can be accomplished. Counting heartbeats is impossible, unless one is able to step into another dimension where everything runs slower, and so a general impression of the sounds, rate and sometimes rhythm are as good as it gets. Palpating for swellings or masses, pain and normal joint movements must be done very quickly, as restraining a writhing, and now angry hamster is like holding a firecracker with a lit fuse. And once they’re released, a second chance to nab them for another go is ill-advised. No pressure.

Hamsters are mammals and can have any number of mammalian diseases including kidney or liver disease, infections, parasites, cancer, epilepsy and diabetes, to name a few. Performing the usual medical diagnostics on hamsters, however, is no small thing — primarily because hamsters are such small things. Obtaining blood samples large enough to use for diagnostic purposes is nearly impossible, both because of the tiny volume that can be taken safely, and the limited locations on the body available to attempt to draw the samples. “Attempt” is the operative term.

Now, say for example, our theoretical hamster patient has a suspected broken leg or a big, distended belly. The next logical step would be to take some radiographs (x-ray pictures), right? Absolutely. Imagine trying to hold a wiggly, non-compliant (probably angry) wee-beastie perfectly still, such that the body part needing to be x-rayed is in the picture, but the big person’s hand is not. Attempting this without sedation/anesthesia is folly. Once sedated, hamsters become furry, little meatballs with tiny legs. Creative adjustments of technique for patient positioning must be made to obtain the proper, diagnostic images. Additionally, with body parts so small, the x-ray beam settings must be dialed way down.

The same sorts of challenges pertain when treating hamster ailments. Here: apply this ointment to your hamster’s rash twice a day. Never mind he holds still exactly never. And he bites. Good luck. Whatever the treatment needed, it sometimes takes some ingenuity to dose and then administer to our smaller, squirmier, more unwilling patients. Fortunately, veterinarians are a creative bunch. Challenge accepted!

Daverio is a veterinarian at Williamsport West Veterinary Hospital. Her column is published every other Sunday in the Lifestyle section. She can be reached at