An estimated 1.5 million U.S. households choose a hamster as their family pet. Hamsters are pocket pets that are great for teaching kids about pet ownership. However, when your hamster starts behaving abnormally or cannot ambulate normally, you need to get them evaluated by a veterinarian to rule out life-threatening issues.
Your hamster wobbles or falls over due to an issue in its vestibular system. The vestibular system controls balance inside the ears. Ear infection, strokes, tumors, and injuries are common causes of wobbling and falling over in hamsters.
Regular wellness checks, an active lifestyle, and a hamster-specific diet will keep your pet happy and healthy for a long time. Make an appointment with your veterinarian if your hamster is not behaving normally. A quick diagnosis can help you treat your hamster early, prolong their lifespan, and save you money.
Every mammal has a way to keep its balance: the vestibular system located in the inner ear. This combination of tubes and hairs allows your hamster to keep their balance while walking, running (or scurrying), and cycling on its wheel.
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the U.S. Library of Medicine states that the vestibular system consists of two semicircular canals and two otoliths.
The semicircular structures contain a small amount of fluid and tiny hairs. Every time your hamster turns its head, the fluid shifts and bends the hair follicles, which send signals to the cerebellum through nerves.
The otolith organs have tiny crystals on the ends of the tiny hairs, which help your hamster process speed and elevation (like when you go in an elevator).
Whether genetic or caused by infection, a disruption of this system will cause your hamster to wobble, lean, or even fall to one side.
You may have experienced an ear infection at some point in your life. Ear infections can cause pain, itching, temporary deafness, and throw off your equilibrium. Hamsters experience similar symptoms.
A hamster with an ear infection may present leaning to one side in addition to the symptoms stated above. Bacterial or viral infection can affect the vestibular system and disrupt the hamster’s balance.
You can start with preventing infection by checking your hamster’s ears thoroughly and regularly. Ear mites are common causes of ear trouble and can lead to disease if left untreated. You can attempt to check for ear mites with a flashlight or wipe your pet’s ear with a white paper towel.
If you notice moving, tiny black specs, your hamster may have ear mites. However, ear mites, like infections, may be hard to diagnose, and you need to take your hammy to the vet for proper treatment and removal of the pests.
Your hamster’s vet can treat them with specific antibiotics depending on the type of infection or ear mite. Hamsters skillfully clean themselves, so be careful when trying to assist them.
Over-the-counter products are cheaper but may have harmful chemicals that make the ear more irritated. You are more likely to treat your hamster’s infection appropriately with the guidance of a veterinarian.
An abscess can form anywhere your hamster develops a cut that becomes infected. An abscess is an infected pocket of pus seen under the skin.
These infections usually occur in the hamster’s pouch and may initially appear like they have stuffed their pockets.
Hamsters love to pack their cheeks with food and treats, and you may not notice right away that your friend has developed an infection. If an abscess develops in one pouch, your hammy may not be able to offset the change in balance, causing them to wobble.
Do not attempt to drain the abscess. Once you expel the pus from the sac, you risk your hamster ingesting the infected liquid or spreading the infection elsewhere, including yourself.
If you have any open wounds, cuts, or broken skin, a broken abscess could enter your body and make you sick.
You should avoid treating your hamster with the antibiotics you have at home. Antibiotics in the penicillin family (amoxicillin, ampicillin, etc.) are toxic to hamsters. Your vet will have an alternative antibiotic safe for hamsters and small rodents.
Keeping the abscess intact is less harmful to your hamster than opening the wound and risking more significant infection and delayed recovery.
Draining an abscess should only be done in a medical setting with sterile equipment by trained veterinarians and staff.
The sad fact is, a hamster can suffer from a stroke just like a human. A stroke, or cerebral vascular accident (CVA), occurs in two circumstances:
- Ischemic stroke: An embolism (blood clot) breaks off and travels to the brain where it gets stuck, blocking blood flow and oxygen to that part of the brain
- Hemorrhagic stroke: A blood vessel (vein or artery) ruptures in the brain and causes subdural bleeding. Bleeding in the brain means that oxygen is not traveling to the rest of the brain. Excessive bleeding causes the pressure of the pooling blood to push on the brain, causing it to shift.
A veterinarian will treat an ischemic stroke with clot-busting medication. A hemorrhagic (or bleeding) stroke is more difficult to treat and requires surgery. Both types of stroke affect balance and unilateral movement (movement of one side of the body).
Your hamster may be suffering from either type of stroke, and it would be difficult to tell the difference without CT imaging.
A hemorrhagic stroke is usually the result of trauma to the head. If your hamster has taken a hard fall, it potentially ruptures a blood vessel causing bleeding.
Your hamster, like most humans, will be able to live out the rest of its life relatively uninhibited if treated but may suffer long-term effects. One side may be paralyzed or weak, and your hamster may have difficulty drinking or eating.
Some hamsters may recover shortly after the event, meaning they suffered from a TIA (transient ischemic attack aka mini-stroke). TIAs are precursors for CVAs (aka big strokes).
It is vital to speak with your vet regarding your pet’s health and well-being, even if the symptoms have resolved. Talking to the vet may prevent issues or deficits in the future.
Unfortunately, tumors are common in small rodents. A tumor in the ear could cause a lack of balance or difficulty walking for your hamster.
If a lump is benign, meaning non-cancerous, and is not causing your hamster pain or discomfort, your veterinarian may choose to leave it untreated. If the bump shows to be malignant (cancerous), the vet may suggest surgery to remove it and oral medications or radiation.
You may not be able to see the tumor initially, depending on where it originates. A noticeable tumor will appear as a big lump. A lump in the ear is cause for inspection and will require a visit to the vet.
Your veterinarian will first take a biopsy of the lump to determine if it is benign or malignant. The following steps may be surgery or oral medications.
This decision depends on how your hamster is compensating – are they able to get around without difficulty after a few days? Are they still able to eat, drink, and exercise without difficulty? If the answer is yes, and the tumor is benign, the vet may advise against surgery due to the risks of surgery in small rodents.
Hamsters are excellent climbers. They are not very graceful at falling, however. You may have noticed your hamster climbing the bars of their cage and let go, landing on their soft bedding. Hamsters love to climb, but they do not always hang on. Falls could result in a broken or hurt limb.
Limping can present like wobbling or cause falling to the afflicted side in such a small creature. Broken and hurt limbs can be a significant issue with walking and moving around.
Regularly handling your hamster will help you realize when something has gone wrong and alert you to fix it as soon as possible.
When you do notice they have pain in a limb or if it is bent in an awkward position, call your vet and schedule an appointment immediately. The leg will require splitting, and your tiny friend will need pain medication and possibly surgery to repair the fracture.
In the meantime, you can support your little buddy by ensuring adequate food, water, and soft bedding. Do not try to manipulate the fractured or injured limb because you may do more damage than good. Allow a trained specialist to do what is best for your hamster.
There are some ailments and injuries that you cannot prevent. However, keeping your hamster happy and healthy can reduce those risks.
First, start by keeping a clean cage. Consistently remove the old bedding and replace it with a fresh, clean spread. Dried grass, Aspen wood shavings, and shredded paper are appropriate if you choose not to purchase traditional hamster bedding.
Once you remove the bedding, clean the cage entirely. Urine and feces can stick to the bottom, and you want to remove as much bacteria as possible.
Remember, your hamster tends to itself with his paws – the same feet they walk around the dirty bedding. You can prevent many illnesses with essential maintenance.
Second, provide a healthy diet for your hamster. Pellets are great for overall nutrition but supplying small, cut vegetables will increase the nutrients your hamster receives. A healthy diet promotes a longer, happier lifespan.
Next, provide plenty of toys and exercise equipment. Hamsters are tiny, but they are active and require plenty of equipment to keep them engaged. Running wheels, tubes to crawl through, and other playtime activities will keep their heart healthy and brains occupied.
Finally, schedule annual checkups with your vet. Like you, your hammy needs to be checked out once in a while by a doctor. These regular visits ensure everything is working like it’s supposed to. Your vet will also have a keen eye to detect issues you may not have seen.
When a hamster begins to behave abnormally, some owners may need to consider that their pet’s age and previous diagnoses are contributing to the end-of-life process.
The lifespan of a hamster tends to be shorter than other pets, averaging around 18-36 months. Hamsters rarely live beyond three years. Around the two-year mark, many hamster owners will notice unusual behavior, lethargy, and lack of interest in food or water. Speak to your veterinarian to rule out any underlying diagnosis or condition.
Consult your vet for end-of-life care tips to ensure a comfortable transition for your little friend. You can use an eyedropper to administer liquid nutrients, such as formula and water.
Keep your hamster warm and in a clean environment. You may need to clean the cage even more frequently if your hamster is experiencing diarrhea or vomiting.
Veterinarians can offer painless and peaceful euthanasia. If your hamster’s quality of life significantly diminishes and there is no option for treatment, you may consider putting your hamster to sleep.
This decision is very difficult for pet parents, and your vet is an excellent resource for information and support.
Many veterinarians do not treat small rodents and consider them “exotic” pets. Be sure to look it up on the internet or call your local vet to see if they treat hamsters.
The Veterinary Centers of America (VCA) Hospitals have headquarters in Los Angeles, CA, but animal hospitals in all 50 states. The VCA has veterinarians who treat rodents.
Additionally, they have 29 cancer treatment centers for your furry friend. Whether you live in Alabama, Arkansas, or Alaska (or anywhere in between), you can search for a location near you here.
Unfortunately, Hamsters are susceptible to many illnesses and injuries that humans face, such as infections, strokes, tumors, and falls. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of common diseases will help you choose the best course of action and treatment. Always consult your vet before performing any over-the-counter or home remedy treatment.
You can reduce the risks of health problems by maintaining a clean cage, providing healthy hamster-specific food and treats, and plenty of playtime and exercise toys. Monitor your hamster’s water intake and regularly change their water bottle with fresh, clean water.
You may also like the following hamsters articles:
- Why Is My Hamster Squeaking?
- How To Keep a Hamster Cage From Smelling
- Why Is My Hamster So Fat?
- Difference Between a Hamster and a Gerbil
- 450 Square Inch Hamster Cage
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