Cushing's Disease in Hamsters (hyperadrenocorticism)

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Cushing's disease is an uncommon condition that can be seen in hamsters. It can occur in any breed of hamster. However, there is a suspicion that it may be more common in Teddy Bear hamsters. It is usually seen in hamsters between 2-3 years of age. Males are affected more often than females.

What is Cushing's Disease?

Cushing's disease occurs when the adrenal glands produce too much cortisol. Cortisol is the hormone that our body produces in response to stress. The extra production can be caused by an increase in the size of the adrenal gland, or by a problem in the pituitary gland in the brain which is telling the adrenal gland to produce cortisol.

The disease is not caused by neglect or poor husbandry and is not contagious.

Symptoms of cushing's in hamsters

The symptoms of cushing's disease can include:

  • Increase in thirst
  • Increase in urination
  • Increase in appetite
  • Hair loss
  • Scabby or crusty skin
  • Hyperpigmentation (i.e. darkening) of areas of skin
Diagnosis of cushing's in hamsters

Often it is difficult to diagnose cushings simply because of the expense. Your vet will likely collect a urine sample and run a quick test to determine if there is any glucose in the urine. If so, then your hamster is likely to have diabetes and not cushing's disease.

A vet who is experienced with hamsters can take a small blood sample to send to the lab to determine the cortisol level. It is important to note that hamsters normally have a lower cortisol level than we see in dogs and cats. A significant elevation in cortisol will tell us that cushing's is present.

Another test that can be run is to send urine to the lab to determine how much cortisol is in the urine. This test is less invasive. However, it does not tell us with 100% accuracy if there is cushing's disease.

Treatment of cushing's disease in hamsters

Unfortunately most hamsters with cushing's disease never receive treatment for their condition. This is usually due to cost.

There has not been much research done to determine which (if any) treatment is effective. Some vets have used medicine that is meant for dogs but in very small amounts. These medicines include lysodren, trilostane or anipryl. Some reports say that hamsters improve, but some do not. The main problem is that it is difficult (if not impossible) to measure how much medicine we should be giving.

What to expect for a hamster with Cushing's

Untreated, hamsters with cushing's will eventually die. (And even with treatment, the prognosis is not good.) You may see skin infections, urinary tract infections and lethargy. Eventually, the increase in cortisol in the system will affect the liver.

When a hamster with cushing's stops eating, and generally is not active it is time to consider euthanasia.

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Dr. MarieDr. Marie is a veterinarian who practices in a busy animal hospital in Ottawa, Ontario. She created Ask A Vet Question as a resource for good, accurate veterinary advice online. Dr. Marie treats dogs, cats, hamsters, guinea pigs, and rats. She has been a vet since 1999.

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