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what does a hamsters cheek pouch look like?
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How To Tell If A Hamster Has An Impacted Cheek Pouch

Last Updated on: 25th September 2023, 11:21 am

If you own a pet hamster, you need to understand the role and function of cheek pouches.

Hamsters stuff their cheeks with food, bedding, and anything they consider useful. While this behavior is normal, it can lead to complications when overly large or inappropriate items are stored away.

Cheek pouches can become impacted, meaning something is stuck. Sometimes, an owner can dislodge the impaction from the oral cavity by gently massaging the area or using a saline solution.

If not, a vet can sedate the hamster and remove the cause of the impaction with forceps.

If left unresolved, the impacted material will harbor bacteria, leading to infection and an abscess forming. If so, the pouch must be flushed with an antimicrobial solution, and antibiotics administered.

What Does A Hamster’s Cheek Pouch Look Like?

According to Science Direct, hamsters’ cheek pouches are a unique feature that sets them apart from most animals. Other mammals with cheek pouches include platypus and monkeys.

These pouches are bag-like structures that run alongside the mouth, extending to the shoulders. They resemble small, deflated balloons that expand when food and other materials are stored away.

When empty, the pouches are barely noticeable to the human eye. When full, they can hold up to 20% of a hamster’s body mass, leading to a distinct swollen-cheeked appearance.

Unfortunately, problems can arise when a hamster’s cheek pouch becomes impacted.

Impaction occurs when the hamster can’t release the contents, causing the pouch to remain distended. The pouch may appear unusually enlarged and feel hard to the touch.

hamster cheek pouch impaction

How To Tell if A Hamster Has An Impacted Cheek Pouch

Recognizing cheek pouch impaction in hamsters is essential to their recovery. Here are the signs:

  • Changes in Behavior – Altered behavior could be the first sign that something is amiss. For example, reduced activity levels or lethargy when there was once energy and curiosity.
  • Changes in eating habits – Inappetance or the avoidance of certain foods may indicate pain when storing food in their cheeks. For example, a preference for soft over hard, jagged foods.
  • Overgrooming – Frequent grooming around the mouth area can signify a problem.
  • Physical appearance – One side of the hamster’s face will be more swollen than the other, or you may observe a lump under the skin. If left untreated, weight loss will occur.
  • Pain – Blood or discharge from the mouth will be painful, signifying the onset of infection.
  • Over-vocalization – More squeaking noises than usual while eating shouldn’t be overlooked because they may denote discomfort and difficulty chewing.

Causes of Cheek Pouch Impaction in Hamsters

Knowing the causes means you’ll be well-equipped to prevent the condition from progressing. The reasons hamsters get impacted cheek pouches include the following:

Diet

Sticky foods are likely to be stored away. Unfortunately, moist and sticky foods are far likelier to become lodged. Unlike humans, hamsters can’t move food along with their tongues.

Foods with hard or sharp edges, like whole nuts or uncooked pasta, can cause cuts and abrasions in cheek pouches. These injuries become infected and swollen, leading to pus-filled abscesses.

Also, the risk of wounds and infection increases if a hamster has broken teeth.

Over-Stuffing The Pouch

A hamster will stuff its cheeks with copious food and life-essential resources.

If a hamster continually fills its pouch with bedding and food beyond capacity without emptying them regularly, this dramatically increases the risk of cheek pouch impaction.

Impaction is likely if items get stuck together, forming solid masses that are difficult to dislodge. Sticky substances like honey sticks and other sugary treats will further complicate the situation. 

Inappropriate Cage Environment

If a hamster feels unsafe in its cage, it may hoard excessive supplies in its cheeks. Also, inadequate bedding depth hinders burrowing behavior, which is needed to hide food for later.

This is a fear-based behavior because hamsters grow concerned they won’t be able to retrieve their food. Prolonged storage results in food fusing and forming a hardened lump.

Treating An Impacted Cheek Pouch in Hamsters

There are ways to help a hamster remove an impaction:

  • Dietary Changes – Cut back on sharp food items that could injure their delicate cheek pouch tissue.
  • Hydration – Ensuring a hamster stays hydrated is vital in managing impaction issues. Water aids digestion and softens lodged food particles within the pouches.
  • Massage – Gently massaging the lower ends of the hamsters’ cheek pouches can move the food into the mouth, allowing the hamster to get rid of it.
  • Medication – A vet will prescribe antibiotics if the impaction has led to infection. Anti-inflammatory medication will also often be given to make the hamster more comfortable while eating. 
  • Anesthesia and evacuation: In severe cases, a vet may need to anesthetize the hamster to evacuate the impacted material from the cheek pouch

When To Get Vet Care for A Hamster’s Impacted Cheek Pouch

A hamster likely has a severe impaction if it refuses food or water, drools excessively, has facial swelling after 24 hours, or vocalizes while eating, making loud squeaking noises.

A hardened lump suggests something is lodged deep in the pouch and can’t be removed.

Sometimes, you’ll observe blood or pus inside or seeping from the hamster’s mouth. Unfortunately, this indicates that a bacterial infection has caused an abscess.

Pus-filled abscesses are filled with liquor (dead white blood cells, bacteria, and tissue debris) that must be removed before it’s swallowed. If this doesn’t happen, a hamster could develop sepsis.

hamster cheek pouch hanging out

Vet Treatment for Cheek Pouch Impactions

Vets have specialized tools and expert training to safely empty a severely impacted cheek pouch without causing distress or permanent bodily harm.

Vets sedate hamsters before moving the blockage outwards through their mouths with sterile forceps. 

Sometimes, vets perform surgery under general anesthesia involving small incisions near the affected pouch, allowing them to perform the removal process.

FAQs

Can hamsters get stuff stuck in their cheeks?

Hamsters sometimes store large or inappropriate food and bedding material in their cheeks. These materials eventually decay if not removed, leading to infections and abscesses.

How do you know if a hamster has an impacted cheek pouch?

An impacted cheek pouch will have a fuller appearance that doesn’t subside after 24 hours. This leads to inappetence, difficulty eating or drinking, and sudden unexplained behavioral changes.

How do you treat impacted cheek pouches in hamsters?

Treatment includes massaging the area to dislodge the impaction or removing the impaction with a small tool (forceps). Abscesses will be drained, and vet-prescribed antibiotics are needed to treat infections.

Hamsters fill their cheeks with food, bedding, and other materials. This evolutionary advancement has significantly improved hamsters’ chances of survival as prey animals.

Unfortunately, hamsters’ cheeks can become impacted and infected, putting their lives in danger. While cheek pouch impaction in hamsters can be fatal, it can be treated if identified early.