Diabetes is a condition found in many species, including hamsters and humans. It is where the body is unable to break down sugars either because there is a lack of insulin (type 1) or the insulin does not work properly (type 2). This causes high sugar levels in the blood and urine. Diabetes is more common in dwarf hamsters than Syrians, especially in Campbell’s, ‘Russian’ hybrids and Chinese. Studies1,2 have shown that diabetes in the Chinese hamster behaves more like type 2 diabetes, whereas anecdotal reports suggest diabetes in Campbell’s behaves more like type 1. Stress can precipitate diabetes in susceptible animals, for example changing homes.
Generally I have found the signs and symptoms of diabetes to be obvious, for example a hamster that doesn't usually have a wet corner developing one or drinking half a water bottle in one day. Diabetics who develop ketones have a distinctive smell, like nail polish remover. Perhaps my nose has got sensitive to it, but I now can smell a new ketotic hamster when I walk into the hamstery.
If you think your hamster may have diabetes: test, don't guess. Never treat a hamster for diabetes (including diet changes or herbal treatments) without confirming the diagnosis through testing and obtaining a veterinary opinion.
Unlike in humans, blood glucose measurements are not used routinely in hamsters outside of research environments. The normal hamster blood glucose value is <7mmol/l3. Urine glucose tests are preferable to keep distress to the animal minimal.
To test your hamster:
If the hamster doesn't urinate within about 20 minutes put him/her back in the cage and try again later. Generally, a hamster with diabetes will urinate at least once in that time period. The presence of glucose in the urine suggests diabetes. Ketones and glucose indicate an unwell diabetic hamster. If you are worried that your hamster is unwell, seek advice from a vet regardless of the urine result. If the hamster has glucose or ketones in the urine, you should see a vet.
Diabetes should be managed with the advice of your vet and the following information is not intended for self-management without veterinary advice. All diabetic hamsters should have free access to plenty of fresh water and will need their cages cleaning out more regularly.
If a hamster has high glucose but no ketones on testing, diet modification can help. Sometimes herbal supplements or medications to lower blood sugar (hypoglycaemic agents) are used. Some people have used insulin either orally or by injection, but this is very uncommon and only on the advice of an experienced small animal vet (and as insulin is broken down in the gut, I am not sure how oral administration is helpful). When deciding on a management plan with your vet it is important to consider whether it is appropriate and proportionate to the age of the hamster, how unwell s/he is, level of cost, and how invasive or dangerous the treatment is.
High glucose and ketones indicates a very unwell diabetic hamster that needs urgent vet attention. Often diet changes alone are not enough. A rehydration solution is used to replace lost salts as an emergency measure (it does contain sugars so hypoglycaemic agents are often used as well). Adding salts to water should only be done when advised by a vet as it can seriously harm a hamster if used incorrectly.
A diabetic hamster diet is higher in protein and fibre than a usual hamster diet, but lower in fat and carbohydrate4, 5. Any carbohydrates in the diet (as they should not be completely excluded) should be in their least refined form, for example oatbran, whole-grain pasta, and brown rice. There is no specific commercial mix for diabetic hamsters, but Harry Hamster and Burgess Dwarf Supahamster food have no added sugars. I found removing things from the mix was inaccurate, time-consuming and led to a loss of condition in the hamster, so I now mix my own diabetic food using seeds such as linseed, hempseed, millet and pinhead oatmeal which I use for diagnosed diabetics. They seem to enjoy it and develop a lovely shine to their coats.
High protein foods:
High fibre foods:
Remember to keep all treats and extras to hamster-sized amounts and introduce them slowly. This is especially important with moisture-rich foods, such as vegetables, which can cause diarrhoea in large amounts. All simple carbohydrates should be avoided, including fruit sugars, e.g. raisins, sweetcorn, carrots and fruit of any kind.
Many diabetic hamsters are maintained with diet changes alone. Sometimes vets may think extra treatment is needed, such as fenugreek or prescription medications. These should be used under vet supervision as both can have potentially fatal side effects.
Fenugreek is a herbal supplement available in health food shops. It has been shown to reduce blood glucose levels in humans6. It comes as seeds or as powder in a capsule. Many hamsters will not eat the seeds and need it made up into fenugreek tea7 which can make the room smell of curry! I used this with one girl but found it cumbersome as it could only go in a non-metal bowl and it was hard to measure the dose.
Glipizide8 is a prescription-only medication used for humans and cats. There has been some research showing a benefit from this type of medication in Chinese hamsters9, 10. It is important to get the dose right as it can cause dangerously low blood sugars and liver damage. There is no licensed dose for hamsters so the cat dose has to be used, taking into account the smaller size of a hamster. Hamsters usually start at one dose every other day, increased according to response on vet advice. The medication comes as a tablet which has to be crushed and diluted in a carefully measured amount of water to form the correct concentration. I use glipizide for my diabetics and find it helpful. I have had few problems with it.
If I have hamsters on diabetic medications, I always make sure I have some honey or syrup in the house in case of hypos (low blood sugars). It's only happened to me once, but I was glad I had something on hand.
Anecdotally, diabetic Chinese hamsters can live a normal life and often reach a good age. A study1 of 79 diabetic Chinese hamsters found that most lived until 12-24 months although younger hamsters at diagnosis usually had more severe diabetes. Campbell’s tend to deteriorate rapidly when they have developed diabetes.
I have found two patterns of diabetes in Chinese hamsters which mirrors that found in the research. My younger diabetics (diagnosed between 6 weeks and 16 weeks old) have needed medications 2-4 weeks after diagnosis, become ketotic after 1-2 months and died 5-6 months after diagnosis (at 6-10 months old). The older diabetics (diagnosed beteween 14 and 17 months old) have needed medications 1-3 months after diagnosis, become ketotic after 3-6 months and died 3-9 months after diagnosis (at 17-26 months old).
As a hamster's diabetes progresses, they may find working the ball bearing in the water bottle spout difficult. I offer water bowls as well as bowl to my severe or end-stage diabetics. I have found coop cups useful for this as it prevents substrate fouling the water.
Unless a diabetic hamster has no symptoms and no glucose in the urine, s/he should not be shown. This is because a diabetic hamster needs constant access to water and without it can rapidly become very sick or fall into a coma through dehydration or blood sugars which are too high (or too low if having treatment).
Diabetic hamsters should not be used for breeding as it can be passed on to the offspring11. I have stopped breeding lines with any hamster affected by diabetes. If you have a hamster from a breeder which develops diabetes, please inform the breeder. I test the urine of all of my Chinese hamsters regularly to monitor the health of my breeding lines, and test any animals borrowed for breeding purposes. If you have a pet Chinese hamster which is not used in breeding, I would suggest only testing if you have concerns that they may be showing symptoms or signs of diabetes. If you are worried they are unwell, then don't delay taking them to the vet in order to test them at home as vet surgeries are able to perform the test.
1. Gundersen K, Yerganian G, Boniface J, Lin HG, Bell F, McRae W. Diabetes in the Chinese Hamster. Diabetologia 1967;3:85-91
2. Gerritsen GC, Dulin WE. Characterisation of diabetes in the Chinese hamster. Diabetologia 1967;3:74-84
3. Richardson V. Diseases of domestic small animals ( 2nd edition). Blackwell Publishing, Oxford. 2003
4. Babyboos. Do you think your hamster is diabetic? Hamster Central WIKI. Accessed 04/12/10
5. Kiko. Diabetes in hamsters thread, Hamster Hideout Forum. Accessed 04/12/10
6. Sharma RD, Raghuram TC, Rao NS. Effect of fenugreek seeds on blood glucose and serum lipids in type I diabetes. Eur J Clin Nutr. 1990 Apr;44(4):301-6.
7. Yule C, in COOP bran flakes for diabetic dwarves thread, Hamster Central Forum. Accessed 04/12/10
8. Bishop Y. The Veterinary Formulary (6th edition). Pharmaceutical Press, London. 2005
9. Meier H, Yerganian G. Spontaneous hereditary diabetes mellitus in the Chinese hamster (Cricetulus griseus). III. Maintenance of a diabetic hamster colony with the aid of hypoglycemic therapy. Diabetes. 1961 Jan-Feb;10:19-21.
10. Gerritsen GC, Dulin WE. Serum proteins of Chinese hamsters and response of diabetics to tolbutamide and insulin. Diabetes. 1966; 15: 331-5
11. Meier H, Yerganian G. Spontaneous diabetes mellitus in the Chinese hamster (Cricetulus griseus). II. Findings in the offspring of diabetic parents. Diabetes. 1961 Jan-Feb;10:12-8.