Hamsters are only small, but their hearts work extremely hard. Because their heart rate is so high, they frequently have heart attacks, which are sometimes sudden and occur without warning.
Heart attacks occur when the heart tissue stops receiving a blood supply. Hamsters having a heart attack experience breathing difficulties, chest pain, a blue tint to the gums or skin, and unsteady movements.
Due to the pain, they’ll hide in their burrows and nip at their owners.
Older Syrian hamsters are most susceptible to heart conditions, but all species can be affected. Obesity, stress, fear, underlying heart defects, blood clots, atherosclerosis, and fear cause heart attacks.
How To Know If Your Hamster Is Having a Heart Attack
A heart attack is a serious condition that occurs when the heart stops receiving its blood supply. More often than not, this is due to a blood clot that’s large enough to restrict the flow of blood to the heart.
Without a blood supply, the heart stops receiving oxygen and can’t work as efficiently as it’s supposed to. At this point, a hamster is at most risk of having a heart attack.
A heart attack can be sudden, particularly in older hamsters or hamsters with a genetic predisposition that results in weakened muscles that can’t pump blood around the body efficiently.
You may not notice any signs until the hamster has already passed away because:
- Heart attacks only last from seconds to minutes, so owners have to be around their hamsters at the time to see the symptoms.
- Hamsters can’t use words to communicate how they’re feeling.
- Hamsters hide signs of illness to protect themselves from predators.
- Heart attacks are easy to mistake for a less serious health condition.
Signs of Heart Failure in Hamsters
Heart failure symptoms are easier to stop in hamsters and commonly occur sometime after a heart attack.
According to MSD Veterinary Manual, these include:
- Respiratory distress
- Rapid breathing
- Irregular or difficulty breathing (dyspnea)
- Blue tint to the skin and/or gums
- Loss of appetite
There’s no effective treatment for heart failure, and Syrian hamsters with untreated cognitive heart failure die within a week after the signs begin.
However, heart failure isn’t to be confused with a heart attack. As mentioned, heart failure commonly occurs after a heart attack or due to prolonged damage.
What Does a Hamster Heart Attack Look Like?
Heart attacks present themselves differently, depending on the age and health of the hamster. As mentioned, they can be quick and sudden or slow and prolonged.
However, if you’re wondering what happens when a hamster has a heart attack, there are some clear symptoms and behavioral changes to look for.
In the early stages of a heart attack, the hamster develops respiratory distress and starts moving around erratically. At this point, your hamster will also experience chest pain.
The discomfort could range from moderate to severe, but the death of tissue causes pain and will be unpleasant for your hamster.
As a result of the pain, your hamster may display certain behaviors, like:
- Nipping and biting you when you approach or handle it
- Hiding in its burrow or hides more than usual
- Unsteady or wobbly movements
Without the circulatory system to take oxygen around the body, it becomes starved of oxygen, causing your hamster to have difficulty breathing.
As a result, your hamster may take deep, short breaths in its final moments.
Do Hamsters Have Heart Attacks Easily?
Any animal with a heart can have a heart attack, and hamsters are no exception. Because hamsters are so small, their hearts are vulnerable to health issues that can become problematic over time.
Heart attacks occur when there’s a lack of blood flow to the heart. When this goes on for too long, the muscle tissue begins to die and spasms, causing the heart to malfunction.
Hamsters aren’t as capable as larger animals of maintaining their biological processes.
Over time, the muscles, tissues, and vital organs become less effective and are more susceptible to health issues. This is also the reason why hamsters have shorter lifespans than other animals.
What Causes a Hamster To Have a Heart Attack?
Heart attacks are associated with other health issues. When gradual changes to your hamster’s body add up, they cause the heart to malfunction and stop doing its job properly.
The most common causes of a heart attack in a hamster include:
Stress isn’t only a leading cause of heart attacks, but it makes hamsters unwell in many other ways. Stress precipitates harmful bacteria, triggering underlying health issues that result in heart attacks.
Prolonged exposure to stress causes the arteries to become inflamed, making them more likely to become blocked should plaque or a blood clot form.
Fear is another contributor to stress. Hamsters are prey animals, which means they have many predators and dangers to contend with.
As a result, they have built-in fear instincts and become spooked by:
- Loud noises
- Other animals
- Bright lights
- Frequent handling
Prolonged exposure to fear-related triggers can cause a heart attack. Therefore, providing a safe and quiet environment can help prevent heart attacks, giving hamsters a greater chance of living longer.
Obesity is one of the most well-known causes of cardiomyopathy in hamsters.
Hamsters are only small, and excess weight puts their bodies under more stress than they can handle. It also causes the heart to work harder to pump blood and oxygen around the body.
Not only does it affect the heart and other vital organs, but it puts strain on the bones and joints, making it difficult for hamsters to shed weight and reducing their chances of a heart attack.
Overfeeding hamsters with sugary fruits and fatty seeds and nuts is a common reason for excessive weight gain. Fatty foods accumulate in the arteries and cause plaques, increasing the hamster’s blood pressure and the chances of a heart attack.
As a result, hamsters should eat a diet of pellets with occasional treats on top of this.
According to MSD Veterinary Manual, blood clots sometimes form inside one of the upper chambers of a hamster’s heart – often on the left side. This condition is known as atrial thrombosis, which 70% of older Syrian hamsters are affected by.
Laboratory Animal Medicine explains how males and females are equally at risk, but females develop it at a younger age.
The journal further explains how atrial thrombosis is usually the result of congestive heart failure. It’s also connected to amyloidosis, a condition where the body causes a dense protein called amyloid, which interferes with the function of vital organs.
The condition most commonly affects hamsters over one year old. There’s no treatment for it. All you can do is make the hamster feel more comfortable while the condition takes hold.
Disease of the Heart Muscles
Cardiomyopathy in hamsters (chronic heart disease) is another common cause of heart attacks.
The condition often results in sudden hamster death from heart failure or arrhythmia – the latter of which has a high risk of discomfort before it becomes a fatal problem.
Some hamsters are more prone to heart attacks than others.
According to Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, cardiomyopathy in hamsters occurs as an inherited trait in some strains of Syrian hamsters.
This is something that can’t be predicted or detected without veterinary investigations. As a result, many owners remain unaware that their hamsters are more likely to have a heart attack than others in later life.
Atherosclerosis is a condition where plaque, which is a combination of fat, cholesterol, and other substances in the blood, builds up in the heart’s arteries. The plaque becomes hard and attaches to the artery wall.
As a result, blood flow is reduced, and blood pressure increases. The plaque can also damage the artery walls and cause a wound. The blood then clots, clogging the artery, stopping blood flow, and triggering a heart attack.
Severe muscle spasms can bring on a heart attack. In the worst cases, the spasm blocks the artery, triggering a heart attack in the same way as atherosclerosis or a blood clot.
How To Treat A Heart Attack
You must seek immediate veterinary treatment after a heart attack or heart failure.
While many hamsters succumb to heart attacks, there’s a slight chance they could survive and maintain a decent quality of life.
Even if you’re unsure whether your hamster is experiencing a heart attack, you must take it to the vet. Your hamster is unlikely to allow you to handle it while it’s in pain, so you’ll need to wear gloves to protect your hands and grip your hamster as gently as possible.
Give your vet as much information as you can about your hamster’s behavior immediately before the heart attack, such as:
- Changes in behavior, including respiratory issues, loss of appetite, and difficulty moving
- When you notice the symptoms begin
- Whether your hamster has experienced these symptoms before
While a vet will do his/her best to help, there’s no cure for a heart attack. Once the symptoms start, there’s no way to reverse them. Due to the damage a lack of oxygen to the heart causes, your hamster will experience heart impairment for the rest of its life.
Should your hamster survive, you can make it more comfortable with the following steps:
We’ve mentioned how stress can trigger a heart attack. While sudden shocks won’t cause a heart attack, prolonged exposure to stress can.
Therefore, make your hamster’s environment more pleasant by:
- Keeping the cage in a quiet location away from through traffic, a TV or radio noise
- Maintaining natural light throughout the day and giving your hamster access to darkness at night
- Keeping multiple hamsters, you may have separated them into their own cages
- Not handling your hamster too frequently, particularly if it doesn’t enjoy human interaction
- Preventing other pets from having access to your hamster’s environment
- Providing a large enough cage with ample bedding for it to burrow into
- Ensuring the wheel is large enough to prevent your hamster’s spine from curving
This is even more important while your hamster recovers from a heart attack.
Maintain a Comfortable Environment
You must also keep your hamster comfortable in other ways:
- Maintain the correct temperature somewhere between 65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit, not allowing it to drop or rise too much
- Provide a tablespoon of pellet mix and seeds every day, alongside fresh fruits, vegetables, and water
- Avoid too many sugary, fatty snacks to ensure your hamster doesn’t gain too much weight
Depending on the cause of the heart attack, you may need to support your hamster in losing weight to prevent future heart attacks. You can do this by only not overfeeding and getting your hamster out to play each night, encouraging it to be active.
Can You Treat Heart Failure in Hamsters?
When a heart attack occurs, it causes muscle tissue to die.
Once this happens, it cannot be undone and is replaced with scar tissue. Scar tissue cannot support the heart function properly, so the worse the heart attack, the harder the heart has to work.
Unfortunately, because there are few veterinary techniques available for use on hamsters, it’s almost impossible to determine the exact extent of the damage. Instead, your vet will estimate it based on your hamster’s behavior and their knowledge of the symptoms.
While your hamster will never recover to its full fitness, a mild heart attack or heart failure doesn’t have to be a death sentence. Your hamster may have only experienced slight tissue damage.
As long as you can treat the underlying cause of the heart attack, your hamster can lead a full, happy life.
It’s almost impossible to detect and prevent heart attacks. However, keeping your hamster healthy and providing a comfortable environment are the best ways to minimize the risk.