One of the most widely known features of hamsters are their cheek pouches.
In this blog post, learn some interesting things about hamster pouches!
What and Where are the Pouches
Hamsters have two pouches which are found on the side of the head and neck. These are muscular sacs which extend from the mouth to the shoulders.
They measure 4-8mm wide in a Syrian hamster when empty and up to 20mm wide when full.
The pouch first forms 3 days before birth as an outgrowth of the lining of the mouth. The pouch forms fully at 10 days of age, and increases in size from 10 to 60 days old – from 3cm2 to 25cm2.
The pouch has its own nerves, blood vessels and muscles. The muscles are not powerful to empty the pouch alone, and are emptied by the action of the tongue and the hamster massaging with the front feet.
Cheek pouches are used for carrying food and bedding back to the nest. Larger seeds, whole grains or pellets are more likely to be pouched rather than fine food such as millet. Younger hamsters are more likely to keep food in their pouches than older ones, and females more than males. In times of distress, females may even carry their pups to a safe location in their pouches.
Hamsters may prefer to put food in one pouch over the other, but usually use both sides. They often carry on eating even with full pouches.
Hamsters aren’t the only rodents with cheek pouches – some squirrel and rat species also have pouches!
Diseases of the Pouch
Food can become dried and stuck in the pouches, or a hamster may put a large item in and struggle to get it out. Impaction isn’t a common problem. Things that can predispose to this are dental issues or forelimb loss. The treatment is an anaesthetic where the vet will turn the pouch inside out (eversion) and flush it out. If it isn’t treated, the pouch can become infected as the food rots. Usually hasmters move food in and out of the pouches with no problem, but if a hamster has the same pouch distended over time then this can be a sign of impaciton.
This is when the cheek pouch turns inside out. You can see this by a pink bulge from the mouth. Your hamster may find it difficult to eat. This can happen because of trying to depouch something sticky. The treatment is for the vet to put the pouch back, though it may need to be stitched back in place if it keeps happening.
These are the most common pouch problem. Pus builds up in the cheek pouch and even surrounding structures. This can happen with injury to the pouch, for example it being pierced by something sharp or dental problems. You would see a one-sided pouch swelling and the hamster can be unwell or find it painful so stop eating. The treatment is for the vet to give antibiotics and sometimes it the pouch needs flushing out.
These are less common than abscesses. They also affect one pouch only usually. They usually feel firm and different to just food. They can be hard to remove while still allowing the hamster to eat normally, so can have a poor outcome. If you suspect a pouch tumour, get your hamster checked by the vet; it can be hard to differentiate abscesses and tumours.
I recommend giving your hamster regular health checks so you can pick up any issues early. Find out more about health checks here.
Full cheek pouches are one of the cutest parts of the hamster body! Do you agree?
This post has used information from the book Laboratory Hamsters (editors G L Van Hoosier Jr and Charles W McPherson).