Diseases Carried by Hamsters

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Playing and cuddling with your hamster are just two enjoyable benefits of pet ownership. Rarely, these endearingly adorable creatures can transmit diseases to their owners. Taking the proper sanitary precautions after interacting with your hamster will reduce your risk of getting sick.

Lymphocytic Choriomeningitis Virus

Lymphocytic choriomeningitis is a virus that typically affects mice, but occasionally will infect hamsters. Also known as the arenavirus, hamsters can catch this virus from contact with an infected mouse's saliva or urine. Pregnant female hamsters also can pass the virus to their unborn babies.

Infected hamsters don't typically get ill, but those that do might experience weight loss, reduced activity, rough coat, depression, convulsions or death. Even if they don't have any signs, infected hamsters can transmit the virus to people.

Humans can catch the lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus by being bitten by an infected animal or by breathing in tiny dried particles of contaminated saliva, urine or feces that become airborne when handling a sick hamster's food or nesting material. Not everybody exposed to the virus actually gets sick, and many people who catch the virus don't experience any symptoms. However, after an incubation time of about seven days, the virus might cause flu-like symptoms in healthy adults. Although no specific hamster or human treatments exist for this virus as publication, most people completely recover.

People don't pass the lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus to other people, with the exception of pregnant women, who are most at risk from infections, because it can cause mental retardation or birth defects in fetuses.

Tip

  • Human lymphocytic choriomeningitis infections are almost always caused by house mice and not sick pet hamsters.

Warning

  • Although the risk of catching the lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus from a pet hamster is very low, pregnant women should avoid making contact with the pet. Have other people play with the hamster and clean her cage and accessories.

Tularemia Infections

Tularemia is a bacterial infection (Francisella tularensis) that rarely occurs in hamsters. Those that get sick usually catch it from infected mites, ticks, flies or mosquitoes. Sick hamsters might eat less, have a rough coat and experience rapid breathing, malaise, weakness or sudden death. No treatment currently exists.

Humans typically catch tularemia after being bitten by infected ticks or deer flies. However, this infection can occur when people handle a sick hamster or her cage, accessories, litter or nesting materials.

Human symptoms appear anywhere from 3 to 14 days after exposure and the signs vary, but commonly include skin ulcers, swollen lymph glands and flu-like symptoms. Infections are typically mild and either go away on their own or are easily treated with antibiotics. Elderly people are more at risk of contracting the illness, as are those with compromised immune systems or respiratory illnesses.

Tip

  • Prevent tularemia by minimizing your hamster's exposure to ticks and immediately treating mites.

Salmonella Infections

Although Salmonella bacteria (Salmonella spp.) is best known for causing food poisoning, hamsters rarely carry the disease as well. Sick hamsters might experience weight and appetite loss. Since hamsters shed the bacteria in their feces, it easily ends up on cage surfaces or their fur.

Human infections occur when people ingest contaminated material. Young kids have the highest risk of being infected with Salmonella because they put their hands in their mouth without washing them.

After an incubation period of between 6 and 48 hours, Salmonella can cause vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, low-grade fever and headaches in healthy adults. Elderly people and those already weakened from other health issues are more likely to become severely ill.

Preventing Zoonotic Diseases

The easiest way to prevent zoonotic illnesses, or those passed from animals to people, is to practice safe, sanitary hamster care.

  • Don't touch your mouth with your hands while handling hamsters. 
  • Always wash your hands with warm water and antibacterial soap after playing with your pet. 
  • Clean hamster cages regularly so dried fecal matter and dirty bedding material don't accumulate and become airborne.
  • Wear disposable gloves when you clean your hamster's cage, toys and accessories. 
  • Take care when putting dirty bedding, litter or nesting materials into a plastic trash bag so you don't release potentially contaminated particles into the air. Immediately seal the bag and discard it in a covered outdoor trashcan.
  • Clean your hamster's cage and accessories using an antibacterial cleaning product or a solution containing 1 part chlorine bleach and 10 parts water. When using a bleach solution, Canada's British Columbia Centre for Disease Control recommends allowing the cage to air dry for about 10 minutes before rinsing the surfaces with clear water so the bleach doesn't corrode the metal parts of the cage.

Warning

  • Young children, especially those younger than 5, have a greater risk of catching zoonotic diseases because they have undeveloped immune systems and are more likely to handle pets without washing their hands afterward. Teach kids not to put their hands in their mouths after playing with hamsters and supervise them closely to make sure they wash their hands thoroughly with antibacterial soap and warm water after handling pets.

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