Hamster Health Risks for Children

Young children are often more at risk for disease.  This is not only due to a weaker immune system, but it is also because of habits that children have that make passing germs from child to child easier:  they hug and kiss each other a lot.  They put their fingers in their mouths and touch their mouths often.  They will chew on toys and then pass them to another child.  They are not usually good at consistent hand washing and hygiene.  In other words, they do not do anything to help prevent disease.  So when you add another factor, such as a pet or a trip to the petting zoo, you have a potentially bad situation.

In October of 2008, doctors made an announcement that young children (under the age of five) should not have “exotic pets” – which includes reptiles, hamsters, gerbils, (and hedgehogs, of all things).  Basically, anything other than a cat or dog is not recommended for young children.

Young children are exposed to Salmonella through animals around 11% of the time (as opposed to around 6% for the general population).  This can be from having them as pets, visiting petting zoos or through the pet of a friend or classroom.  Touching or petting the animals then putting their hands in their mouths are a likely cause, plus young children are likely to kiss animals, as well, which introduces the infectious agent (germs) directly into the mouth.

Ringworm is another disease that can be passed from hamsters to humans.  If is a fungus that lives on the surface of the skin and creates a characteristic red ring.  In hamsters, it can cause hair loss (and in humans, as well, if it gets onto the scalp).  It is not difficult to treat, but it does take several weeks in order to completely heal.

There are several steps you can take to prevent the spread of disease from your hamster to your children.

First, make hand washing both before and after handling your pet a rule.  No exceptions – for parents or kids.  Wash hands in warm water with soap, not just rinsing with water.  Using water only will not sanitize hands.   Washing before and after handling means that you won’t give germs to your pet, and your pet will not pass germs to you or the kids.

Second, make sure you quarantine any new hamsters before handling them or introducing them into the general population of hamsters you already have.  Carefully watch the new addition for any signs of disease.

Finally, clean housing areas for hamster regularly and disinfect cages at least once a month in order to cut down on germs.  Remove all bedding and food and replace it with a fresh supply.  You can use a bleach solution of 1 tablespoon of bleach to one gallon of water to disinfect the cage or aquarium.  Make sure the cage is dry before returning the hamster to his home.

If you have any questions about the risks to your children, ask your pediatrician.