Wet tail in hamsters is not to be taken lightly. It is a serious disease that could kill your pet. Not only that, but it could also make you and your family very ill.
There are several bacteria that cause wet tail in hamsters. Two of the more common ones are Lawsonican intracellularis and Clostridium difficile. The first of these is not known to attack humans, but an infection by the second of these is considered a zoonosis. That is, it can travel between animals and humans.
Wet tail in hamsters is a peculiar disease. In young hamsters, it often appears to be related to stress. It typically occurs shortly after the animals are weaned from the mother. In older hamsters, while the results are similar, the cause is believed to be more often an upset in the balance of bacteria inside the animal’s digestive tract.
The infection can be hard to cure (in both hamsters and humans) because Clostridium difficile is a rather tenacious bacterium. Antibiotics can kill it; however, it can produce spores which aren’t killed by antibiotics. These spores hang around until they can successfully reproduce. They will hang around in an intestine that has been cleared of bacteria by antibiotics; they will hang out on surfaces; they will even attach to clothing. Then, whenever they find the right conditions – because they are already inside; because they are ingested; or because they land on an open wound, they are off to the races.
And it is indeed a race. Surprisingly, Clostridium difficile are normally present inside healthy intestines. However, they make up less than 5% of the population of bacteria. If all the other bacteria have been destroyed, however, they have no competition, and can reproduce rapidly. The bacteria release toxins that cause pain, bloating, and diarrhea. This species can also cause a severe infection to the colon.
The infection, pain, bloating and diarrhea would be felt in both hamster and human.
In fact, you may have heard about this species of bacteria in the news. It is responsible for recurring infections in hospitals and nursing homes. If you have ever heard of anyone who went into the hospital and ended up sick with a bacterial infection, there is a good chance that Clostridium difficile was the cause.
The other bacterium that causes wet tail in hamsters, Lawsonican intracellularis, is not known to infect humans. The individual cells of this bacterium look like a narrow tube that looks like a tilde (~) or sometimes an elongated “c.” They burrow into the cells of the ileum – which is the final part of the small intestine.
This breaking through the cell walls is quite unusual behaviour for bacteria. Typically, only viruses are known to invade cells.
The difficulty with wet tail is that both species of bacteria produce similar symptoms. Without conducting a test that will positively identify the type of bacteria, you don’t know which one is the cause.
As a result, if your hamster develops wet tail, it is in your best interest to act as though Clostridium difficile were the cause. Take precautions to keep you and your family from becoming infected.