Posted: March 10, 2014, 3 p.m. EDT
© Gina Cioli/I-5 Studio
If a hamster develops diarrhea, treatment usually involves replacing lost fluids, nutritional support and an antibiotic.
The most common problem of pet hamsters is diarrhea, which is commonly called wet tail by hamster owners. Diarrhea can affect hamsters of any age, but there seems to be two different syndromes. One affects very young hamsters and the other affects older hamsters. Both syndromes are serious and potentially fatal even with treatment.
In young hamsters (roughly 1 to 3 months of age) diarrhea is usually caused by a bacteria called Lawsonia intracellularis. The recently weaned hamster usually stops eating, stops drinking and becomes lethargic. Some of the hamsters develop a rectal prolapse from the frequent and profuse diarrhea. This can quickly lead to dehydration in such a small animal and to death if not treated promptly.
Treatment is aimed at correcting the dehydration with fluid therapy. It is really difficult to find a vein large enough for IV fluids, so fluids are often giving orally and just under the loose skin over the shoulder blades (subcutaneously or SQ). Another option is to give the fluids into the bone marrow of one of the larger bones like the femur (i.e., the leg bone) or tibia (i.e., the shin bone). This is called intraosseous or IO fluids. Unfortunately the leg bones of these very young hamsters are often too small for IO fluids.
Antibiotics are needed to treat the bacterial infection. Hamsters are very sensitive to some antibiotics, but your veterinarian can use enrofloxacin (Baytril), trimethoprim-sulfa or tetracycline to safely treat the Lawsonia bacterium. Feeding the hamster a critical care product made for herbivores (Critical Care by Oxbow Animal Health) can also help with the dehydration and nutritional deficiencies.
Diarrhea in adult hamsters is usually caused by a Clostridium difficile infection. This type of diarrhea often follows the use of certain antibiotics such as penicillin, amoxicillin, ampicillin, lincomycin or bacitracin. Hamsters with this bacterial infection become lethargic, dehydrated, develop an unkempt fur coat and can die quickly. Clostridium difficile can produce two toxins that cause severe damage to the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, especially in the colon.
A C. difficile infection is difficult to treat successfully because simply getting rid of the Clostridium infection does not solve the damage caused by the two toxins. A research study showed that giving hamsters antibodies from cattle protected the hamsters from this lethal problem. Unfortunately that option is not available to pet hamsters. In people this bacterium can cause a serious condition called pseudomembranous colitis.
Other infectious causes of diarrhea, such as Escherichia coli and Salmonella, also occur. Pet hamsters are often exposed to these potentially fatal infections from contaminated human food sources, such as fruits and vegetables. Always thoroughly clean all people food before giving it to pet hamsters. These bacterial infections will cause a profuse diarrhea, severe dehydration and death if left untreated. Similar to the young hamsters, treatment includes SQ and oral fluids, nutritional support and an appropriate antibiotic like enrofloxacin.
Fortunately not all cases of diarrhea result in a near fatal condition. Husbandry problems, such as overcrowding, stress, and inappropriate temperature and humidity, can cause a mild diarrhea. Likewise, a change in food or feeding too much fruits and/or vegetables may produce a mild diarrhea. Treating the hamster with fluids to treat the dehydration and correcting the husbandry issue is often all that is needed for a successful recovery in such cases.
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