Wet tail has always been a greatly feared disease for hamster owners. Despite all the warnings in books, in the last thirty or so years that I have been keeping hamsters I have never seen a case. I had thought that it was disappearing but over the last few months I have heard of several cases in various places, particularly in the South East so felt that members might find some facts useful. There is a tendency for any digestive illness to be referred to as wet tail but this is not correct.
Wet tail or proliferative ileitis or transmissible ileal hyperplasia is a highly infectious illness of the digestive tract where the lower part of the intestine becomes thickened and inflamed. There is still a slight question as to the cause. It is mainly due to Escherichia Coli bacteria but this may be a secondary cause and other bacteria may be involved such as Campylobacter or Cryptosporidia.
The first symptoms are usually unkempt fur, loss of appetite and lethargy, quickly followed by severe watery diarrhoea, which may be bloody, and a hunched position. Rectal prolapse may occur and wasting and death is likely within two to six days. Treatment is possible but difficult and requires dedicated nursing. If wet tail is suspected, a vet needs to be consulted immediately, the hamster must be isolated and strict hygiene observed.
An infected hamster needs immediate veterinary treatment and then must be kept warm and clean with bedding changed frequently and as free from stress as possible. As fluids are lost with the diarrhoea they need to be replaced and no solid food given for at least the first 24 hours. Neomycin, diluted 1:3 with water is usually prescribed, one drop twice daily, with the maximum dose being 10mg. Kaolin may also be given, 2 to 3 drops three times a day. Vitamin B (brewer’s yeast) or multivitamins may help. To replace fluids, Lectade may be given orally or injections of Ringer’s solution. If you have other hamsters, oxytetracycline (400mg per litre) or erythromycin added to the drinking water may give protection.
If the patient dies then all the bedding must be destroyed and the cage, bottles, dishes etc. thoroughly disinfected before any re-use. Always tend any other healthy animals before the patient but if you can, arrange for ill and healthy hamsters to be cared for by different people. Obviously, wash your hands thoroughly when caring for a sick hamster and wear a protective overall. If you have a case of wet tail you should not go to shows or places where there are hamsters. The SHC has a rule that anyone who has four or more hamsters with an infectious disease or mystery illness, they must produce a veterinary certificate before returning to showing.
People reading all this shouldn’t become over-anxious. Do remember that many of us who have been keeping and exhibiting hamsters for years have never had or seen a case. Most cases occur in pet shops, partly due to the fact that newly-weaned young are the most susceptible due to the stress of weaning. This may be compounded by transportation in less-than-ideal conditions to the shop sometimes at too young an age.
Wet tail is more common in colony-bred hamsters and there is the possibility of a genetic predisposition. Any hamster that has had wet tail and recovered should not be used for breeding.
Wet tail rarely affects Russian or Chinese hamsters.
If there is an outbreak in a pet shop near you, it would be sensible not to purchase hamsters from there until you are quite satisfied that there is no danger. Also, if you suspect that there may be cases in your area, if you purchase any new stock I would suggest that you keep them in isolation for at least a week. Females bought from a source where there has been an outbreak may suddenly develop the disease in later life but if hygiene is good and precautions taken, only an isolated case should occur. When the disease was more common in the past, in an experiment neomycin was given in small cubes of cheese to all stock which reduced the incidence of the disease, but routine administration of antibiotics is not recommended as the bacteria may develop resistance.