I know about diabetes all too well… in humans. My dad suffered with the illness for years and it’s really a terrible one. So much diet regulation and management is required in order to keep it under control. So, I starting thinking about diabetes in small pets, and since hamsters are one of my absolute favorite rodents, I wanted to shed some light on the disease in these little guys. Diabetes is just as important to manage in hamsters as it is in humans. Plus, they can’t do it themselves, so they need even more help to control.
Having diabetes basically means that your pancreas can’t produce enough insulin to deal with glucose in your body. If foods are digested that have lots of starches, they’ll break down into glucose, which will enter your bloodstream. Normally, the glucose makes its way through the bloodstream until insulin can move it to your body’s cells. If, though, your pancreas can’t produce enough insulin, the glucose will build up in your blood stream and starve your body of energy (glucose is a main source of energy for cells).
There are two types of diabetes in hamsters, just like in humans. Type 1 and Type 2. Type 1 means that the pancreas can’t produce insulin. As explained above, the glucose in your hamster’s blood will build up and their body will start taking fat and muscle tissue to use for energy. Type 2 means that the body has become resistant to insulin.
So now that we know what diabetes in hamsters actually is and what it means, what should we look for if we're concerned?
- If there’s no insulin, glucose can’t get into the hamster’s cells and their little tiny bodies think they’re being starved. Your hamster may increase their food intake to try to feed those starving cells.
- Excessive thirst/drinking
- Glucose is building in your hamster’s bloodstream and their kidneys become overwhelmed. In turn, the kidneys will allow extra glucose to filter out through urine. But in order for glucose to exit the body, it requires liquid, and so water is taken from their bodies. Your hamster will likely attempt to make up for lost water weight by drinking even more.
- Going pee… a lot
- Well, this makes sense, right? Your hamster needs to remove excess glucose by urine output, so they’re going to pee more.
- Hyperactivity and/or lack or energy
- Moods and energy levels often change based on how their bodies are trying to handle the disease.
- Weight loss
- Because your hamster’s body can’t get energy from their glucose, their body will take fat and muscle to use for energy, and you may see weight loss. Even though they may be consuming more food, the energy from the food isn’t being given to the body.
- Sweet/sugary urine scent
- Excess glucose (sugar) in the urine = sugary smell.
I’M SEEING SOME OF THESE SYMPTOMS. WHAT DO I DO?
Test. Test. Test. Don’t treat hamster diabetes without confirming they actually have it via testing and your exotic veterinary’s opinion. Purchase Keto-Diastix from your nearest pharmacy (or Amazon, if you’re more of an online buyer). Place your hamster in a container (bedding free) until they pee... shouldn’t really take long if they’re diabetes positive, as their urine output is increased anyway. Dip your test strip into the urine once they go, and compare the results of your hamster’s output to the Keto-Diastix chart on the bottle. The presence of glucose in your hamster’s urine will suggest diabetes. If your hamster has ketones or glucose in the urine, seek veterinary assistance. But as always, if you’re worried about your hamster and there’s no indication of ketones and glucose, see your vet anyway.
CONFIRMED. DIABETES POSITIVE. NOW WHAT?
Exotic veterinary advice is needed for diabetes management. Diabetic hamsters should always have access to fresh water, and their cages will need to be cleaned on a more regular basis (excess sugar in urine can easily grow bacteria and leave your hamster prone to bladder infections).
Diet is extremely important in managing a hamster’s diabetes; it needs to be much more strict. Remember, though, what might work for one hamster may not work for others, so come up with a management plan with your vet. A balanced diet, though, is still crucial.
Look at your hamster’s staple diet. Any foods that have added sugars or super high amounts of fruit, corn, corn ingredients, honey, etc. should definitely be avoided. I highly recommend Hazel Hamster food: no added sugars and an overall great mix. Store bought hamster treats (if containing high sugar levels, which most of them do) should also be avoided. Limiting sugars puts less stress on your hamster’s body. And that’s a good thing.
Simple carbs should also be limited. Carbs break down into glucose, which is the type of sugar that insulin helps move into your hamster’s cells. Pasta, rice, wheat products, etc… there are all high in simple carbohydrates. Your hamster does still need some carbs, though. Try supplementing with complex carbs: broccoli and kale are good options.
Diabetic hamsters are prone to dehydration. Tons of water is taken from their bodies because they’re trying to get that excess glucose out. Can’t tell if your hamster is dehydrated? Try pinching the extra skin between their shoulders. If it goes down slowly, you need to get your guy water. Try a half and half mixture of water and Pedialyte or Powerade. You may be thinking… “but I thought sugars were bad?” Well, in limited amounts, no, they’re not. In fact, if we were to withhold all sugars from our diabetic hamster’s diet, hypoglycemia is possible (your hamster’s body isn’t getting enough sugar and goes into shock). If your hamster is dehydrated, it’s likely that their sugar levels are too low. A water and Pedialyte or Powerade mix should temporarily help.
This is where I’m just going say talk to your vet. A wrong dose of any kind can lead to serious health complications and even death. Glipizide and Fenugreek are common oral medications, but they should be (and absolutely should be) prescribed by a vet. There are potential risks and complications (as there are with any medication). So again... go and have a sit down with your vet. They’ll help come up with the most suitable treatment plan for your small pet.
Remember, just like in humans, if diabetes is left untreated in hamsters, serious side affects can arise. Heart problems, kidney failure, cataracts, blindness… these are just a few issues your hamster will potentially experience if not treated. We know it can be discouraging if you find out your beloved hamster has diabetes. After all, it’s not a curable disease. But, with the proper care and management, your hamster can live a fulfilling, happy life. And you’ll sleep better at night knowing you’re giving that to them.