The hamster’s intestinal arrangements are a bit complicated, with the fore-stomach and the glandular stomach leading to the small intestine and the caecum. The small intestine is very long for the size of the animal – 40 centimetres or over 16 inches – but it needs to be as vegetable matter takes a lot of digesting. Hamsters – like rabbits and other mainly herbivorous animals – will eat its own faeces. This is not a nasty habit and the animal should not be stopped from doing this as it is how they get their B vitamins. As the food has passed through the caecum the bacteria naturally occurring there will have produced B vitamins from it and that will be present in the faeces, which in a healthy hamster are small, hard and black looking. Hamsters in the wild often eat bugs and insects, but most domestic pets are fed a vegetarian diet – this is why it is vital to feed hamster mix and not just fresh vegetables, so that they can get enough protein.
Signs of diarrhoea
As a prey animal, a hamster tends to try to behave normally even in ill health as it is the sickly animals a predator will go for in the wild. Therefore, a hamster with diarrhoea may appear well and will continue to eat normally. Most cases of diarrhoea are caused by feeding the wrong foods or in the wrong proportions and changing the diet will sort it out. In more severe cases it can be caused by salmonella or e.coli, or the animal may have the serious conditions known as wet tail or Tyzzer’s disease. In the latter cases though, the animal will become very ill very quickly and so it will be quite clear that what is happening is not simple food related diarrhoea. In normal health, the hamster’s droppings are very hard and dry with no odour. When it has diarrhoea this obviously changes and they become loose and smelly. The back end of the animal will become soiled as well; this is sometimes referred to wrongly as wet tail, because of the appearance. Wet tail is a very serious disease and relatively rare in domestic situations. If the animal does not improve on an adjusted diet within a day or so, or if it seems lethargic and generally ill, it should be taken to the vet.
Possible causes of diarrhoea
Apart from the nasty diseases like wet tail and Tyzzer’s, which are not strictly speaking diarrhoea although that is a main symptom, diarrhoea in hamsters is almost always caused by an incorrect diet. Salmonella and e.coli are a rare cause as well and the worrying part of that is that people can contract it from a hamster (and give it to their pet as well – keep washing those hands!). If the hamster has intermittent diarrhoea, watch what it has been eating. If it has been having too many wet foods – cucumber, lettuce, tomato – it will almost certainly get diarrhoea as the moisture content in the food will be too much for the kidneys to remove and so it passes through almost un-dehydrated. The secret to feeding a hamster is to make sure that most of its diet is dry, using hamster mix, dry toast or cereal. The water bottle should always be clean; if it has a coating of algae, this is also a very likely cause of the diarrhoea. It is tempting to feed your hamster vegetable treats, and obviously it does need fresh green stuff, but it should be fed in moderation. Also, it is essential to remove uneaten food from the cage daily. Food which is rotting is a health hazard to the hamster, creating a wet environment which is a perfect breeding ground for bacteria and fungi, not to mention that it will attract flies and all of the unpleasantness which maggots may bring.
Other health issues
If a hamster gets diarrhoea, it is not just a case of it feeling poorly for a day or so. It can easily develop sores around its rear end as it is damp and possibly over-groomed. It will re-ingest any bacteria which may be causing the diarrhoea and so will not recover very quickly, which will sap its strength and lower its natural immunity to other diseases. It will not be able to eat its faeces, as it naturally does, so its level of B vitamins will drop sharply, which is very bad for the hamster as they are vital for the healthy cell growth, especially the red cells in blood. Without adequate B vitamins, the hamster will quickly become anaemic and as it is such a small animal, this may become very serious very quickly. In fact it is worth remembering that as a hamster is so small, any disease situation is likely to cause quick degeneration and choices for veterinary intervention are few.
Simple steps will prevent diarrhoea and if it develops, can shorten the attack. Feed small amounts of fresh fruit and vegetables; think of what the hamster would be eating in the wild and try to replicate that as far as possible. It naturally eats dry food – dry grasses, grains and seeds with the occasional grub or insect for good measure. It does not naturally eat strawberries, spinach, carrot or cucumber, although it does love it if offered by a kind owner. Remember how small a hamster is; the average weight is only around 3.5 ounces. Now think how small its stomach is. Now think of an apple – an average one weighs almost twice as much as a hamster. So there is not really much sense in giving a hamster half an apple as a treat, as many people do. It would be like giving a person a whole lamb for Sunday lunch and leaving it on the table until it is eaten.
Taking all that into account, it is easy to see that most hamsters have a fairly over-stretched digestive system. Feeding small amounts according to size and removing food which has not been eaten on a regular basis, will cut episodes of diarrhoea to a minimum.