If you have ever observed your hamster after you have topped up their food bowl, then you will most likely have watched them stuffing their cheeks like a kid at an all you can eat buffet! The sheer portion sizes that these “cheeky” small rodents are able to squeeze into their cheek pouches is hugely impressive.
Did you know that Syrian hamsters are capable of holding up to 20% their body size in food simply by storing it inside their cheeks? No? Then read on to find out all you need to know about hamster cheek pouches and top tips for keeping them healthy.
What are hamster cheek pouches?
All hamsters are born with cheek pouches. These are large, flexible pockets which are located on either side of your hamsters’ mouth. They do not contain any salivary glands and have the ability to stretch all the way back to the front of your hamster’s shoulders.
Hamsters do not fill their faces because they are hungry, they do it purely for survival. In fact, hamsters need to eat every few hours in order to function normally. But foraging for food in the wild this frequently would make them easy prey. Instead, these nocturnal animals collect their food at night, and what they do not store they snack on along the way.
Cheek pouches provide the perfect hidey-hole for keeping things safe and dry and it is not unusual for female hamsters to use their cheek pockets in order to carry their young.
Even a contortionist would be impressed by the extreme physical flexibility displayed by a hamster when stuffing its cheeks. Not only can it expand their cheek pouches to store items, but they can even snack at the same time! Mind-blowing.
How do hamster cheeks work?
Hamster cheeks contain pouches that resemble two small deflated balloons. If you watch your hamster closely enough, you will notice that once it places food inside its mouth, it rotates it around these pockets in order to make it easier to slide back.
Once the snack is positioned correctly, the pouch expands, and the retractor muscles squeeze the pouch pulling the food back with it.
How much can a hamster store in its cheeks?
It is believed that hamsters can hold up to around 20% of their total body weight of food within their cheek pouches. This can be anything from whole grapes, an entire shelled peanut, large chunks of cucumber and even pieces of bedding.
Can hamsters put their babies in their mouth?
There are many different species of animals which can carry their young inside their pouches in order to keep them safe and out of sight. Wild hamsters may also place their babies inside their cheek pouches if they feel threatened or anxious.
Pet hamsters generally do not do this, providing you leave them alone to get on with their mothering abilities. Failure to do so could result in her abandoning her babies or even cannibalizing them. If you would like to know more then read our blog on all “All you need to know about hamster cycles, pregnancy and birth”.
Do hamsters choke?
Hamsters can choke and it therefore important that you keep anything remotely dangerous out of their reach, including cables and wires.
Occasionally hamsters can also choke through chewing and storing their bedding. If they place them in their cheek pouches and it gets caught on their teeth, then it can cause a serious blockage. On top of that, they could end up swallowing it.
To prevent your hamster from choking on their bedding we recommend steering clear of bedding floss or cotton as these are not easily digested.
Hamster cheek diseases
Like all organs and muscles of the body, hamster cheeks can be susceptible to potential health problems. So, in order to keep your hamster beaming from “cheek to cheek” you need to be aware of the following hamster cheek diseases.
1. Cheek pouch abscesses
These are probably the most common of all hamster cheek diseases. An abscess is an infection that has built up into a small pus-like lump. These often occur when your hamster’s teeth are overgrown when they place something sharp inside their mouth or through catching their cheek on something external within their cage.
A small nick, tear or puncture can have serious consequences especially if the infection spreads and gets into their bloodstream.
Cheek pouch abscesses are easily treated if caught quickly enough with a course of antibiotics. If you do notice your hamster is in pain or struggling to eat, then it is well worth getting them checked out by your vet.
2. Cheek pouch tumors
Another common occurrence in hamsters is cheek pouch tumors. Typically, tumors tend to only affect one pouch, however, once they take hold, they can cover the entire cheek from mouth to shoulder. Unlike an abscess, cheek pouch tumors are firm to touch and tend to be more serious.
Unfortunately, tumors can often be cancerous and are difficult for veterinary surgeons to operate on.
3. Cheek pouch eversion
This is a much less common occurrence; however, it does still happen for some hamsters. Eversion occurs when the cheek pouch flips outside of the mouth leaving a pink bulge protruding. Because of this, your hamster will struggle to eat and drink and maybe in some pain.
Depending on the severity of the cheek pouch eversion, most vets will be able to pop the pouch back inside. If this does not secure it into place, then a few stitches may be required.
4. Cheek pouch impactions
Another rare condition is cheek pouch impaction. This happens when large pieces of food or bedding are shovelled into the mouth only for them to become stuck! When the food starts to decompose it can cause infections and abscesses to occur.
Most hamsters are able to cup their cheeks to push their food out, but if something does become lodged then you should take them to a vet immediately. Telltale signs of cheek pouch impaction are when your hamster’s cheeks remain full for an extended period of time, a swollen head and neck, excess saliva or if your hamster stops eating.
What to do if a hamster can’t get food out of her cheeks
Most hamsters will empty their cheek pouches efficiently using their front paws. If, however, you notice it is impacted and they are unable to clear their pockets, then you may need to intervene.
First of all, we recommend trying to massage the cheek to dislodge and break up the blockage. If that doesn’t work, then you may need to attempt to remove it on your hamster’s behalf. The least stressful method is to use a small eyedropper to flush the debris out. Fill it with warm salt water and squeeze gently into your hamster’s mouth.
If your hamster’s cheek remains impacted, then it is best to seek veterinary assistance.
How to ensure that your hamster’s cheeks are healthy
Although you cannot stop your hamster from overstuffing its cheeks or catching them on the corner of its cage, there are some preventative measures you can put in place to encourage a healthier lifestyle. Here are our top tips!
- Do not give your hamster sharp, scratchy, or sticky food substances.
- Observe your hamster’s behavior and eating habits.
- Check for swollen cheek pouches and bad breath.
- Make sure that there are no sharp edges or objects inside the cage.
- Know your local vets’ number – just in case.
Your hamster’s chubby cheeks may be their cutest characteristic, but what you may not be aware of is the potential diseases that they could be harboring inside their mouth. Failure to dislodge the food, damage to their cheek pockets and dangerous lumps and bumps could cause your cheeky hammy some serious problems.