The anatomy of a hamster and each body part has specific purpose that helps it perform its day-to-day functions. Understanding and observing these features should help you provide better care for your little pets.
Cheeks and Pouches
The cheeks are one of the most unique parts of hamster anatomy. Most members of the hamster family have expandable cheek pouches that extend from the jaw to shoulders. These expandable pouches allow them to forage for an extended period of time and bring a surplus of food back to their burrows without making multiple trips. By minimizing the amount of time they are exposed to the elements and predators, they increase their chances for survival in hostile environments.
The cheeks contain no salivary glands. This allows whatever they may be transporting, be it food or nesting material, to stay dry. There’s also coarse skin that lines the inside of the pouch to help the material being carried from falling out.
Cheek Pouch Problems
There are many different types of ailments that can be problematic in relation to these pouches. For starters, if the skin inside the pouches gets a laceration due to something it carried or its teeth grew beyond a manageable size and cut the skin, cuts like these can become infected. In terms of a growing infection, this condition must be treated by draining the abscess and applying an antibiotic. Another issue that can occur is that the cheeks get turned inside out. This serious problem must be remedied by veterinary surgery. The best way to prevent these unfortunate conditions is by checking the animal’s teeth regularly to make sure they are being properly filed down by chewing.
Hamsters use their teeth to chew seeds and other hard foods, shred materials to make sleeping nest and they use them to gnaw on pretty much anything in their living space. Foods that are hard can be a benefit since they help wear down the teeth. Seed mixes and commercial pellets are good options. In regards to nest building, a hamster will shred any type of paper or cardboard that you put into its cage, such as the cardboard from toilet paper rolls. This habit might not help keep the teeth short but conversely, if they are too long, they won’t be able to use them to help build nests or even eat for that matter.
Your little pet’s teeth will continue to grow throughout its life, as is the case for all rodents. It only gets one set and it has to remain healthy. Chips and cracks seldom happen but overgrown teeth are much more common. This can cause serious health problem such as anorexia, malnutrition and infections.
To ensure the teeth are kept at an appropriate length, provide your pet with chew toys. You can obtain these at your local pet store in the small rodents section. If you do not offer it something to chew on, it may begin gnawing on the bars of its cage or their eating dishes. Chewing on inappropriate objects like these is the cause for the seldom chips and cracks.
Knowing that overgrown teeth can cause damage to the inside of the mouth and also make it difficult for a hamster to eat, it’s important to provide these chew toys. However, on occasion, very overgrown or malformed teeth will require a trim. A qualified professional or an experienced hamster owner should only do the cutting back of hamster teeth. People who don’t have experience doing this are more likely to seriously injure their pets by cracking a tooth or severely cutting the tongue or mouth.
Blind at Birth
At birth, a hamster’s eyes are closed shut and don’t open up until approximately 11-14 days. Despite the fact that the baby hamsters are blind at birth, they are able to navigate their environment rather well through memory and repetition. For example, if a mother gives birth and nurses her babies in a nest she prepared at the tail end of a maze, before their eyes open, they will have learned to walk and know all the ins and outs of that maze.
- They see in black and white and shades of gray.
- They have a third eyelid called a nictitating membrane
- The eyes are situated on the top of the head so it can see predators better.
They Don’t See Well
The eyes are not very helpful in a hamster’s ability to navigate as they have rather poor eyesight. In direct sunlight, their ability to see is even less and they will behave as if they actually are blind. Again, this doesn’t greatly hamper their ability to learn their way around their surroundings or find their way back to their burrows. Since they rely primarily on their sense of touch and smell, by using their whiskers to feel their way around, poor eyesight is not of great concern. It’s true though, that they must have time to learn the area well before that can navigate in that manner. Most of this exploring will occur during the evening and early morning hours when the light is not very bright.
White hamsters, also known as albinos, have red eyes. Other types of breeds have very dark eye color. The hamster’s eye color does not determine whether it is blind or not, nor, affects the degree to which it can see.
Fur and Coats
There are many types of breeds to choose from and each breed comes in even more colors and fur textures.
Types of Fur Coats
- Satin: Short, shiny and smooth.
- Short Haired: Original hamster coat.
- Rex Shot Haired: Curly tufts, velvet like.
- Rex Long Haired: Wavy and scruffy looking.
- Long Haired Males: Long and stringy skirt.
- Long Haired Females: Medium tufts (teddy bear hamster).
Hamster Fur or Skin Problems
Some new owners find that after a few weeks the skin can be seen in areas because the fur has thinned or fallen out. This could be due to a small fight between two hamsters, some type of illness or continuous rubbing on the side of the cage, usually near the feeder. Note: you should only keep dwarf species in communities and not the larger golden breeds since they will fight.
Aside from a fight, the loss of fur can be caused by several conditions. One of these is due to molting. This is a normal process during the summer months where fur loss can be observed. Fur loss is also common in older hamsters. It starts around the abdomen and then spreads to the chest and limbs. This too is not anything to be overly concerned about. You may just need to change the diet up since vitamin deficiencies can also be the cause of loss or thinning fur.
At first sign of fur loss consider the cause to be a vitamin deficiency. Try and rectify the problem by adding water-soluble vitamins to your hamster’s diet to help restore any vitamin imbalance. Pet stores should have these water-soluble vitamins. A good way to take care for your pet is to also give it breakfast cereal or fresh vegetables from time to time.
Feet and Hands
The hands and feet of a hamster are small, short and stocky. Hamsters have a habit of burrowing underground. For this reason, a hamster’s feet need to be able to dig into the dirt and creating tunnels and living chambers. Small claws on the fingers and toes make this chore possible. A few other benefit of having claws or a necessity of having them is the ability to climb. This comes in handy in avoiding being preyed on by predators and also making it possible to collect a large variety of food. The types of food a hamster might need to climb for can include: berries, nuts, fruits, vegetables, seeds and even the occasional insect. Hamsters have cheek pouches on each side of the face so they can store the food they collect.
Problems with Feet
Sometimes your pet can get sore feet which is called, pododermatitis or in layman’s terms, Bumblefoot. It’s an infection in the foot that results in swelling and pain. It first affects the feet but can eventually travel up to the legs. Symptoms of this condition include lesions and swellings of the foot-pads. The cause is usually associated with a wire hamster cage that has a wire floor. It’s also caused by a hamster that has poor hygiene or dirty living conditions.
Though the tail is small and sometimes barely noticeable, they do have one. The tail is usually 1/16th the length of the hamster’s body. When you have a long haired type, the tail may not be visible through the hair. There is an exception to having a short tails and that long tail belongs to the Chinese dwarf. Their tail is almost as long as their body.
You can use the tail anatomy to determine if you have a male or female by looking at the tail line. A sexually mature female has a trim and streamline tail line. A male’s tail line bulges on both sides, though the tail line may not be easily visible in all species.
The most important thing to know about is, Wet Tail. This is a bacterial infection that is very contagious between hamsters. The symptoms of Wet Tail are: severe, foul smelling diarrhea, soft pale colored pellets that may contain mucus, lethargy, a wet soiled bottom and tail, it may walk hunched up and it is likely to squeal in pain. The hamster will often die in 24-48 hours after the symptoms of this illness first appear if not treated immediately, so it is necessary to see a vet. Some less severe conditions that may affect the tail are: hair loss due to ring worm, skin irritation, mange or stress, a bite or scratch that becomes abscessed or a splinter lodged and becoming abscessed from wooden housing or wooden bedding.
Photo by: jcapaldi
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Nose: Hamster don’t have the best eye sight so their sense of smell must be heightened in order to locate food and smell incoming predators. A set of whiskers aid in the process of sensing and locating food. The nose itself is fairly sensitive with lots of nerve endings and plenty of blood-flow.
Ears: Hamsters have excellent hearing and can actually fold there ear up when they are trying to sleep. Loud noises in heavy traffic areas can really stress them out, so it’s best to keep your cage in a corner of a room that isn’t busy. Hamster ears can get ear mites which are contagious.
Mouth: The mouth of a hamster has two unique features. The first are it’s cheek pouches and the other is its upper lip which is cleft (The cheek pouches are explained bellow). This cleft lip doesn’t go all the way across but rather splits at the middle. It’s the cleft lip that makes the incisors (teeth) visible when the a hamster’s mouth is closed.
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A good way to learn to take care of hamsters is to understand how the anatomy of a hamster works. Knowing the basics of all the body parts of your pet hamster can help you care for them better. Even if this information doesn’t give you any insight on caring for them, it might simply teach you something you didn’t know about your little pet.
The Stomach of a hamster is split up into two unique sections. The first stomach contains beneficial bacteria or microbes that help with digestion by fermenting the food the hamster ate. These bacteria make it so the hamster can eat fibrous foods like grasses. The second section is a stomach similar to humans. It contains acids and enzymes that break down the food for a few hours before it is passed into the intestines for further digestion. A hamster uses a type of ruminant digestive system.
Hamsters are mammals and need to take in oxygen to survive. By taking in fresh oxygen through the lungs at the same time expelling used up oxygen (CO2), a hamster can oxygenate its blood with vital oxygen needed to survive and remove the unhealthy byproduct, CO2. Where hamsters differ from humans is that they have 5 distinct lobes to our 2. One the left is a single lobe and on the right are the other four. A hamster will breath anywhere from 35 to 135 breaths per minute. Its respiratory rate is slower when it’s inactive or “hibernating” and faster when it’s active or exercising.
Hamsters definitely have heart. The heart of a hamster works just like a human heart with two right chambers and two left chambers; the left and right atria and the left and right ventricle (but it has three vena cave to our two). The hamster heart takes in fresh oxygenated blood into the left atrium and then into the left ventricle. From the left ventricle, the oxygenated blood is pumped through the aorta into all the parts of the hamster’s body. On return, the used up blood enters the right atrium through the three vena cava, then to the right ventricle and finally out to the lungs through the pulmonary artery. A hamster’s heart will beat 250-500 times a minute.
Female hamsters have internal and external reproductive parts. The internal parts include the ovaries, uterus, vagina and the mammary glands; while the external parts include the nipples and exterior vagina. The female hamster has two mammary glands but has anywhere from six to seven pairs of nipples. The numerous amount of nipples is so it can feed a litter of baby hamsters. A female will cycle every four day and can begin reproducing as soon as 30 days after its birth. The male hamster has a pair of testicles and a penis. It’s easy to sex hamsters since the testicles of a male hamster will be noticeable and the males will have a more rounded rear.