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A Hamster Lives With Diabetes Mellitus

Some hamsters can develop diabetes, but one lucky hamster’s condition is managed with careful attention to his diet.

Leticia Materi, PhD, DVM
Posted: March 3, 2014, 2:25 p.m. EST

hamster in cage
© Courtesy Leticia Materi
Daryl's diabetes is currently managed by minimizing any fatty or sugary food from his diet.

For my first blog, I thought that it would be a good idea to share some of my personal experiences with my own pets. Like most people who work in the field of veterinary medicine, my pets have either been abandoned or were destined for euthanasia due to poor health. This is how I obtained Daryl, the Russian dwarf hamster. He was brought in from a pet store where the staff noted that he was drinking excessive amounts of water and passing lots of urine. Testing of the urine showed very high levels of glucose (sugar) and ketones, thus confirming a diagnosis of diabetes. This spelled disaster for the hamster, as it would be unethical for a pet store to sell an animal with a known medical problem to the public. Things looked grim.

As I watched him, dreading my next step, he stood up on his back paws and looked straight into my eyes. Sigh. I knew he was coming home with me. The pet store was happy to sign him over to me, and I began my treatment plan for my new furry family member.

Many hamsters, especially Chinese and Russian dwarf hamsters, have been reported to have a genetic predisposition toward the development of diabetes mellitus, a condition in which the body is unable to produce normal amounts of insulin. Normally, insulin is released by the pancreas when blood glucose increases, such as after eating a meal. Insulin causes the cells of the body to take up the glucose for immediate use as an energy source or to store it for later.

When there is not enough insulin, the cells can no longer take up the glucose, thus leading to increased blood sugar. A lot of this excess glucose is passed from the blood into the urine by the kidneys. Consequently, more water is drawn into the urine due to the increased urinary concentration. This is why animals with diabetes mellitus produce a lot of urine. They also drink more to replace the water lost by the kidneys. Because the cells no longer take up glucose, the body begins to break down fat for the cells to use as energy. This is why owners often notice their pets losing weight. When fat is broken down too quickly, by-products known as ketones are released that acidify the blood and can cause coma or death if left untreated.

Fortunately for Daryl, most cases of diabetes mellitus in hamsters can be controlled by diet, so he does not need to get insulin shots. A diet that is high in proteins but low in sugars and fats seems to help. It is best to avoid fatty foods, such as nuts, and sugary treats, such as dehydrated or fresh fruit, yogurt drops or vegetables high in sugars such as carrots, peas and corn.

I still monitor Daryl daily for signs of problems because diabetes predisposes him to the development of cataracts, but so far his proper diet has been controlling his symptoms. Not every hamster will develop diabetes but it is good to be aware of the symptoms and consult a veterinarian familiar with hamsters if you have concerns.

Note: This article is meant for educational purposes only and in no way represents any particular individual or case. It is not for diagnostic purposes. If your pet is sick, please take him or her to a veterinarian.

See all of Dr. Materi's blogs, click here>>

Posted: March 3, 2014, 2:25 p.m. EST


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