Hamsters may be bite-sized but, thanks to their upkeep demands, they are more than a handful. Taking care of the little furballs is almost a full-time job sometimes. Doing everything correctly might not even be enough though, and a myriad of strange things can pop up seemingly out of nowhere.
Today we take a deep-dive into one of these problems: strange breathing noises. We explore some of the frequent problems and hamster quirks that may result in little Penfold producing unusual (and worrying) sounds.
1. Coughs and colds
If your little pet suddenly wakes up one morning with ghastly sounding wheezes, sneezes, and generally labored breathing, he may be reeling from a case of the sniffles. Of course, it may be more serious so we always recommend a quick visit to a veterinarian…just to be sure.
However, in most cases, there’s no need to worry because it’s probably the flu or a cough. Maybe you left the window by his or her cage open a touch too long the previous day. Maybe your mom (who’s also coming down with the flu) came into your room earlier to change the hamster’s water after touching her nose. Yes, hamsters can just as easily catch colds as we can, and from people or other pets.
Coughs are usually innocuous and of little consequence. They come and go as randomly as they do with humans. There’s no reason to worry if the cough clears up in a day or two. Any longer than that though, and it could be a hint at something a bit more serious. A quick trip to the vet wouldn’t hurt in this case.
You can identify a cold in your hamster by listening to its breathing, and observing its nose for excess wetness. What you want to do in this scenario is to isolate the hamster from any other pets you have. This could save you from the inconvenience of caring for more animals. It could also save your other pets’ lives if it turns out to be a more serious illness.
Try to keep the hamster warm and make it feels safe with soothing talk. One thing you can do is place a hot water bottle (with an appropriate temperature) underneath the hamster’s bedding or cage. The majority of hamster species originate from tropical to desert climes, which means that they are not big fans of the cold. Always try to keep your pet’s cage environment in a range of 65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
Nudge it to eat something (break it down yourself when you need to) and make sure to consistently hydrate. We recommend that you use a water dropper to help your hamster keep its fluids up. A syringe can also be used for this but be EXTREMELY careful with the plunger. A hamster’s mouth is incredibly tiny so any slightly excessive quantities or pressure could prove harmful.
If you have transferred the hamster to a temporary cage, you should clean his or her regular cage thoroughly to disinfect it. Don a trusty pair of latex gloves and get to work.
Change the bedding, get rid of all waste, and scrub the cage vigorously. Use a bleach-based solution (approximately one part bleach, nine parts water) to do this. Take care to rinse the cage properly so as not to expose the hamster to harmful fumes.
2. Respiratory infection and allergies
Hamsters can easily fall victim to a myriad of respiratory diseases such as pneumonia, chronic bronchitis, and emphysema. These frequently present themselves through symptoms like heavy breathing, wheezing, and clicking noises.
Sneezing is another symptom to look out for with these illnesses. Allergies are not uncommon for hamsters either, and susceptible individuals can have their reactions triggered by almost anything.
While a mildly drafty room might not seem like a big deal for you, it is a serious hazard for your little rodent friend. As stated above, hamsters need relatively warm temperatures for them to be comfortable.
Prolonged exposure to a draft, combined with the inability to burrow underground for warmth (because of being in a cage), results in an increased risk of serious pneumonia. While this disease is usually treatable in humans, it is much more devastating for a rodent’s tiny respiratory system.
Your hamster will literally be clawing for each and every breath, with raspy wheezes. At this point, you will be in a race against time. Your best bet is to rush to the vet but that might not be enough.
Chronic bronchitis is an illness that is usually associated with smokers. I know times can get stressful for anybody but I highly doubt that your little hamster is lighting up under the cover of darkness. Yet hamsters can get lung disease, resulting in irritating coughs and wheezy breathing. Causes are unclear, but it may be an allergic reaction or simply a genetic defect.
Captive hamsters have been subjected to inbreeding for generations. As pet merchants sought to make hamsters as cute and docile as possible, a wide range of genetic problems (including propensity towards respiratory diseases) was passed on and on.
Hamsters are also prone to other smokers’ disease…emphysema. A National Institute of Health (NIH) study even used hamsters as models for the effects of emphysema and chronic bronchitis in people. Once again, genetic problems are the likeliest cause of most cases.
If your hamster has a lineage that traces back to areas exposed to alpha radiation (such as uranium or halogen mining towns), it might be at risk of developing lung cancer at some point.
This first develops as a series of tumors along the trachea and the bronchi. These cause the animal to cough and make unusual clicking noises. Eventually, the lungs will gradually break down. In these cases, little can be done but to make your sweet little pets’ last days as comfortable as possible. Your vet will be your guide through this difficult period.
One day you might find your hamster face down and lying lifeless in his cage, just hours after you last saw him as his usually sprightly self at breakfast. Before you channel the waterworks and cancel your week’s appointments, realize that he or she might just be hibernating. A dead giveaway (no pun) is the slight and soft breathing.
Hibernation for domestic hamsters is a little different than for wild animals who also tuck in for the winter. The likelihood of a hamster hibernating depends on a few factors.
Most hamsters have had that instinct erased from their genetic memories thanks to selective breeders (who, doubtlessly, did not want the hassle of selling pets that sleep for a third of the year). However, if yours is still in touch with its wild roots, so to speak, the drive to hibernate may still lie dormant.
The second factor depends on the environment. If temperatures drop low enough, your hamster’s dormant instincts may kick in and make him or her start preparing for hibernation.
Some breathing noises that your hamster will make from time to time might seem strange, but, more often than not, these are just part of natural behavior displays.
One common noise that might worry first-time hamster owners is the clicking noise. This sound is extremely sharp and incessant in some cases. If you’re part of the worry brigade, we’re here to tell you that you can relax this time.
Hamsters usually make the clicking noise when they are frightened or in an aggressive mood. Who knew that hamsters can get tired of all the kisses and cuddles? Well, now you do. When your hamster just wants some alone time or is feeling angry or afraid, he will issue this incessant clicking as a warning for you to back off.
Sometimes your hamster will make squeaky sounds while it is asleep. This is also normal and no need for alarm. Like you and me, hamsters are capable of having engaging dreams that demand real-world re-enactment.
Maybe he or she dreams about scurrying through the bushes with other little hamsters. Maybe it’s a dream about a hamster wheel made of cheese. Who knows? Some people talk in their sleep sometimes so is it crazy to imagine that some hamsters do the same?
Hamsters are also known to snore, which is probably the cutest thing I can think of. A hard day on the hamster wheel can really do a number on your fluffy pal, so don’t be surprised if he hits the pillow just as hard. Snoring is more common in older hamsters but babies (or pups) are also known to do it, which is as precious as you can imagine.