It’s perfectly normal for your hamster to sometimes have bulging cheeks, not because their cheeks are made that way, but because they naturally hoard inside their cheek pockets. But if your pet’s cheeks seem to be constantly large and bulging, something could be wrong, and you may need to intervene.
To empty your hamster’s cheek pouch, you can do the following:
- Determine the cause.
- Encourage your hamster to empty its cheeks itself.
- Manually remove the contents of its cheeks.
- Loosen up the debris with a saline solution.
- Bring it to the vet.
There are several possible reasons why a hamster’s cheek pouch would constantly bulge, and determining the cause is crucial for effective intervention. The rest of this article will discuss the possible causes of bulging hamster cheeks and how to empty them properly.
Before attempting to do anything, you should first determine what’s causing your hamster’s cheek or cheeks to be constantly bulging.
While hoarding food and other stuff in its cheeks is perfectly normal behavior in a hamster, it can sometimes be a sign that something is wrong.
Hamsters stuff food into their cheeks as a survival mechanism. This is not simply to stock up on food because they’re feeling the hunger pangs.
Hamsters may be tiny, but they need to eat very frequently – every couple of hours, in fact – which means they have to be out looking for food often. This, in turn, also makes them an easy target for predators.
To lessen the time they are out in the open, they store as much food as their stretchy cheek pouches can handle. Amazingly, their cheek pouches can expand up to their shoulders.
Although we don’t often hear about wild hamsters anymore in the United States, this behavior is adapted for the wild.
Sometimes, hamsters also store other, non-food things. For example, storing bedding in their cheek pouches is typical for caged hamsters. Some mother hamsters may even keep their babies inside their cheeks as a way to protect them when they are out and about.
Although hoarding is normal hamster behavior, it can lead to mouth injuries or other health issues.
Here are some common reasons why hamsters have such chubby cheeks:
When hoarding, hamsters may stuff their cheeks with too much food too frequently. When this happens, they are not able to finish much of the food they previously-stored before pushing in more food.
Doing this too often can cause the food to be impacted inside the cheek pouch, hardening it into a large mass that gets difficult to dislodge.
In some cases, especially when an impaction has remained long, the hamster’s cheeks can become slightly purplish as the skin gets too stretched.
Another way an impaction can occur is when hamsters stuff large chunks of food into their cheeks. Sometimes, they will have difficulty getting these chunks out to munch on, which will cause them to get stuck inside the cheeks.
Either way, an impaction is dangerous because the mass of food stuck inside the pouch will eventually rot if not taken out soon enough, causing an infection inside the hamster’s mouth.
Often, this is where an abscess begins. And while an impaction can already create a lot of pressure and, therefore, pain in the hamster’s mouth, an abscess will hurt even more.
Moreover, an impaction in the cheek pouch may cause your hamster’s breath to be foul-smelling. It may also paw at its face aggressively as it tries to dislodge the mass of food from its mouth.
An abscess, or an infected and inflamed area that has collected pus, may also cause a hamster’s cheek to bulge.
Sometimes, hamsters hurt themselves when hoarding. They may accidentally pick up something sharp, creating a wound inside the cheek pouch. When left untreated, this can quickly become infected, especially if there is rotting food inside the cheek.
An uneasy hamster is prone to causing trauma to its mouth, such as if it often chews on its cage or other hard, sharp objects. This kind of behavior is usually a sign that your hamster feels trapped inside its cage and needs bigger space. Best to transfer it to a bigger cage to prevent oral injuries from happening.
Hamsters with a cheek abscess will soon lose their appetite and stop hoarding. You will also notice that the affected cheek will continue to bulge even if the hamster is no longer hoarding food.
Just as with an impaction, an abscess inside the hamster’s mouth may cause halitosis.
While this is rare, some hamsters may develop cancerous tumors in their bodies. These tumors may appear anywhere, including the cheeks. But when they do occur in the cheeks, they will commonly only affect only one, not both.
You may check whether your hamster’s bulging cheek is because of a tumor by feeling the bulge. If it’s a tumor, it will feel like one whole, hard mass underneath the skin, as compared to food, which will feel like several small masses grouped together.
When a hamster has a tumor in its cheek, it will find it difficult to eat, eventually leading to a loss of appetite.
More often than not, the bulging in your hamster’s cheeks is simply part of its normal feeding behavior.
As mentioned before, hamsters hoard food by filling their cheek pouches up to their maximum capacity. Some hamsters eat faster and hoard more than others, making it look like their cheeks are perpetually stretched.
If your hamster is not showing any signs of appetite loss or discomfort (such as scratching its face too much or aggressively) and is moving about as energetically as usual, chances are you have nothing to worry about. Your hamster may just really love to eat!
To prevent a possible impaction, however, try not to put too much food in its feeder.
While impaction can be cause for worry, hamsters are actually capable of handling it themselves. Their jaws and mouth have reflexes that allow them to move more flexibly, which is how they can push food down into the cheek pouches and then push it back up at feeding time. They can also use their paws to move stored food around.
This is why hamsters commonly paw aggressively at their faces when there is an impaction because they are trying to dislodge the mass of food out with little or no success.
So before intervening, try to encourage your hamster to empty its cheek pouches itself. If you see it pawing at its face, do not disturb it. Most of the time, this effectively makes the debris become loose and come up out of the hamster’s mouth.
However, if you notice that your hamster has been pawing at itself for quite a while and yet no food is coming out and the bulge persists, you can try to gently massage its cheeks. This will help loosen up the impacted food and allow your hamster to empty its cheek pouches more easily.
When massaging its cheeks, be careful to apply only the slightest pressure and do so in a steady, circular motion. Do not squeeze your hamster’s cheeks or force the debris to come loose. This may create tears inside the cheeks.
Your hamster should not be squirming too much when you do this, but if that happens, stop the massage. It may be too uncomfortable, or there may already be an oral infection that’s causing pain.
When your hamster attempts to remove an impaction, it may unknowingly do things that can instead cause it harm.
Watch out for the following behaviors:
- Scratching its face against hard objects. When pawing at its face proves unfruitful, your hamster may become aggressive and rub or scratch its face against its cage or other hard objects. This can easily cause trauma to its face and aggravate the situation.
- Scratching aggressively at its face. If the skin on the cheek is stretched too tightly, it is more vulnerable to tearing, which can easily occur if your hamster begins to scratch its face aggressively in an attempt to move a large chunk of food and debris.
- Squirming too much or making pained noises. If you are massaging your hamster’s cheeks and it shrieks in pain or squirms too much, you may be putting too much pressure against its cheeks, or there may already be an infection or wound that’s causing it discomfort.
When you see either of these behaviors, pick up your hamster or stop the massage right away. Continue to monitor its behavior to make sure it does not cause itself any harm.
If your hamster can’t seem to dislodge the food on its own or after a gentle massage, you can try to manually empty its cheek pouches.
To manually evacuate a cheek pouch, follow these instructions:
- Ready a pair of blunt stainless steel or rubber-tipped tweezers. Make sure not to use tweezers with pointed edges. Try these Honoson Bent and Rubber-Tipped Tweezers from Amazon.com for better grip and safety.
- Sanitize the tweezers. Wash the tweezers with soap and water and disinfect with 70% concentration alcohol.
- Using your hands, pry your hamster’s mouth open. Do not use tweezers for this step, as you will need to be as gentle as possible so as not to make your hamster anxious.
- Carefully pick out impacted food and debris from the hamster’s cheek. Be careful to pull only on the food or debris, and not to pull on the insides of the cheeks.
If your hamster’s cheek pouches are infected or have an abscess, however, doing this may not be so simple. You will need the expertise of a vet, as anesthesia will need to be administered to your hamster.
In the presence of an abscess, the cheek pouch and the surrounding area in the mouth will be tender and inflamed. The mere act of stretching the cheek skin or opening the mouth could be too painful, especially if the abscess has spread.
Do not attempt to administer anesthesia on your own, as even the slightest overdose or incorrect use of drugs can be fatal to tiny animals like hamsters.
If your hamster’s cheek pouches have an impaction but are not infected, you may try to loosen up the impacted debris using a saline solution.
This is a convenient and easy method for those who don’t trust their hands to be steady with tweezers. Also, you can get a ready-to-use saline solution, such as this AMZ Irrigation Solution Normal Saline 0.9% from Amazon.com, anywhere in the US.
To use this method, do the following:
- Pour saline solution into a clean dropper.
- Drop the saline solution into the cheeks to help break down the impacted debris.
Once the flushing is done, allow your hamster to try and dislodge the food out of its mouth again or massage its cheeks to help move it out more easily.
If your hamster has an infection or an abscess, you may also do the saline solution flushing. Still, since applying the saline solution will hurt, you will need to administer an anesthetic. In this case, refer your hamster to the vet to ensure that it gets proper care.
If your hamster has oral cancer or a tumor or abscess, best refer it to a vet for proper treatment. These cases may require surgery and could worsen if not properly addressed early on.
An abscess, for example, may fester and rapidly spread to other areas of the body if not drained properly or at all.
Also, anesthetics typically needed for cheek pouch evacuations can only be safely administered by a licensed vet. The tiniest mistakes in dosage can be fatal to hamsters.
*Note: If you live in a larger US city like Atlanta, Knoxville, San Francisco, or New York City, you can probably find an exotic pet vet nearby. If you live somewhere smaller, though, finding vets who treat hamsters might be more problematic.
It’s important to know where the nearest exotic vet – or small animal vet – is before purchasing or rescuing a hamster so that you’ll already have an idea of where to go for care whenever it’s needed.
Related Hamster articles:
- How To Tell if a Hamster Is Pregnant
- What Does a Dead Hamster Look Like?
- Why Is My Hamster Biting the Cage
- How Long Can You Leave a Hamster Alone?
- Why Is My Hamster Not Moving?
Hamsters are capable of emptying their cheek pouches themselves. However, when there is an impaction, a tumor, or an abscess, they will need outside intervention to do it.
You can empty your hamster’s cheek pouch by massaging its cheeks, manually removing the contents of the cheek pouch, or flushing with a saline solution.
Refer your hamster to the vet if an anesthetic is needed or if you’re unsure that you can do these yourself.
My name is Everly. I am a Milwaukee-based mom of 2 and have been a proud owner of many hamsters throughout my life. Like many of us, my introduction to hamsters happened when I was very young. My family saw several hamsters come and go through the years, and I enjoyed playing with them, but I never fully appreciated them until I grew up and my own children decided to jump on the hamster bandwagon. At that point, I was determined to learn all I could about caring for these adorable pets. Read more