By Martha Boden
I have been taking care of hamsters for a few years now. Some have been dwarves and some Syrians. Currently I have two dwarves who are cagemates, and one Syrian. All are healthy and active. I saw something with a Syrian who passed away last year that troubled me. Her eyes were large and black like most hamsters, but they gradually developed a whitish “cloud.” I was concerned about this, but she died before I ever learned what it was. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it among my dwarf hamsters, but now it appears to be in one of my Syrian’s eyes! I looked for information online, but haven’t been able to find any I could trust. One site had a message from a hamster owner whose doctor didn’t know what the problem was, but believed it was a tumor and removed the eye. This had me particularly upset, because now I wonder if this condition had something to do with my previous Syrian’s passing. My current guy is playful and healthy, and doesn’t seem affected by it at all, but I’m worried. Can you advise about this?
Your note is very timely because I recently responded to someone else who was worried that their hamster was sick, when in fact she was perfectly healthy. As a non-veterinarian, I don’t believe your hamster is suffering ill health based on your description. If you happen to live near a veterinarian who is knowledgeable and experienced in the field of rodents and other small pets, bring your little one in for a checkup. But this is a very common situation, and I do not believe it is a sign of illness.
When it comes to veterinarians, many hamster owners find themselves in a quandary because the number of veterinarians who are qualified to treat hamsters and other rodents is shockingly small. [A good resource is the Association of Exotic Mammal Veterinarians or the SmallAnimalChannel vet list. — Eds.] Most vets are highly dedicated professionals, and they will always want to do what’s best for your pet. But what’s true of one mammal’s normal medical state may be entirely untrue of another’s. Before you bring your pet to any veterinarian, give them a call and ask what their experience with hamsters is. They’ll be happy to tell you because they want to see your pet remain in good health every bit as much as you do.
As an owner, it’s a good practice to be watchful for any changes in the condition of a hamster’s eyes, as you clearly are, because their eyes are a truly excellent way to gauge their overall health. Eyes should be open wide, even among elders, but not bulge excessively. The surface should glisten with moisture, but not appear too wet and certainly not appear runny or coated with any sort of viscous substance. The lid tissue surrounding the eye is quite thin and delicate. If you notice any bumps, thickness or redness, seek a veterinarian’s assistance.
Check out theHamster Health Center for more info about hamster ailments.
Eye infections are not uncommon in hamsters, and they’re very treatable. It usually only involves applying a dab of ointment to the eye (your hamster won’t like it, but probably won’t put up too much of a fuss). Sometimes a veterinarian will deem it appropriate to administer an antibiotic internally, and there are certain such medicines that are particularly well-suited to these sorts of peripheral infections. Treating eye infections early is important because the hamster’s eye socket, like his mouth, is a locus of vascular connections, with short pathways to many other organs, and infections can travel. The heart and respiratory system are especially imperiled.
But from your description, what you’re seeing in your hamster’s eye is a cataract, and it is very common as hamsters age. It’s seen in both Syrians and dwarf species, and, in fact, it’s common among all mammals, but especially noticeable in hamsters because of the size and shape of the eyeballs. I’ve heard doctors refer to cataracts as the “gray hair of vision,” meaning that they are more common as all bodies age than most people realize. They definitely occlude vision, which is terribly worrying for us humans, but not so much for a hamster. Hamsters really don’t see well to begin with.
It’s difficult to judge with accuracy, but most of the literature suggests that hamsters don’t see anything clearly more than a foot or so in front of their nose, and their nose, or more precisely their sense of smell, is infinitely more sensitive. It’s what they rely on to find food, to find a mate, to detect danger and to find their home after a lengthy foraging run. Their hearing takes a close second place in sensitivity, but in truth they barely use their eyes for anything important, especially since they’re nocturnal. They do react to visual stimuli, but mainly light and dark, because beyond the ground right in front of them, that’s all there is.
It’s helpful to be aware of a hamster’s poor eyesight at every stage of his life. When they’re young and not fully acquainted with your sound or scent, it’s especially important to move your hands broadly and speak gently in front of the hamster before trying to pick him up. A strange scent might be coming from any direction and set your hamster’s nerves on alert. But in order not to frighten him further, moving your hands within a foot of his eyes will signal your presence, and create a memorable impression. It’ll help him become more relaxed while being lifted and held. When you’re holding a hamster, always keep him facing you, because the sight of something solid, rather than open, indeterminate space, will be calming. When you have your hamster out on a table or other surface, don’t let him approach the edge unsupervised. Your hamster hasn’t the ability to perceive depth visually, and may blithely stroll right over the edge. This is dangerous enough when they’re young, but as they age their bones become more brittle and their muscles less resilient.
If a hamster should lose his eyesight completely, chances are the process has been progressing gradually over time, so although the appearance of an occluded eye may be startling, he’s probably been making accommodations for it along the way. Nevertheless, though the sense of sight is of minor importance to him, there are things you can do to put your hamster at ease. Regularity and rituals will take on greater meaning, so try to establish and stick to them when feeding, cleaning and so on. Speaking to him gently while doing these things will accustom him to the disturbance and his uncertainty about the world around him will be lessened. Try not to rearrange the toys and furnishings of your hamster’s habitat or introduce new ones suddenly, to avoid confusion. And be extra cautious if you decide to bring another hamster or other pet into your home, as his natural defenses are ever so slightly compromised. Even cleaning can be done in discrete sections, so that there isn’t a jarring change in the environment that might arouse insecurity.
So now you know that even with normal vision, when you walk in the room and you call your hamster’s name, he’ll look in your direction, but he’s not seeing you. He’s hearing you (and likely catching your scent on the air that wafted over as you approached). And even if cataracts develop in both eyes and your hamster loses his vision altogether you likely won’t notice any change at all in his behavior or habits.
I believe that your dear one who passed did not suffer from any serious condition of the eyes. She most certainly knew you were with her, even if she could not see your face.