Wet tail in hamsters is a very serious disease which is frequently fatal. It is a common mistake to call any diarrhoea in a hamster wet tail, but in the actual condition the lower part of the ileum – or lower part of the intestine – becomes inflamed and thickened. This gives wet tail its alternative names of proliferative ileitis or transmissible ileal hyperplasia. The hamster will certainly have very profound diarrhoea and other distressing symptoms but to call all cases of diarrhoea wet tail is to mislead, as the prognoses are very different.
Is wet tail contagious?
Wet tail is passed very easily from one hamster to another and if one in a group has it, the others will almost certainly present with it within the week – seven days is its incubation period. A hamster which has successfully recovered from a bout of wet tail can be re-infected, as it bestows no immunity. Cages must be disinfected with a proprietary brand of cleaner suitable for use with small animals. The bowls and equipment of a recently sick or deceased animal must not be re-used until they have been thoroughly disinfected and left to stand for some time to give the bacterium responsible time to die off. Preferably, though, unless there are overwhelming financial reasons, it would be better to dispose of the equipment, making sure that it does not come accidentally back into use – if disposing at a local tip, for example, it should be damaged beyond use before leaving it there. If only one animal – perhaps a new arrival – is sick, then it is good practice to feed and generally look after the healthy animals before the sick one and then very thoroughly wash your hands afterwards, using an antibacterial handwash. It is always a good idea to follow strict hygiene procedures any time that animals are being handled, but in this case it is absolutely vital – you will want to wash anyway, because the diarrhoea associated with wet tail is extremely offensive.
What to look out for in a possible case of wet tail
Wet tail happens most often in young animals, often just after weaning when they have gone through the stress of a move and being separated for the first time from the litter. The first signs are unkempt fur and lethargy. There is likely to be a loss of appetite and very shortly the main symptom which gives the condition its name will appear, namely watery extremely offensively smelling diarrhoea, which may be blood stained. The condition is extremely painful and distressing and the hamster will probably adopt a hunched position, to try and ease the pain a little. It will possibly also cry out regularly, as the intestine will be painful and the tail will be sore. These symptoms come on very quickly and the affected animal must be isolated immediately and a vet’s intervention sought urgently. Over the counter preparations which are said to arrest wet tail are not sufficient – they are for normal diarrhoea and even then should not be used without the animal being taken to the vet. If one of these preparations is used, the vet must be told so that it can be taken into account when planning medication.
How common is wet tail?
Wet tail does not usually spontaneously occur in a stable population and is not something which the hamster owner need worry about unduly, but it is vital to seek help if for some reason it is suspected. If for example a new hamster has been introduced, it may already be suffering from wet tail. After a few weeks of normal health after introduction, there should be nothing to worry about. It is very serious, though, so it is unwise to buy a hamster from a shop which has recently had an outbreak, because it is difficult to eradicate completely. It is very rare in Russian or Chinese hamsters.
Wet tail can be treated but the treatment is not easy or cheap and the animal will need dedicated and skilful nursing to get it through wet tail. It may be kinder to euthanize the affected animal, as it will certainly be feeling very ill indeed. Many animals die not of the immediate infection but of dehydration as the diarrhoea is so wet and profuse it is difficult to supply adequate hydration. Rectal prolapse is common in cases of wet tail, where the intestine will protrude from the anus. This is obviously painful for the animal and sores can add to the problem of care. If the decision is made to go ahead and treat, the antibiotic of choice is usually neomycin, which is given by mouth three times a day. Meanwhile, hydration is vital and vitamins added to the water will go some way to aiding recovery. It is also a good idea to add some prophylactic antibiotics to the drinking water of any other hamsters in the house; the vet will prescribe the right ones.
How can wet tail be prevented?
Because the condition is mercifully rare, there are not too many specific preventative measures. Buying from a reputable store is obviously the first and foremost way of preventing an outbreak and also, if breeding, to not breed from an animal which has had wet tail in the past is wise as it has been suggested that there may be a genetic link to getting it, although this has not been conclusively proven. Scrupulous cleanliness is always a good idea, but if you have inadvertently imported an animal with wet tail, then keeping it and its equipment strictly segregated from the others is vital and hand washing is very much part of the routine. Many breeders and vets never see cases of wet tail and with simple precautions, this situation can continue.