I have to preface this post with the following disclaimer: the information in here anecdotal and based on one case only. If you have a sick pet, seek immediate veterinary care. Do not ask your friends on Facebook for treatment recommendations. Do not rely on posts such as this one. Google can be a great source of information if the information comes from a reliable source. Otherwise Google is merely a source of opinions, not facts. I am not a veterinarian, nor do I play one on TV.
I don’t know about you right now, but I needed a win.
The past few weeks have been a roller coaster of emotions: terrifying world and local news, the anticipated release of a new book, the growing reports of people I know developing Covid, the excitement of a planned virtual gathering of long-time friends. I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted. And not just a little pessimistic about our future.
Which is why I really needed a win about now.
Remember the hamster I bought for a friend of mine? I was under a lot of pressure to pick the perfect pet for someone who knows a lot more about hammies than I do. She was delighted with my choice, and christened the new hamster “Elizabeth Bennett.”
But then a week after Lizzie went to her new home, my friend called me with upsetting news: she had signs of wet tail.
For those who don’t know, wet tail is the common term for a collective of conditions that give young hamsters profound diarrhea. The term is primarily used to refer to proliferative ileitis and has a high mortality rate–most die within 24-48 hours. Wet tail can also be triggered by stress, diet change, or antibiotics.
Well, take a young hamster recently shipped to a pet store, then adopted into a new home, and you have the definition of a stressful situation. We could rule out diet change and there was no history of antibiotics, so we were looking at either the classic PI of hamsters under six months of age or stress-induced bacterial overgrowth. Either way, the news wasn’t good.
We couldn’t let Elizabeth Bennett die. At least, not before the usual short life span of the average hamster.
My friend weighed the risks of exposing herself (and potentially her elderly father) to Covid-19 by driving to the nearest city large enough to support an exotics veterinarian and decided against it. On Saturday afternoon most of the local small animal clinics were closed for the weekend. Taking Lizzie to the emergency clinic was unlikely to result in getting a veterinarian who knew how to treat hammies for wet tail beyond the basics of what you could look up online. She wondered if the clinic that cares for my livestock carried the kinds of antibiotics she needed to treat Lizzie.
The answer turned out to be yes and no.
A Google search indicated the typical treatments available were either an over-the-counter chlortetracycline or neomycin sulfate. I made arrangements to pick some medication from the pet store as soon as I got off work that day. In the meantime, I tagged a vet friend of mine who lived on the other side of the country and asked if she knew of anything better. My friend went to VIN, the Veterinary Information Network, and searched the forums on pocket pets. She texted me back with a list of antibiotics used to treat wet tail–none of which were the OTC products available from the pet store. The large animal clinic had some of the antibiotics, but because they were meant to be given to something like a 1200 pound bull, which weighs 544.3 kilograms, which converts to 544,300 grams… and we were talking about something that weighed somewhere between 30-40 grams… well, you could see the issue with diluting the meds to a workable amount.
I went to the pet store to buy the OTC treatment–it had to be better than nothing, right? But while I was there, I asked to speak with the manager and I explained what was going on. Did she know a better way to treat the hammie?
The manager was very kind and helpful. First, she offered to take the hamster back, as Lizzie was still under warranty. (We weighed that choice and decided against it) I asked her about the OTC products, and without condemning the product, she said they’d had the most success treating wet tail with one of the antibiotics we hadn’t been able to find and supporting the hammie with the kind of paste used to handfeed baby birds.
Apparently, there’s a supplement designed for hamsters, but they like the baby bird formula better and most thrive on it. Who knew?
I came away with the OTC antibiotics and the bird paste. On the way home, I drove past the clinic where I take my dogs. They were still open–but only for another ten minutes. As they were operating on curbside only, I called the number posted on the door and explained my dilemma. My vet was awesome. She dispensed a tiny amount of liquid antibiotics for Lizzie and suggested we purchase a meat scale in order to weigh her.
Armed with a treatment plan, I took everything to my friend. There we ran into the next problem: Lizzie was sick, but still well enough to be impossible to handle, especially without stressing her further. My friend couldn’t weigh her, let alone administer medication. In the end, we decided to try putting a microdrop of antibiotics in the bird paste and hope she would eat it voluntarily.
The next few days were tense as I waited for updates from my friend. Most hamsters with wet tail die from dehydration and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), and though it seemed she was eating the paste, it was difficult to tell if she was getting enough–or too much–of the antibiotics. At one point my friend described Lizzie as “a walking skeleton draped in fur” and frankly, I expected the next update to be the final one.
I can’t explain why I was so invested in Lizzie’s recovery. Maybe it was because I know how few indulgences my friend allows herself, and by God, she should be allowed this one damn thing. Maybe it was because I personally picked out Lizzie for her and felt responsible for bringing her heartache. Or it could have been because she was named after a favorite character and having her die was akin to killing Elizabeth Bennett myself. Or maybe it was because 2020 has been SUCH a suckwad year and I just needed this one win. With all the terrible news coming out of California with the wildfires, the hurricanes in the Gulf, the mounting cases of Covid-19 among friends and acquaintances, the attacks on our democracy and the fears for the coming election and the aftermath of the results… I just needed this little hamster to make it, you know?
And she did.
Maybe it was the bird paste. Maybe it was the combined knowledge of the pet store manager and my vet friend with VIN. Maybe it was the antibiotics and the kindness that dispensed it under the given circumstances without insisting on an exam. Maybe it was the dedication of my friend, who woke Lizzie every couple of hours during the day, which made her seek out something to eat instead of sleeping into death. I don’t know. But for some reason, or maybe all of those reasons, the evidence of wet tail ceased, and she began putting on weight. We stopped the antibiotics and she continued to do well. In fact, she started getting so fat, we had to wean her off the bird paste and back onto hamster food.
Maybe she didn’t have true PI. We’ll never know. But it’s been weeks now since her recovery, and I feel safe calling her out of the woods. At least as much as hamsters are ever out of the woods.
It’s a small win. But I’ll take it. Screw you, 2020.