THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT KEEPING HAMSTERS
These small rodents can be found in the wild in Eastern Europe, the Middle
East, North Africa, China and Siberia. A wide variety of coat colors are available
and long-haired varieties and a number of different species becoming more common.
For example, the Chinese hamster (Cricetulus griseus) and the Russian
hamster (Phodopus sungorus) as well as the common Golden or Syrian hamster
The hamster is a good pet, having simple housing needs and being relatively
odorless but it is predominantly nocturnal and thus not a great pet for children.
These animals have to be kept alone as they fight when housed together and can
inflict a considerable bite to a human who picks them up in an incorrect manner.
A captive environment needs to offer space and exercise facility plus privacy
and warmth. Cages should be escape-proof and gnaw-resistant and plastic or polypropylene
cages are excellent. Metal cages are less than warm and comfortable while wooden
cages are not gnaw-proof and are difficult to sterilize.
Hamsters need plenty of bedding which absorbs moisture. Sawdust or wood chippings
can be used and peat is a useful alternative. Cotton wool should be avoided
as it can cause severe constipation and any strands of material, artificial
or natural, can wind around legs causing restricted blood flow.
Hamsters are best picked up by encouraging them to walk into cupped hands.
Startling them will result in a bite which is more the fault of the handler
than the handled!
Hamsters should be fed predominantly on commercial rodent mixes. Too often
owners give too much vegetable matter and high-energy sunflower seeds. Remember
that these animals are used to a fairly dry environment without many green vegetables
in their diet. Using supplementation with seeds, grains, fruit and greens is
useful but should not be given in excess resulting in an unbalanced diet. Water
should be given freely.
The most common problem in hamsters is 'wet tail' (proliferative ileitis or
transmissible ileal hyperplasia). The causes are unclear and various bacteria
can be isolated from animals with the disease, which can be transmitted by direct
contact. However there are probably a host of factors which predispose to the
condition. The small intestine in these cases is thickened, which may cause
the signs resulting in death in the early stages of the disease but also just
when the animal seems to be recovering. Treatment with antibiotics works only
rarely and the vital factor is supportive therapy: fluids by mouth to resolve
the dehydration in these small animals with fairly rampant diarrhea.
Interestingly, antibiotics can themselves cause intestinal upset and should
not be given by mouth if at all possible.
As with all rodents, hamsters' teeth grow continually and have to be worn
down all the time. When there is malocclusion (teeth do not grind together satisfactorily)
there will be severe problems of teeth overgrowing. This causes gum ulceration
and subsequent pain and failure to eat adequately.
In hamsters a gut parasite (Hymenolepis nana) is a significant problem
and can lead to intestinal obstruction. It can be treated by your veterinary
surgeon, as can pinworms, although many consider these not to be a clinical
problem in hamsters.
In hamsters, as with other rodents, respiratory disease is common and can
be caused by viruses or bacteria. Because hamsters are kept singly by most owners
the sort of respiratory problems seen in big colonies of mice and rats are less
likely to occur.
Problems of hair loss, scratching and red skin may be related to a mite called
Demodex or to a fungus, Ringworm. Both of these can be diagnosed by a skin and
hair sample examined under the microscope. There are effective treatments for
both these conditions.
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