By Karen Rosenthal, DVM, DABVP
I have a wonderful panda bear hamster (Syrian) that is 2 to 3 years old now (The pet shop didn’t tell me how old he was when I got him, but he appeared to be fully grown). Recently, he has been doing a rather strange thing. Instead of walking like normal, he drags his two hind legs behind him after he takes a step with them. The steps he takes with his hind legs seem to be very weak, and once he is finished he just drags them behind. He is basically dragging the entire back half of his body. But he still performs his bodily functions normally. I am not sure what is happening. He seemed very healthy until recently. He went on his exercise wheel A LOT, and we would always take him out to play. He is also eating and drinking normally as well. Can you fill me in on what is happening, why it is happening and what I have to do?
A Syrian hamster that is between 2 and 3 years of age is getting up there in years and could be considered a senior citizen. For that reason, when older animals get sick, the diseases we rule out first are the common conditions found in older animals.
In hamsters, some of the conditions we find include heart disease, pneumonia, kidney disease and cancer. What you are describing in your hamster is evidence of weakness. Weakness is considered a nonspecific sign of disease, meaning that it does not point to a blatant disease process.
Obviously, the first question someone would ask is, “Has there been any trauma to the legs or spine?” Trauma to the spine, muscles or bones of the lower part of the body could cause what you are describing. But since you have control over the conditions in which your hamster lives, it sounds very unlikely that trauma caused what you are seeing, because you have not observed any trauma.
Heart disease, pneumonia and renal disease can all cause overall body weakness, and the first sign that you might see is a dragging of the hind legs. Even certain types of cancer can cause overall body weakness.
My suggestion is to find a veterinarian who has an expertise in small mammal medicine. The physical examination may provide your veterinarian with enough information to give you an answer as to the cause of your hamster’s problem and there may be no need to proceed to advanced diagnostic testing.
The veterinarian will listen to the heart and lungs to determine if there is disease in these organs. By testing the urine, your veterinarian should be able to tell you if the kidneys are functioning properly. Finally, palpation of the legs and an examination of the nervous function of the limbs can let you know if this is whole body weakness or if a more specific neurologic disease is present. If after the physical examination the cause of disease is still not clear, your veterinarian might recommend tests such as blood tests and radiographs.