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Small Pet Health – Wet-Tail in Hamsters

Small HamsterWe like to keep our little pets as happy and healthy as possible, but as with our own health there are some common illnesses that can occur despite our efforts to keep them away. Wet-tail describes a common illness found to affect most rodents, but it affects hamsters more often than others, as they seem to be the most susceptible to it. The symptoms of this illness include diarrhea (characterized by a wet tail area, hence the name), a bad odor, lack of appetite, unkempt appearance (from the hamster not cleaning itself), a hobbling walk with a hunched back, and an almost total lack of energy, though this is not to be confused with a hamster’s normal daytime sleep schedule.

What causes Wet-tail?

Most experts agree that stress is a major factor in the onset of this deadly ailment. The reason hamsters in particular are very prone to Wet-tail is that they are solitary animals and can become overly stressed if kept with other hamsters, handled or pestered too frequently, or if their sleep patterns are disturbed. Younger hamsters are usually the most susceptible to Wet-tail when they are first shipped to the pet store or taken home by their new owners. The rough ride to the new home combined with the presence of new smells, sounds, and experiences can be a perfect scenario for a potential Wet-tail outbreak. Wet-tail is very contagious, so if one hamster has it, all the hamsters in the same cage and even the surrounding cages could catch it as well. The best way to combat this is to begin treating the hamsters with medication designed to alleviate stress, such as Alive N Well, or Vita-Drops to boost the animal’s immune system. If offered supplements before symptoms of Wet-tail begin, the chances of it ever happening decrease.

If however, you bring home your hamster and notice that it is acting lethargic, keeping its ears tight against its head, not drinking or eating, or sleeping excessively, you should begin treating it right away with Wet-tail medications such as DriTail or Wet Tail Plus. These medications can be applied to the hamster’s drinking water or even orally through a dropper to cure the illness. Hamsters that have confirmed cases of Wet-tail can survive for as long as a few days or as short as just a few hours. It is a very devastating disease that will kill if not caught in time, and it is not always easily noticed before diarrhea begins. Once the animal gets diarrhea, it can become dehydrated and its health can decline rapidly, even if treatment begins immediately after the first bowel movement.  I always recommend new hamster owners to buy Wet-tail preventative medicines with their hamster even if it appears entirely healthy, and begin treating it as soon as the hamster is home. The medicines will not harm a healthy hamster and will kill the disease before symptoms show if the hamster happens to have picked it up.

So how can you avoid Wet-tail in your new hamster?

HamsterWhen you choose your new pet, make sure you are picking the healthiest, biggest, brightest looking hamster in the bunch. It may be tempting to take the poor little runt hunched up in the corner, but a sickly looking hamster is much more likely to contract Wet-tail than a robust one with an active personality. Begin supplementing the hamster with preventatives as soon as you get it home, no matter how healthy it looks. Since Wet-tail is contagious, your big healthy looking hamster may still be carrying the disease. If you have other small animals at home, make sure your new hamster is quarantined in a seperate cage/area for the first week to avoid exposing a healthy and adapted pet to the sickness. Always wash your hands before and after handling all pets.

Keep your hamster’s cage clean and disinfected. Clean the cage and accessories often, washing all tubes, food bowls, water bottles, toys, and wheels so that waste material does not build up (providing breeding ground for bacteria and disease). Most hamster cages can be easily managed by doing a total disinfection once a week, complete with a bedding change. This takes up all of twenty minutes of your time and will assure that your hamster is in a healthy environment.

Finally, respect the natural behaviors of your hamster. Do not over stress it by handling for long periods of time, leaving it in a runabout ball for too long, or waking it up through the day. Handling your hamster at around the same time every day will help it develop an expected routine. They are most active in the evening and at night, so a good time to socialize would be after dinner or before bed, when the hamster is already awake and ready to be active. No one likes to be pulled out of a deep sleep, and this includes your hamster!

Keep the cage in a quiet room where there is not going to be a lot of activity during the day, so your nocturnal pet can get some sleep undisturbed. Place the cage somewhere where dogs, cats, and small children won’t have easy access. Even protected in its cage, a hamster will still feel threatened if the family cat spends all its time staring at it or sleeping on top of the cage! Respecting your hamster’s boundaries will not only keep it healthy, but help you avoid bites from a grumpy, sleep deprived pet.

Wet-tail is preventable. Follow these simple guidelines and you will probably never encounter the disease in your hamster’s lifetime. As always, the best medical care can be provided by a veterinarian, so if you are worried that your hamster may be sick or just want to make sure you’ve picked a healthy one, schedule an appointment and have your new pet checked out.

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Jess has been an employee at That Fish Place/That Pet Place since 2005, stationed in both the Reptile and Small Animal rooms. She specializes in small animal care, and focuses particularly on rats, giving her the nickname of “The Rat Girl” by her customers and fellow employees. She has an Associate degree in Liberal Arts from Penn State York and is currently attending English courses online at University of Maryland University College. Her passion has always been animals and she has owned just about every variety of them, including cats, birds, reptiles, rodents, and even millipedes! She also loves writing and is working on publishing a series of young adult fantasy novels.
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