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Seeing their tiny furry family member go into shock is every hamster owner’s worst nightmare.
And, as a veterinarian, it has come to my attention (shockingly, if you will excuse the pun) that currently, no good resource exists online to explain clearly the different types of shock in hamsters in a way that is accessible for pet owners, as well as counseling pet owners on how they can help their hamster in shock.
Today, we are going to change that! To ensure that this guide is as comprehensive and accurate as possible, it is important first to define what we mean by the term “shock”, as broadly speaking, this could be interpreted to mean two very different things.
Understanding Hamster Shock
There are two major explanations as to why hamsters go into shock and they are as follows;
1. True physiological shock
True, physiological shock means that your hamster is suffering from circulatory collapse. This means that their heart and blood vessels are not currently able to perform effectively in ensuring a sufficient supply of blood and oxygen to their hamster’s vital organs, including their brain.
Circulatory collapse tends to occur as a result of extreme dehydration because if your hamster is very dehydrated they will not have enough water in their body nor in their blood vessels. It can also occur as a result of blood loss.
Medically speaking, when there is not enough fluid present within an animal’s blood vessels to enable circulation to function, we call this state “hypovolaemia”.
In hamsters, the two most common causes of hypovolaemia are severe diarrhea (eg, “wet tail”) which of course can result in dehydration, and hemorrhage, for example as a result of wounds from fighting with another hamster or bleeding from a tumor.
If your hamster is suffering from true, physiological shock, you may notice the following signs:
- Your hamster will appear limp, flat, moribund, or at least lethargic.
- Your hamster may feel cold to the touch.
- Your hamster’s heart rate will increase (usually) or decrease (occasionally).
- There will be an increase in your hamster’s respiratory (breathing) rate.
Now we will discuss a second, very different type of shock that hamsters can experience.
2. Psychological “Shock”
Hamsters are prey animals, and as such they are prone to experiencing extreme psychological shock. If your hamster becomes suddenly alarmed or feels extremely threatened or frightened, it may enter into a state of psychological shock.
This can still be very serious, as it will undoubtedly have very negative effects on your hamster’s mental health and well-being.
And it’s certainly possible for the psychological shock to trigger harmful physical effects, it is even possible for an extreme stress response to trigger a sudden, subacute cardiac failure (heart attack) in hamsters, particularly those who were already suffering from undiagnosed/undetected heart disease.
If your hamster is experiencing psychological shock, you may notice some combination of the following signs;
- Your hamster may appear limp, frozen, or stunned.
- Your hamster will initially feel a normal temperature to the touch.
- Your hamster will experience an increase in heart rate.
- Your hamster will also experience an increased respiratory (breathing) rate or may appear to be gasping for air.
As you can see, there is quite a bit of overlap between the two types of shock. And to complicate matters, the ideal treatment for the two types is very different.
Psychological Shock – What To Do
If your hamster is experiencing psychological shock, he or she needs to be left alone to recover somewhere warm, calm, and quiet, with little or no stimulation. It is important that they feel safe and have access to a hiding place, bedding, food, and water.
They will obviously need to be removed from the cause of the stress (for example, being spooked by a dog or cat, or being handled roughly by a child).
You should monitor your hamsters closely but without handling or unduly disturbing them, to ensure they recover. If they seem no better within 30 minutes, contact your vet for advice.
True Physiological Shock – What To Do
True shock requires aggressive veterinary treatment in a hospital setting, without delay.
Your hamster will need to receive fluid therapy to rehydrate them and support their collapsed circulation. The root cause of hypovolaemia will also need to be addressed.
Of course, in an emergency situation time can be of great importance (sometimes a delay in treatment is the difference between life and death) and so I would always urge you to immediately take your hamster to the vet if you believe there is any chance that they are suffering from true, physiological shock.