A hamster is the cutest thing, and everyone loves a hammy’s full cheek pouches. But how do they work ? What do hamster cheek pouches do ? Are there problems your hamster can develop with his cheeks ?
I’ll be covering this topic alongside Teddy, my Syrian male hammy, and give his examples wherever necessary.
How the hamster’s cheek pouches work
A hamster’s cheek pouches are two bag-like structures, that run alongside the mouth, all the way to the back of his shoulders.
It’s basically a pair of really big cheeks, that can get and stay stuffed for however long the hamster needs them to.
The hamster can eat and run with his cheeks full, with no problem. This is because the cheeks themselves stay in place along the hamster’s shoulders, and are very elastic.
In the wild the hamster actually travels large distances with his cheeks full, so he can cover more ground without returning to his nest often to attract predators.
This also means that the hammy can sprint at the drop of a hat with his groceries in tow, if he has to.
Imagine a hammy running in slo-mo through the dessert, at night, chased by an owl. All while pushing a shopping cart with all his might.
Sometimes, parts of whatever the hamster puts in his cheeks end up in his mouth. Normally this isn’t a problem, for example if he’s got food in there.
But when it comes to non-food items, it’s important to be careful what you allow into your hamster’s cage.
For example the paper towels or toilet paper squares your hammy hides in his cheeks can have small bits that end up swallowed. Even if he uses them for nesting purposes, it still happens.
If you want a more scientific take on hamster cheek pouches, and want to know more in-depth about them, you should definitely check out this study by ScienceDirect.
Hammies store food and nesting material in their cheeks
Most of the time hamsters store food in their cheeks. This is what you’ll find there most of the time, and it’s very convenient for them.
This means that if you fill your hammy’s food bowl, he will literally stuff his face, and then bring it to his nest. He might run around for a couple of minutes though, since the food can stay there for a few hours if it has to.
Be careful what you feed your hammy though, since very sharp or crumbly foods can give him a cut and cause serious problems in his cheeks.
So, even if your hammy could technically eat a plain Pringle (no salt, though), he’d get shards everywhere and it’s not a good idea.
Actually, you can get a better idea of what to feed your hammy here, with a list of safe and unsafe foods to feed your hamster. You’ll find the veggies, fruits, meat, dairy, breads, and nuts he can safely eat.
The cheeks are emptied when the hamsters reach their nest
In the wild, hamsters travel far and wide to get their food. A wild hamster can cover up to 9 km/5.5 miles in a night. One night !
That’s a lot of running around. Once he does get home he can empty his accumulated stash, and enjoy a quiet dinner by himself, no predators around.
He can stop at any point during his run and just grab a snack from one if his cheeks, and then keep running. But for the most part, the cheeks are unloaded once the hamster reaches a safe place.
What about your domestic, cuddly friend ? If he’s anything like my Teddy, he’ll shove food mix in his cheeks til they nearly burst, then go and hide it all away in his hideout.
Hamsters do have stashes, both in the wild and in the comfort of your home. It’s their instinct, to hoard. Remember the shopping cart/grocery part from before ? Imagine your hamster having an entire organize pantry, with all the foods.
Hamsters actually routinely sort through their stashes, and throw out moldy or wilted food. In his cage he doesn’t really do that, since most of his feed is probably dry food that keeps for very long. But in the wild he will have an assortment of whatever he can find, and sometimes he can’t find the best.
Why hamsters have cheek pouches at all
Well, hamsters have cheek pouches for 2 major reasons: to hoard food, and to be able to run away if they have to.
The hamster’s cheeks can hold a lot of food, up to the equivalent of 4 shelled peanuts (Syrian hamsters, Dwarf types keep less since they’re so small).
Hamsters evolved to have this trait actually, since they’re prey animals. This means that they’re always hunted, by almost anything larger than them. Given their small size, many animals are larger than them.
So hamsters had to be able to take off at a moment’s notice if a predator was around. They don’t have to drop their food anymore.
The other reason hamsters evolved to have a cheek pouch is that the terrain hamsters live on is not very rich. In that, not may things grow in the regions hamsters come from. That means from Southern Turkey, to Syria, to Russia, Mongolia, and parts of China.
The wild parts, where the hamsters live, are not very easy to live in. So hamsters have to make do with dry grains, a few seeds, a stray veggie here and there. They might find a worm or cricket and eat that too.
In short, hamsters have to travel far and wide in order to find enough food. This is why they have their cheeks, to keep the food they’ve already found, and take it with them on the rest of their excursion.
And in the end, when they come home, they will add it to their stash.
Common problems with hamster cheek pouches
Unfortunately the hamster’s cheeks can develop several problems. Some can be because of the foods they’ve stored in the cheeks, like very sticky foods, or very sharp foods.
But let’s take a look at what can happen to your hamster friend’s cheek pouches. In all of these cases the hamster should be taken immediately to the veterinarian, who will be able to give him medical care.
In general, the vets that can handle a hamster are called “exotic vets”, and will be able to help you.
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Impacted cheek pouch
This happens when the hamster can’t empty his cheeks completely. Sometimes bits of food or nesting material get stuck, for various reasons. The hamster can try to get all of it out, but sometimes it just literally gets stuck.
Those food and nesting material particles can rot and develop into an abscess if left uncheckes, which is not safe for the hamster. So, this is a case that can be mostly avoided by being careful what foods you give your hammy.
Never give him anything sticky or moist. For example a sticky noodle will be identified by the hammy as a grain, an stored for later. Protein (like meat or egg) is eaten immediately, grains not so much.
So a sticky noodle or pasta will get shoved into the cheek, where it will leave residue for the next food item to stick to and so on.
Hamsters can’t stick their tongue into their cheeks to clean them out, like us humans. So it’s important that you as an owner are careful to identify if your hamster has a problem.
Abscess in the pouch
An abscess can form for several reasons, but the end result is the same. A small bag of pus forms, and not only is it painful for the hamster, it is also toxic.
Once the pus breaks and spreads into the cheek, the hamster might swallow it and develop another disease known as sepsis. Best to avoid that completely.
You can make sure your hamster has a very small chance of forming an abscess by never giving him something sharp to eat. For example something very extremely dry, like the crust on some bread types.
Do keep in mind that it can happen with seeds too, in a case where your hamster’s cheeks are already full and he tries to put a seed in there (which often has a sharp end) and cuts himself.
He could hurt himself on something in the cage, or develop a tooth problem that needs fixing – more on hamster dental issues here.
An abscess is not easy to spot, so you must be careful to look for a constantly swollen cheek. Or, a possible bad smell coming from your hamster’s mouth since the pus will have a smell.
Hamsters, like rats, can develop tumors in the head area. Hamsters tend to get them in their pouches, which will impact how well they can eat and store food.
A tumor in a hamster’s cheek is not usually benign, and unfortunately the treatments are hard. They are available, but removing the tumor without harming the hamster or incapacitating him in some way is very hard.
The operations involves part of the hamster’s mouth, so he won’t really be able to eat well afterwards.
That being said, there is no known, clear way to avoid your hamster getting a cancerous tumor.
Everted (inside-out) cheek pouches
These can happen sometimes, and no one knows very well why it happens. I’m not sure if it’s painful for the hamster, although I guess it would be.
The hamster’s cheek pouch just comes inside out, like your pant pockets when you’re getting dressed in a hurry. They’re very noticeable, since it’s the actual flesh, hanging outside the hamster’s mouth.
Those are, fortunately, easy to treat. Your vet will be able to put the pouch back in its place, and make sure it stays in place afterwards.
How to make sure your hamster’s cheeks are safe and healthy
A few steps can be taken to make sure your hamster stays safe, and keeps his cheeks intact. Now, granted, some things you can’t avoid, like the hammy overstuffing his cheeks. Yes, he can totally do that.
But here’s what you can do to keep your hamster’s cheeks safe and healthy:
- Do not give the hamster sharp foods, or very crumbly dry ones he can scratch or cut his cheeks on.
- Keep an eye on him every day, and notice how his cheeks look when stuffed
- Notice if there is an odd smell coming from the hamster’s mouth
- Keep very sticky or saucy foods away from the hamster, even if he tries to eat them
- Make sure his cage is safe, and he has nothing to cut himself on, like sharp pieces or dried paint, or bits of plastic
- Hamsters rarely ever need a veterinarian, but make sure you have one on call if necessary
Those are the basics, and there isn’t much you can do aside from that. Unfortunately cheek problems are not easy to treat at home, and when they do happen they’re mostly severe.
All you can do is keep your hamster healthy and safe by giving him good, safe food, safe bedding and nesting material, and keeping him as stress-free as possible.
Hamsters make great pets, but they are very sensitive. As such, I would only recommend them to people who have the time and patience to work with them. They’re harder to tame than cats and dogs, and can forget their owners after a while if left unchecked.
A word from Teddy
I hope you found what you were looking for in this article. I know us hammies look cute with out cheeks full. But we do have cheek pouch problems, you know. We rely on you to keep us safe and healthy.
If you want to know more about us hammies, and how to care for us better, then check the articles below for more details.