The Care of Elderly Hamsters

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I seem to have an increasingly ageing hamster population, sadly this is due to the number of unwanted rescues I have. Everyone wants a baby. Older hamsters are actually far more suitable as pets for young children in my opinion and they are just as affectionate and full of fun and mischief. Most hamsters have a lifespan of 1000 days, some live longer, others a little less, but most hamsters start to show some signs of age around 14 months old. Female hamsters whom have been bred will generally have a shorter lifespan than females who have not been bred. Males do not seem to be affected one way or another by breeding effort but then I don’t over use my males so maybe an intensive breeding program with few males will have a detrimental effect on the males’ lifespan.

Indicators of age include:

  • less time spent on the wheel
  • a decrease in appetite
  • an increase in time spent sleeping
  • silvering (especially in Campbells Russian Dwarfs), browning or greying of the fur
  • stiffer gait/walk
  • weight loss or gain
  • weakened eyesight
  • decreased hearing
  • fur loss


Your Less Active Hamster:

As your hamster becomes less active you can still stimulate him to move about by spending more time with the hamster outside of the cage. Spend evenings allowing your hamster to explore your lap and shoulders while sitting on the sofa or place him in a hamster playpen for some different stimulation than his cage. Any additional exercise you can offer your ageing hamster will prevent boredom, depression and/or weight gain. Changing the toys in the play area will also stimulate your hamster to keep moving as he gets older and less inclined to exercise on his own.

Decrease in Appetite:

It is perfectly normal for your hamster to eat less when he is moving about less so unless there is a drastic change in weight or physical health, there should be nothing to worry about. It is however, very important at this point to pay attention to the health of a hamster's teeth from one year onward. PetWebsite has a good article on tooth care here Here

By one year old the teeth tend to start to over-grow or become loose or even missing. Hamsters who tend to chew on cage bars seem particularly susceptible to loose or missing teeth but by and large as the hamster ages, loose and missing teeth are not unusual. When your hamster loses a tooth or if the lost tooth never grows back it is important to keep the teeth trimmed so that the remaining teeth do not over-grow. When a tooth is missing the remaining existing tooth has no opposing tooth to wear against and will grow very quickly to an "over-grown" state. Keeping the remaining tooth nicely trimmed will prevent overgrowth and make the hamster more comfortable. Close observation is also needed to see if the hamster can still gnaw with it's remaining teeth. If the hamster has difficulty or flat out refuses to gnaw or break open seeds with a missing tooth or teeth, then it is time to change to a soft diet.

My ageing hamsters are fed a jam jar lid full of oatmeal and pureed vegetable dishes designed for babies. I tend to use one green and one orange vegetable in each serving to provide the widest selection of vitamins and minerals in each feeding. I use carrots, sweet potato and squash for my orange veggies and green/yellow bean, brocolli or peas for the green veggies.

I prepare the oatmeal (porridge oats/ rolled oats) with soya milk and some added wheatgerm. The elderly hamsters very much enjoy this when it's still warm. I feed this meal once to twice a day depending on the individual's appetite. I also offer a portion of crushed/hulled seeds. I find that once the hamsters have lost teeth they are no longer interested in the hard foods even when they are crushed almost to a powder (using a rolling pin and hammer). Adding a powdered vitamin to the food or soluable vitamin to the water is also an option. I personally use Vitasol drops and AviPro Plus from vetark.

Your vet nurse will usually show you how to trim teeth yourself for free, although I prefer to use a small file (Dremel type) to grind the teeth down to size, as cutting can cause teeth to shatter lengthways.

Increased Sleeping:

Again it is perfecly normal for your hamster to increase the amount of time it sleeps as it ages. Your hammy is just slowing down. The exercise level slows, the metabolism slows, the appetite slows and your hamster will appear more tired. Provide him with a little extra nest material now as he may not be quite as warm as when he was young and he will enjoy this extra comfort measure. Plain white toilet tissue torn into shreds is perfect and safe for a hamster nest. You should still stimulate your hamster's interests while he is awake though. Get him out as much as possible and show him a good time during his waking hours. A stimulated hamster is a happy hamster no matter what the age.

Silvering, Greying or Browning of the fur: Silvering is a term usually applied to Campbells Russian Dwarf hamsters, especially those with black in their genetic background, though is not exclusive to this colouration. It can start to occur long before your hamster becomes elderly, and good show breeders try to breed offspring who silver as little as possible and as late as possible as silvering tends to cut short a hamsters show career. Syrian hamsters can also get a grey coats with age and Sables and black hamster will often “brown” around the edges.

Stiff Gait/Walk, Changes in Muscle Tone and Spine:

As your hamster ages you will start to notice that they become a little more stiff than in their youth. This is a normal part of the ageing process. You may also note that the spine becomes a bit more arched as they age. This too seems to be a normal part of the ageing and there is no treatment for it. Some hamsters will develop this arch to the spine while others will not, it all depends on the individual. Breeding seems to make the hunch more pronounced but this has not been conclusively proven yet.

Campbell's hamsters also seem to eventually lose muscle tone in their hind quarters as they age. If your hamster starts to become weak in the hind quarters or unsteady on their feet, move them to a cage that has a low wheel and either low, easily accessed balconies or no balconies at all. Moving an aged hamster to an open bin with good floor space and toys/huts on the bottom of the bin will provide your elderly hamster a variety of stimulation and exploration without the risk of falls or tumbles from high levels. Lower wheels, waterbottles and other items so they are easily reached.

Weight Loss or Gain:

Again it is normal for your hamster to gradually change their body shape as they get older. Generally, the hammies who sleep more may gain some weight while the still active older hammies may become a bit thinner with time. Always watch out for any rapid weight gain or loss and seek veterinary assistance with any dramatic change. Watch teeth for any abnormal growth or loss. Trim teeth when necessary and change the consistency of the diet to soft/puree when the hamster can no longer handle solid foods.

Weakened eyesight:

Hamsters have quite poor vision to begin with, better suited to a night time forays, they are short sighted with poor depth perception. As a hamster ages there are several things that can worsen their poor vision. Diabetes can slowly cause blindness, Glaucoma can cause cataracts and blindness. Cateracts can also develop simply from normal ageing. As your hamster's eye sight decreases he may become more jumpy so you should talk to your hamster as you approach his cage so that he knows you are about to handle him. Alerting your hamster to your presence and allowing him to sniff the back of your hand before you attempt to handle him will prevent startle to the hamster and accidental bites out of fear.

Decreased Hearing and Deafness:

As with humans, hamsters can also lose hearing as they age and even become deaf. Keep yourself in tune with how your hamster is doing with his hearing and if you notice a deficit then teach your hamster to pay attention to vibrations rather than voices. Tap hard on the side or bottom of your hamster's cage in order to let him know you are approaching. A deaf hamster can become nervous, jumpy and even bite if he is frightened by your approach. Our deaf (and blind) hamster learned to feel for our tapping when we were wanting to pick him up. We would tap first until he stirred and then we would hold the back of our hand near his nose so he could identify our scent before attempting to pick him up. A deaf hamster is still a very good pet, you just have to find a new way to communicate with him so that he is not frightened.

Fur Loss:

Most times gradual fur loss is normal during the ageing of a hamster however there are instances where fur loss is due to a disease, allergy or infestation. As hamsters become older their ability to fight disease and pests lessens as their immune system becomes weaker. If fungal skin infection or mites take over the immune system then vet care is needed for proper diagnosis and treatment. If in doubt as to the reason for the fur loss, then please 'do' take your hammy to the vet for a check-up to make sure everything is ok. An allergy, although less likely at old age, may also be suggested by a vet and a change of food or bedding may be necessary. If disease or infestation is not the cause then thinning or bald spots on an elderly hamster 'can' be perfectly normal. David Imber has an excellent article on the California Hamster Association website website regarding non-disease related fur loss in older hamsters which is Here.

Deciding "when it's time" to Euthanize:

As your hamster ages it's also important to keep in mind that unlike humans, we have the option of euthanizing an ailing animal. Euthanizing is a kindness that you can offer your ailing pet and not have to feel guilty about. Sometimes it is much kinder to allow a pet to "go" with dignity rather than suffer from untreatable diseases such as cancer/tumors, drug-resistent lung infections, stroke/paralysis and other maladies that deny your hamster a good quality of life.

Know your hamster's health and decide for yourself if it is the right time. If you can't make that decision on your own, take your hammy to the vet to get an unbiased opinion and often if the vet feels that it's time to let the pet "go" the vet will offer the euthanizing services on the spot or make arrangements for you to come back when you feel comfortable to do so.

We have an area of our garden to bury our hammies who have passed on. We have a small memorial at the time we bury the hamster and mark the spot with a large flat stone with the hamster's name so that we can remember where each hammy is buried. Preparing children for the imminent passing of a pet is important. Talk openly with children. Let them know that ageing and death are a normal process and help them to prepare if you are aware that your pet is nearing it's time to pass on or be euthanized. Children can prepare a box (very inexpensive unfinished pine jewellry boxes are available at bargain stores) to serve as a casket for the deceased hamster and decorate it to memorialize the hamster's personality. The family can have a small service and burial in the yard/garden and parents can give the children a hand-made condolence card or just exchange condolences on the pet's passing. Children are very resilient and will understand death as a natural process when the issue is discussed openly and emotions are shared amongst the family with a little special attention given to the pet's passing.

Article made by forum member Babyboos

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