Hamsters are unusual in the caged pet group in that they can catch colds from people. This means that the cold takes pretty much the same course as it does with a person, but obviously in a tiny little creature like a hamster it can quickly become rather serious. The signs and symptoms are also much the same as a human cold; feeling off colour and possibly a bit grumpy (they may bite a bit more often than usual or be reluctant to come out of their bedding) and then going on to show a runny nose, a wheezy chest and sneezing. Not all of these symptoms are due to a cold – the hamster may be allergic to its bedding or something in the room, so it is always wise to consult a vet after a day or two if there is no improvement, especially as the cold may easily turn to pneumonia.
First signs to watch out for
A hamster, being nocturnal, is a difficult animal to keep a careful watch on and as it is also very responsive to cold, becoming almost comatose in cold conditions and also heat it is sometimes hard to tell whether it is ill or whether environmental issues are affecting its behaviour. It may therefore not be until it is exhibiting signs such as sneezing and having runny eyes that the owner may notice that anything is wrong, as the first signs of lethargy and general unwellness have been missed. It is very important to monitor a hamster with any respiratory symptoms as pneumonia can quickly develop and death is very sudden if that point is reached. A hamster is too small to be able to cope with too much change in its environment or ill health and is easily overwhelmed by a bacterial or viral condition so vigilance is vital.
Helping the hamster feel better
If confirmation has been made that the hamster has a cold, it can be made more comfortable by making a few changes to its environment and diet. It must be encouraged to drink and experienced hamster owners swear by a mixture of milk and water with a little honey in it. Hamsters really like this mixture and will drink it readily, so that it gets some liquid into them and the honey has natural healing properties which is generally good for the animal. If it has a sniffly nose, any proprietary inhaler, such as Vick or Olbas placed near the cage but not accessible to the hamster will help to clear its breathing in just the same way as in a human. The hamster will probably be feeling rather miserable, so it is a good idea to give it some personal space; if there is another hamster in the habitat it is sensible to separate them while the cold has a grip. This will not only give the ill animal some much-needed peace and quiet, it will also hopefully prevent cross infection if done soon enough.
Treatment of respiratory problems
Treatment is much as for a human cold. Antibiotics do not do any good against viruses, so in these cases it is just a case of keeping the hamster warm, hydrated and nourished. It may be advisable to give vitamin supplements at this point as such a small creature can soon become vitamin-depleted. If it is a bacterial infection and especially if pneumonia is suspected, than antibiotics will be prescribed by the vet and in this case it is essential that the entire course is completed to eradicate the bug.
What other causes might there be?
Hamsters sometimes sneeze and get red, runny eyes because they have an allergy to something in the cage or in the air surrounding it. If the cage is enclosed, the bedding sometime grows mould and the spores from the fungus are very tiny and light and only a small amount of movement from the hamster will propel them into the air, where they will get breathed in. If the hamster has a runny nose for more than a few days and seems well otherwise, it is worth turning its bed out and looking for the tell-tale greyish green spores of aspergillus fungus in the hay. Strong smelling bedding materials such as cedar or pine are a popular but misguided choice for hamster bedding as the resins can give the animal breathing problems, as well as being a factor in skin problems. These bedding materials are often chosen if the hamster is kept in a child’s bedroom as they smell nice and mask the ‘cage’ smell, but should be resisted.
General environmental needs of hamsters
Hamsters are a popular pet for children and although they are pretty tough in general they get very ill very quickly because of their small size and so an adult should always be checking the health of the hamster. It is wise to bear in mind that as prey animals, hamsters try to pretend they are well when they are not; in the wild this is a good survival technique as ill animals are the ones targeted by predators. So it is important to watch the hamster to see if it is really well or just putting a brave face on things! Hamsters really hate cold, draughts and damp. They also don’t like being too warm. That sounds rather specialist, but in many ways the environment of a bedroom suits them fine. Because they are active at night some parents put the cage out on the landing at bedtime to prevent the constant small noises keeping the child awake; this is fine as long as the temperature gradient is not too steep and there are no draughts. It is important to keep the litter clean, as the ammonia from the break-down of urine is particularly irritant to the hamster’s respiratory system and also it means that the cage is kept dry. With all of these factors kept in mind, a hamster will be a happy little creature and is a good way of teaching the responsibility of looking after a pet.