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Why Do Hamsters Fill Their Cheeks with Food?

(Last Updated On: May 28, 2022)

Hamsters have stretchy pouches that enable them to store food and carry their bedding from one place to another. Their cheek pouches contain no salivary glands, so all the food inside remains dry.

Foraging for food is a dangerous activity in the wild due to the threat of predation and extreme weather. By keeping food stored away, they have to venture out less often, and fewer food runs mean less risk.

While it’s normal to see hamsters storing food in their cheeks, large or sticky pieces of food can become impacted. Fiber-based bedding also gets stuck.

Why Do Hamsters Store Food in Their Cheeks?

Hamsters not only use their cheek pouches for storing food, but they’re also an effective way to move bedding.

As long as hamsters have enough bedding to play with, they’ll move it around to where they want it using their mouths to make themselves a comfy home. Mother hamsters also carry their pups in their pouches to protect them.

However, food storages are the main reason for cheek pouches. Hamsters use them to:

Hoard Food

The main reason that hamsters have cheek pouches is to store a large amount of food at one time.

They extend all the way back to their shoulders, enabling them to gather enough food for a few days – or even weeks, depending on how much they find when they forage.

Wild hamsters often travel large distances to find food and store it in their underground burrows. As mentioned, doing so enables them to remain safe from predators and extreme weather conditions without having to emerge too often for food. They commonly build specific tunnels to store food away from where they sleep.

This instinct enables hamsters to remain in their burrows for longer, increasing their chances of survival while preventing starvation. This is a common cause of death in the wild.

Evade Predators

Pouches keep hamsters safe from predators by reducing how long they’re out in the open for. It’s too dangerous for hamsters to eat their meals in the open because they have many predators, including:

  • Minks
  • Stoats
  • Foxes
  • Birds of prey
  • Wild cats
  • Snakes

A study by PLoS ONE looked into the anti-predation strategies of captive-reared European hamsters.

Researchers discovered that many hamsters took refuge inside an anti-predation tube to evade predators, highlighting just how vital it is that they have adequate means of escape. Captive hamsters share the same instincts, so they prefer to eat their food away from harm’s way. 

Protect Food From Rivals

Hamsters also hide food in their pouches so their rivals can’t see it. This is simply a battle of survival. The more food the hamster’s able to hoard, the less likely it is to die of starvation.

That being said, captive hamsters should never be housed in the same cage because of their territorial nature, so this behavior’s more common in the wild.

Why Can a Hamster Stuff So Much Food Into Its Mouth?

Hamsters can store up to 20% of their body weight in their cheek pouches.

This is comparable to a person carrying 30 pounds of food around with them. Hamsters can even store large pieces of food, like shelled peanuts and whole pieces of small fruit, such as grapes and raspberries, all at once.

The ability to store food comes from the pouch’s stretching abilities. As described by Small Animal Dermatology, the pouches extend halfway down the body and expand like a balloon. The cheeks also come with special retractor muscles that enable hamsters to pack them to capacity.

When hamsters stretch their pouches, the muscles contract, and food gets pushed towards the back, preventing it from clogging up in one place.

why do hamsters store food in their cheeks?

How Long Can Hamsters Keep Food in Their Cheeks?

When hamsters place food in their pouches, you’ll notice they rotate it around a couple of times.

This enables them to get the food into the right position so that it slicks further back into the pouch more easily, making room for more food. Amazingly, however, because the cheek pouches are so stretchy, they stay in place. This means they don’t affect the hamster’s ability to move.

Most hamsters only keep food in their pouches for a few hours at most. As soon as they’re back in their burrows, they’ll deposit the food to save for later. If your hamster keeps hold of their food for longer than this, it’s likely the food’s become impacted and needs to be manually removed.

Can Hamsters Get Food Stuck in Their Cheeks?

An impacted cheek pouch happens when bits of food get stuck, and the hamster can’t empty its pouches properly. Because the cheek pouches don’t have salivary glands, the dryness causes blockages. Abscesses can also occur due to food scraping the soft tissue.

Sticky foods, such as wet noodles and pasta, and fiber-based nesting materials are most likely to get stuck within the pouches. If left untreated, foods and bedding materials that are stuck begin to rot, causing infections and abscesses.

The most common signs of cheek impaction include:

  • The pouches appear full and don’t empty
  • Swollen neck and head
  • Excessive saliva
  • Sudden weight loss

Check your hamster’s cheek pouches because they can become impacted at any time, regardless of what they eat.

How To Empty a Hamster Cheek Pouch

Most of the time, hamsters empty their pouches naturally, even if something gets partially stuck. However, when food and bedding materials become impacted, you may need to step in to help dislodge whatever’s in there.

However, you must be careful, as you can easily damage the fragile tissue and cause further damage. Try the following steps to empty a hamster cheek pouch, but be careful not to handle the pouches too hard.

Massage

Hamsters aren’t able to clean their pouches with their tongue. Instead, they use their front paws to push out any impacted food.

If they cannot do this, you can replicate this process by massaging the cheek pouches to dislodge anything that’s stuck. Your hamster probably won’t like this, so make sure you have a firm grip.

Water Flush

You can also try flushing out the items that are stuck using lukewarm water. Only experienced owners should attempt this, but if you feel confident enough, follow these steps:

  1. Fill a syringe with water and hold the hamster in one hand, resting its body in your palm with your fingers.
  2. Gently support it with your fingers and prise your hamster’s mouth open with the syringe.
  3. Squeeze the water into the cheek pouches and clear the item using your small finger.

If you’re feeling unsure, a veterinarian can carry out this process for you.

What Are the Most Common Hamster Cheek Pouch Problems?

While cheek pouch impaction is the most common issue, there are several other health conditions to keep an eye on. Cheek pouches are fragile and can become easily hurt if your hamster stores unsuitable objects in them.

Abscesses

As mentioned, abscesses commonly affect cheek pouches. Abscesses are small, painful collections of pus that are caused by a bacterial infection.

If they’re left untreated, they can become toxic and even result in your hamster’s death. That’s because abscesses easily burst. Once the pus moves down the cheek, it can turn into sepsis.

Sharp items cause abscesses. Never give your hamster anything too hard or sharp to eat, as it’ll scratch or cut the cheek pouch, allowing harmful bacteria to set in.

Tumors

Hamsters commonly develop tumors within their cheek pouches. Tumors in this area are rarely benign, and treatment options are limited because of how vital cheek pouches are to a hamster’s day-to-day life.

They tend to affect only one side of the cheek and feel firm. You can easily tell the difference between a cancerous lump and a cheek filled with food.

The reality is that hamsters couldn’t live or satisfy their natural instincts without them. There’s no real way to prevent tumors, but keep an eye on your pet’s cheeks to ensure that they’re not in pain or incapacitated in any way.

Everted Pouches

Everted pouches, where the cheeks turn inside out, are rare. The condition occurs when one of the cheek pouches flips out of a hamster’s mouth, presenting as a pink bulge protruding out from one of the corners.

Vets can replace the cheek pouch and stitch it back in to prevent it from becoming a frequent occurrence, but your hamster will likely have short-term difficulties eating.

Cheek pouches are one of the most fascinating parts of a hamster. They’re vital for storing food and enable hamsters to survive through harsh winters and hot summers while evading predators.