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Coping with Non-Haemolytic E.Coli, a form of Wet Tail

Author: David Baglin

From Issue 29 Apr 1999

I have already written to some club members personally to let them know that I have had some problems with illness in my hamstery. Now that I know what it is, I can let everybody know of my experiences and how to help to treat sick animals with this. There seem to have been cases of illness of a similar nature in several hamsteries all round Britain recently.

It all started on the 6th February this year. I went to get out a hamster for a show who had won his class a week before and noted that he looked unwell. His bottom was bunged up with a large amount of messy and partially solid faeces. So I decided to put him back in his cage and showed another in his place. I washed his bottom that evening and put him in a hospital tank. But he had lost his will to live already and eventually died the following Thursday, the 11th February. During the next 10 days I had four or five unexplained deaths, but decided not to worry unduly about them. With my number of Syrian hamsters totalling 215 and being at the end of winter there are a few occasions when several hamsters will die in a short space of time. At this point I decided to err on the side of caution though and put any animals returning from breeding trips into isolation with my creams and some of my dwarfs in my bedroom, just in case there was a problem. Sadly two males who had come back to me on the 6th went straight into the hamstery as I was not worried about anything at that time. One, Cobnut a lovely golden who passed away a few weeks later, the other Ptolemy a long-haired rust who won BIS on the 6th of February and has just come down with the disease and is under treatment.

On the 2nd of March I went into the hamstery and found seven dead hamsters and three ill which I put to sleep immediately. It was then that I knew I had a form of wet tail in the hamstery. The following day I wrote to the officers of several of the hamster clubs and many of my personal friends to let them know that I had a problem. With something as contagious as wet tail I could not risk attending shows and possibly pass something on. I was also quite devastated at the thought of what I had lost and could lose if the disease was untreatable. I had read that 70% or more of my stock could die. So far I had lost about 15. By Saturday the 6th March I had lost 23 including a litter of seven three week olds. A few days later it was 30 The symptoms are usually a yellow very runny diarrhoea or sometimes a mustard coloured diarrhoea around a solid area of faeces. The smell is quite noticeable and pungent. Hamsters stop eating and drinking and lose condition in 24-48 hours. Their faces usually become drawn and pinched and they sit hunched with their eyes half closed.

A couple of days later I got really bad toothache and was not able to do very much at all. I went to the dentist on the Friday and had two extractions and seven fillings so was not very well for the weekend. I spoke to my vet on the Sunday who said to bring any more ill ones in for tests. I took four hamsters to him the following Tuesday. One of them being Cobnut the golden who had just come down with the bug but had been affected very badly by it. A rectal swab was done on one of the others and a post-mortem and an internal swab was taken from Cobnut as he was too ill to save. The post-mortem revealed no swelling or abnormalities of any other internal organs, just the gastritis of the stomach. Sadly the two not so ill hamsters also died after liquid replacement therapy. It would be eight days before the lab tests revealed exactly what organism was causing the wet tail.

On the 17th I got the results. Non-haemolytic E.Coli. The vet prescribed Septrin, a child's antibiotic for gastric problems. Two drops to be given morning and two in the evening. He warned to not give the hamsters anything as a preventative as the medicine could cause diarrhoea in healthy animals. He had also advised administering an electrolyte solution to replace sugar and salts and re-hydrate the body when I first went to see him. So the hamsters are given Lectade approximately three times a day. The illness has an incubation period of five to seven days so anything in isolation should be okay after that period of time. Unfortunately though animals do not respond to Septrin unless caught early enough on in the illness. So I shall be contacting my vet this week (24.3.99) to see if he has any further suggestions. I have no idea how my hamsters caught this or why I was getting isolated cases from different places in my hamstery getting sick and not the ones in the cages beside them. The animals in tanks seemed to be safer initially but that is no longer the case now. Older animals that have hardly had any attention for weeks (I fed them a huge pile of food in their tanks to last three or four weeks and their bottles only needed re-filling once) have been found dead on the top shelf where only an airborne germ could get to them .Some of these had been fine until the last few days. I have deliberately kept handling to a minimum which includes cleaning out to avoid the risk of spreading the germ.

I have now lost approximately 95 Syrian hamsters. No dwarfs have been affected by this at all. The Chinese and Campbells live in tanks under the bottom shelves and have Syrian sawdust and food kicked into their tanks all the time but none have died. (My winter whites live in the bedroom at present and have been isolated from the illness). They all eat the same food.

I have only just started a major cleaning and disinfection programme on the existing living Syrians as I was so afraid of transferring germs when cleaning out. Each cage gets blasted with Dettox or a similar supermarket own brand with Listeria, E.coli and Salmonella killing ingredients and is now placed sideways on on the shelving, cutting down the risk of dropping anything on to the cage below. The shelves, walls, ceiling and floor have all been sprayed with the same antibacterial disinfectant. Empty cages and all my showpens have been soaked in a bin full of bleach, disinfectant and dettox. Even the shed where these are now stored was thoroughly swept and sprayed with disinfectant.

It is seven weeks since the problem began. None of the hamster cages are touching each other now on the shelving and no longer hang over the shelves at all. I am finding fewer ill and dying Syrians and those being treated seem to be responding to the antibiotic with different degrees of success depending on how advanced the E.coli is. I have safely weaned two litters that were born in the middle of all this and they have all gone to my local pet shop (who had no other hamsters at the time and hung on to all of them until I gave the owner the all clear). My third and final litter came out of the hamstery three days ago aged three and a half weeks, and went into the semi-isolation area on the landing until they are out of the woods. Things are looking promising there.

This means I shall not be attending shows for at least six months which is a great shame. I will also not do any breeding until six months after the last case has cleared up, so many of my females may be too old by then, but many of my friends have offered me stock back when all is well, which I thank you all for. This incident has also made me think of my remaining hamsters more as pets and individuals than show winners or potential show winners and now that I have less I will be able to spend more time with them individually, so I do see some positive things from all this gloom, death and worry. I shall keep people posted on the outcome and any further findings through the journal.