Arguably the most commonly seen illness in hamsters, wet tail can be a serious and fatal condition if not treated immediately.
What Is Wet Tail?
The term "wet tail" refers to just that—a wet tail, on your pet hamster. This wet tail is basically diarrhea, or loose stools, from one or multiple factors. It is also known as proliferative ileitis or regional enteritis. The diarrhea is thought to be caused by an overgrowth of Campylobacter jejuni, a type of bacteria.
How Does a Hamster Get Wet Tail?
Stress is usually the main culprit of wet tail. Young hamsters get moved from a breeder or vendor to a pet store, to a new home, and sometimes get returned to the store after that, all within a period of a few weeks. This would stress anyone out—especially a tiny baby hamster. This stress causes the normal gut flora (the Campylobacter bacteria) to overpopulate, which in turn causes diarrhea.
Wet tail is also extremely contagious. Therefore if your new hamster was kept in a large cage with other hamsters that had wet tail, your hamster and/or the other hamsters could get wet tail too. When picking out a hamster to take home, make sure he is active and running around to decrease the likelihood of him having wet tail already.
How to Treat Wet Tail?
In order to treat wet tail, you need to know your hamster has wet tail and not just diarrhea. Remember, since wet tail is a bacterial issue and causes diarrhea, your hamster can have diarrhea for reasons other than having the wet tail disease.
For example, your hamster may eat some fresh fruit or veggies that have high water contents and suddenly he has diarrhea. This diarrhea is most likely not from wet tail, but from all the extra water content he took in. An exotics vet is the best place to start if you aren't sure what caused diarrhea.
If he does, in fact, have wet tail, your exotics vet will probably prescribe antibiotics that are safe for hamsters and may give him some subcutaneous fluids to rehydrate him. You might even have to syringe feed him special hamster food (such as Oxbow Critical Care or Emeraid) or vegetable baby food if he is not eating.
If you are unable to take your hamster to an exotics vet, you can try giving him wet tail drops at home. These drops are orange flavored and have an antibiotic in them. They can be purchased without seeing a veterinarian and can be put in a water bottle or directly in the hamster's mouth. If your hamster does not improve on these drops in a couple of days, be sure to get him in to see a vet. Exotics decline in health very quickly and time wasted could mean a fatal outcome for your hamster.
How to Prevent Wet Tail?
Some exotics vets may recommend treating your hamster with wet tail drops preventatively when you take home your new hamster. This can be done by mixing the appropriate amount of wet tail drops into your hamster's water bottle.
When choosing a hamster from a pet store, make sure he is active, that his eyes are open, and that his rear end is dry and free of fecal matter.
To play it even safer, don't take home a hamster that is living with another hamster that doesn't look too healthy (i.e., eyes closed, sitting in the corner, wet bottom).
If you have more than one hamster and one comes down with wet tail, separate them immediately and be sure you wash your hands after handling the sick one and before handling the healthy one.