Hamsters only have short lifespans of approximately 18 months to two years.
That’s why you’ll want to buy a healthy hamster – one that’s free from diseases and health conditions that could cut its life short or cause it to require frequent trips to the vet.
Here’s what to look for when buying a hamster.
How To Pick a Healthy Hamster
When choosing a hamster, it’s not always possible to know where it came from. As a result, there’s no way to tell the overall health of the hamster without examining it first.
Paying attention to the appearance and behavior of the hamsters you are considering is essential in ensuring you choose one that’s most likely to live a long, healthy life.
Take a look at the following things before committing to buy a hamster:
Examine the Hamster’s Physical Appearance
You can tell a lot about a hamster’s health through its appearance, so ensure the hamster has the following attributes:
When looking at a hamster’s eyes, you should see that they’re bright and clear with no milky spots or cloudiness. Haziness indicates a sight problem, such as ulcers, which could lead to blindness.
There are also eye injuries to look out for, which can occur due to fights between hamsters and poor living conditions.
According to the journal Ophthalmology, meibomian gland dysfunction (MGD) causes eye issues and is closely related to dry eye.
Similarly, as the journal Ferrets, Rabbits, and Rodents explains, bulging eyes are a common issue caused by the following:
- Eye infections
- Trauma and mishandling
- Dental disease
If the eyes appear crusty or the hamster has difficulty moving around the enclosure, it’s likely suffering from an eye condition. The hamster may also paw at its face to get relief.
Black eyes are most common in hamsters, but they can also be red or pink. Some even look dark blue in some light conditions.
The teeth are slightly harder to examine when choosing a hamster because you can’t handle a hamster before buying it. You can, however, ask a pet store employee or the breeder you’re purchasing from to help get a better look at them.
Hamsters have four continuously growing teeth – two at the top and two at the bottom. They keep them filed down by gnawing on tough, fibrous foods. Unfortunately, some hamsters struggle with this and develop overgrown teeth.
Healthy hamster teeth should be long, but they shouldn’t be overgrown, misaligned, or chipped. The bottom teeth should be two to three times longer than the top.
You can tell when the hamster’s teeth are a problem because they:
- Curve or stick out
- Get stuck on things
- Prevent the hamster from eating
It’s also normal for hamsters to have yellow or slightly brown teeth. This is healthy and caused by an enamel coating. If the teeth are bright white, they lack enamel and are likely to be brittle and prone to problems.
Hamsters don’t have very good eyesight, so they rely on their ears to navigate and listen out for dangers.
Healthy ears should be clean and thin without missing pieces, bite marks, or scratches.
While injuries can heal and shouldn’t impair your hamster’s ability to hear, they could get infected and cause long-term problems.
Healthy hamster skin should not have cuts, scratches, or dry patches.
There shouldn’t be any lumps or bumps, which you can determine by giving the hamster a gentle stroke along its back, sides, and stomach.
However, as we’ve mentioned, some pet stores won’t allow this, so you’ll need to check for bumps by looking at the smoothness of the hamster’s skin.
If you can handle the hamster, be careful as it won’t know you and will be wary of you.
Healthy hamsters will have a soft, slightly shiny coat that does not have evidence of parasites or bald patches. Although, you may find slight bald patches around two black spots around the hips. These are scent glands, and missing fur around this area is normal.
A healthy hamster’s fur will feel smooth to the touch. It will also look clean – it shouldn’t appear oily, greasy, or overly wet.
When buying a hamster, it should neither be too fat nor too thin. Like those in pet stores, young hamsters are likely to be slightly smaller than their adult weight, but that doesn’t mean they should be skinny.
If you notice the hamster’s ribs are visible, it’s too thin. On the other hand, fat hamsters appear round even when standing up.
While you can help a hamster gain or lose weight, it’s far easier to choose one that’s a good weight, to begin with. Obese hamsters, in particular, have shorter lifespans and are prone to a wide range of weight-related diseases.
Absence of Discharge
A potential hamster shouldn’t have any discharge around the eyes, ears, nose, anus, or genital area. Discharge is a sign of infection – one that could potentially be contagious.
If you see a hamster with discharge, alert the store employees or breeder, as they will need to seek medical treatment for whatever the hamster is suffering from to protect it and the other hamsters in the enclosure.
Signs of Wet Tail
Wet tail is a serious condition that commonly affects young hamsters between three to six months old. Patton Veterinary Hospital explains how wet tail is a bacterial infection characterized by watery diarrhea.
Wet tail is predominantly caused by:
- Poor living conditions
- An unhealthy diet
Hamsters are clean animals who regularly groom themselves several times a day. As a result, they don’t have a noticeable scent.
Odd or foul smells sometimes indicate a disease or health concern. Female hamsters in heat emit a strong fishy odor, but this only occurs approximately every four days.
Female hamsters also raise their tails when they’re touched, so you can easily tell when they’re in heat and ready to mate.
If the hamster is male or a female out of heat and you smell an unpleasant odor, it’s likely suffering from a health condition.
Normal breathing should be quiet without gurgling, clicking, or wheezing noises. If the hamster struggles to breathe or appears labored, it likely has a respiratory issue.
Examine the Hamster’s Personality
Gauging a hamster’s personality is more difficult than examining its physical appearance.
As hamsters become more comfortable within their surroundings, they tend to come out of their shell and develop strong personalities.
Being in a bright and busy store setting with other hamsters can be a stressful experience, and many hamsters feel much more comfortable after a few days of being in a large, dark, quiet cage as a solitary animal with plenty of accessories and toys to play with.
Similarly, just because a hamster appears shy in a store before it is purchased does not mean it will stay that way when you get it home.
That being said, there are a few things you can look for to ensure you find the right hamster for you:
- Happy hamsters should be bright, curious, and alert
- An aggressive hamster will bite in defense
- Shy hamsters will hide under their bedding
Many owners – especially those new to hamster ownership – prefer Syrian hamsters because of their friendly nature. Dwarf hamsters can be a bit more aggressive and are incredibly fast, making them tricky to handle.
How To Check If Your Hamster Is Healthy
Another way to ensure the hamster you’re choosing is healthy is to examine the environment it is kept in. Not all breeders and pet stores are created equal, and some take care more seriously than others.
Make sure the hamster has:
- A wheel to run in
- Enough bedding to burrow into
- Food and water
These things are important because your hamster is less likely to suffer from behavioral problems or health issues related to poor hygiene.
If any hamsters in the cage seem ill, you should avoid buying them altogether, as the condition may be contagious. Hamsters don’t always show signs of illness straight away.
Once your hamster is home and settled in its new cage, examine it once or twice a week when handling it.
Check the fur and skin for changes, such as new lumps or bald patches, and examine the eyes, nose, and ears to ensure there is no evidence of discharge, injuries, or general changes to their condition.
It’s also important to keep an eye on your hamster’s teeth and nails. Both continuously grow throughout your hamster’s life and can become a problem over time.
Knowing what to look for when buying a hamster ensures you find a companion with a greater chance of living a long and happy life.