If you’ve watched a hamster putting food in its mouth, you may have noticed its cheeks enlarge at the same time. This is because the hamster isn’t eating the food right then. Instead, it’s stuffing the food into its cheek pockets to save for later.
Aside from their triangular-shaped faces with pointy little noses, thick fluffy fur, and beady black eyes, hamsters’ cheek pockets are among their most unique features. Their cheek pockets serve several purposes, but their main function is survival.
Why Do Hamsters Have Cheek Pouches?
Hamsters have a pouch on each cheek that resemble balloons. Like balloons, the cheek pockets expand as hamsters fill them with things. The purpose of the cheek pouches is to keep hamsters safe in the wild when they forage for food or escape predators.
As hamsters can fit large amounts of food in their cheeks, they don’t have to venture out often to forage for food. They can collect large amounts of food at one time and take it back to their burrows.
This allows them to generate a food supply to feed themselves and their pups without being attacked by predators or harmed by extreme weather each time they need to eat.
Since hamsters only need to eat 1 to 2 tablespoons of food in 24 hours, their cheek pockets allow them to hoard enough food to last them for days.
How Big are Hamster Cheek Pouches?
According to the American College of Laboratory Animal Medicine, hamster cheek pouches are 4-8 millimeters wide and 35-40 centimeters long when empty, expanding to 20 millimeters when full.
The cheek pockets can stretch back to the hamster’s shoulders, and when they’re stuffed full, they can equate to 20-25% of the hamster’s weight.
How Do Hamster Cheeks Work?
Hamsters put food in their cheeks, and their retractor muscles push the food back into the pockets, which expands the cheeks.
Cheek pouches don’t contain saliva, so whatever hamsters store in their cheeks remains dry. Even with full cheeks, hamsters can still chew and swallow food.
Many people assume that hamsters stuff their cheeks full of food because they’re hungry, but according to the Journal of Experimental Biology, that isn’t the case.
A hamster’s hoarding tendencies aren’t directly related to current hunger levels. Instead, hamsters hoard more food if they’ve previously been food-deprived or food-restricted.
However, the amount of food they consume doesn’t change from what they ate previously. Hamsters stuff their cheeks full to add to the food in their burrows, which they then eat a little at a time.
Knowing this information, we can conclude that hamsters don’t collect food because they’re hungry but hoard it because they’re afraid to go hungry.
What Do Hamsters Store in Their Cheeks?
Hamsters can stuff their cheeks full of just about anything they want. They use their cheek pockets to help them carry things from one place to the next, including:
The main purpose of hamster cheek pouches is to store and transport food.
This ability is most beneficial in the wild, where hamsters must focus on survival tactics to protect themselves from predators.
The more food they can forage for and store in their cheeks at one time, the fewer times they have to venture out into areas where predators may be lurking.
Hamsters can store whole foods in their cheeks, such as peanuts and large pieces of fruit.
Hamsters fill their cheeks with bedding to build their nests. This is why it’s important to only use soft and chemical-free bedding in the hamster’s cage.
Things like stiff hay or certain wood chips can cause impacted cheek pockets.
Hamster cheek pockets stretch large enough for hamsters to carry their babies in.
Sometimes hamsters need to protect their babies from threats, so they’ll put them in their cheek pockets to keep them safe until the threat is gone or they’ve moved to a safer location.
Hamsters can inflate their cheek pouches with air that they can use as floatation devices when swimming. This ability comes in handy when forced to cross a stream or river.
How Long Can Hamsters Keep Food in Their Cheeks?
Hamsters keep food in their cheeks for as long as it takes to forage for food and get back to their nests. Once they’ve returned, they empty their cheeks and add the food to their stockpile.
If hamsters have food in their cheeks longer than a few hours, it likely means that the food has become stuck, and they can’t remove it.
Manual removal of the food will be necessary to clear the cheek pouches.
Types of Hamster Cheek Pocket Injuries
Although hamster cheek pouches can store a large amount of stuff, they’re susceptible to the following:
Hamsters can stuff their cheeks full of food and bedding, but sometimes they stuff unsafe things into their cheeks that can cause damage to the sensitive cheek pouches.
Anything sharp or with rough edges, like sunflower seeds or peanut shells, can poke or cut their cheeks, which can cause an abscess to develop.
Abscesses occur when cuts or abrasions become infected, causing swelling and pus buildup. Infections like this can be life-threatening to hamsters if not treated quickly.
Signs you can look for to alert you that an abscess has formed include:
- Bulging cheeks, even though they’re empty.
- Evidence of an abscess if you look inside the hamster’s mouth.
- The face is swollen and firm.
- The hamster has stopped eating as much.
If you suspect the hamster has an abscess, take it to the vet.
An impaction occurs when a hamster can’t fully empty its cheek pouches.
If food becomes stuck in their cheek and the hamster is having trouble dislodging it, you can try to remove it by massaging the cheek.
If that’s unsuccessful, you’ll need to go to the vet for help removing the impaction. Leaving an impaction unresolved could lead to an infection as the lodged food rots over time.
Prolapse occurs when one or both cheek pouches flip inside out and hang out of the mouth. As the cheek pouches hang out of the hamster’s mouth, you can tell when this has happened.
The only way to fix a prolapse is with a vet visit, as sometimes minor surgery is required to repair it.
How Do Hamsters Empty Their Cheeks?
When hamsters have finished stuffing their cheeks full of food or bedding, they’ll return to their burrows and empty them. To do so, hamsters use their paws to push the food forward and out of their mouth.
If the food has become impacted, you may need to help push the food out of their pouches. You can do this by massaging their cheeks and pushing the food forward.
Food can become impacted if it’s soft or mushy. If a hamster puts banana in its cheek pouch, it can get mushed down and lodged.
How To Get A Hamster To Empty Its Cheeks
Sometimes hamsters will hold food in their cheek pouches for several hours before finally emptying them.
If it’s been longer than that and you’ve noticed the hamster’s cheeks are still full, you may have to try to entice the hamster to empty its cheeks.
What to Do When Your Hamster Doesn’t Empty Its Cheeks
It’s important to know if the contents in its cheek are still there because your hamster wants them there or because there’s an impaction.
Aside from trying to massage the hamster’s cheeks when you think there’s an impaction, you shouldn’t remove the food using other methods.
You could risk injuring the hamster if you start poking around in its cheeks with foreign objects.
However, if you think the hamster is being stubborn, you can encourage it to empty its cheeks using a couple of techniques:
Offer a Treat
Try putting treats in its cage, which the hamster usually loves to eat. If the hamster wants the treat, it may empty its cheeks to pick up and store the special treat.
Startle The Hamster
When hamsters feel threatened, they’ll empty their cheek pockets to get rid of extra weight so they can run faster. If you do something to startle your hamster, it may empty its cheeks on the spot.