Cushing’s disease (also known as hyperadrenocorticism) occurs in hamsters when the adrenal glands produce too much cortisol. Cortisol is a natural hormone the body produces as a reaction to stress.
The overproduction of cortisol is caused when the adrenal gland increases in size or when there’s an issue with the brain’s pituitary gland telling it to make more cortisol, such as tumor growth.
Cushing’s disease can affect any hamster, but it’s most commonly seen in hamsters 2-3 years old and males. It’s not a contagious disease, so it won’t necessarily affect others.
Hamsters diagnosed with hyperadrenocorticism usually succumb to the disease or need to be euthanized.
Treatment options are limited, difficult to administer, expensive, and aren’t always successful. The prognosis for a hamster with Cushing’s disease is poor, even after treatment.
Can Cushing’s Syndrome Cause Death in Hamsters?
Some medications are used to treat the disease, such as lysodren, anipryl, and trilostane. However, more often than not, the medications are ineffective.
Due to the cost, most diagnosed cases of Cushing’s syndrome in hamsters go untreated. When left untreated, the hamsters will eventually die. Even with treatment, the prognosis isn’t good, and most hamsters end up dying or being euthanized.
Cushing’s Disease Symptoms in Hamsters
Some symptoms will occur when a hamster has developed hyperadrenocorticism. Hamsters may experience one or more of the following symptoms.
- Hair loss
- Increased thirst and urine production
- Weight gain
- Weakened skeletal muscles causing impaired movement
- Loose skin
- Dry, flaky skin
- Cuts or wounds on the skin
- Patches of dark-pigmented skin
- Weight loss
- High blood pressure
- Increased blood glucose levels
- Digestive problems
The issue with detecting Cushing’s disease based on some of these symptoms is that many other illnesses and diseases have the same symptoms.
According to Veterinary Clinics Exotic Animal Practice, dermatological issues are common in hamsters, which makes diagnosing Cushing’s disease based on hair loss and skin problems difficult.
Health Issues Associated with Cushing’s Diagnosis
Here’s a list of health issues that can occur after a Cushing’s diagnosis in hamsters:
- Bladder stones
- Urinary tract infections
- High blood pressure
- Kidney infections
- Skin infections
- Liver changes
- Increased risk of blood clots
How To Diagnose Cushing’s Disease in Hamsters
Sometimes the symptoms of hyperadrenocorticism are mistaken for the symptoms of diabetes. The only way to know for sure is to take your hamster to a vet to be tested.
Veterinarians will usually collect a urine sample and check it for glucose. If glucose is present, the hamster probably has diabetes rather than Cushing’s syndrome.
Some vets will take a blood sample and test it in a lab to determine the cortisol levels in the blood. Elevated cortisol levels are a good indicator of Cushing’s syndrome.
According to the National Library of Medicine: National Center for Biotechnology Information, a healthy hamster had a cortisol level of 49.7 nmol/L. In contrast, a hamster with Cushing’s had an elevated cortisol level of 110.4 nmol/L.
The hamster with Cushing’s also presented with symmetrical hair loss on both sides of its body, darkly pigmented skin, and a mass on its kidney.
There are issues with the cortisol tests that make Cushing’s diagnosis difficult. It’s hard to get a blood sample from a hamster, and the cost of testing the blood is often more than many people can afford.
Veterinary Clinics Exotic Animal Practice states that collecting blood samples for Cushing’s disease diagnosis in hamsters is difficult due to the limited venous access, vein size, and the large volume of blood required for adequate testing.
As a result, most cases of Cushing’s disease in hamsters go undiagnosed, and the hamsters either die, or their owners have them euthanized to end their suffering.
A group of conditions can mimic the signs of hyperadrenocorticism, making a diagnosis more difficult without first ruling out some of these other conditions.
Many of these conditions can occur secondary to Cushing’s syndrome:
- Physical stress
- Eating disorders
Many of these conditions can increase cortisol levels due to chronic activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.
According to Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis is “a complex system of neuroendocrine pathways and feedback loops that maintain physiological homeostasis.”
Stress can cause the HPA axis to go haywire and increase cortisol secretion, which can cause some of the conditions listed above that mimic Cushing’s syndrome and often lead to a misdiagnosis.
In addition, hamsters with cutaneous lymphoma are sometimes misdiagnosed as having Cushing’s disease. The symptoms of cutaneous lymphoma are similar to symptoms of Cushing’s, such as:
- Alopecia (loss of hair)
- Weight loss
- Dark pigmentation of the skin
- Development of tumors
Cutaneous lymphoma progresses much faster than Cushing’s. The average time before death or euthanasia after presenting symptoms is ten weeks.
How is Cushing’s Disease Treated in Hamsters?
There are some treatments for hamsters with Cushing’s disease. The treatments are costly and aren’t guaranteed to work. However, some hamsters that have received treatment have recovered.
There aren’t a lot of treatments specifically designed for hamsters, so veterinarians usually turn to treatments used for dogs with Cushing’s disease. This can be a problem because veterinarians have to estimate the appropriate dosage for a hamster.
Some of the medications used to treat Cushing’s in hamsters include:
A drug specifically designed for hamsters with hyperadrenocorticism is called Vetoryl. It’s a medication that comes in tablet form that has an enteric coating.
The coating makes it hard to break the tablet into smaller pieces or dissolve it in water. Hamsters on Vetoryl need long-term therapy to get better.
Another drug, Ketoconazole, which is an antifungal medication, kills the cells in the adrenal cortex. Once symptoms of Cushing’s have improved, the medication can be stopped.
The most effective way to know if a medication works is to measure the amount of water your hamster drinks in 24 hours. The medication works if the hamster’s water intake decreases and its skin and hair start improving.
If Cushing’s goes untreated, hamsters will become lethargic and weak. The symptoms will continue worsening, and they’ll be at higher risk of developing urinary tract infections.
Sooner or later, untreated hamsters will succumb to the disease or will need to be euthanized.
How Long Do Hamsters Live with Cushing’s Disease?
The length of time hamsters can live with hyperadrenocorticism varies. If the hamster was healthy before developing Cushing’s disease and the disease progresses slowly, the hamster could live for months.
However, sometimes other illnesses can occur due to Cushing’s disease, such as diabetes. According to Frontiers in Endocrinology, diabetes can occur secondary to Cushing’s disease. This means that the overexcretion of cortisol can lead to impaired glucose tolerance and cause diabetes to develop.
When other sicknesses develop due to Cushing’s disease, the life expectancy of hamsters decreases.