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Syrian Hamster PortalPROLIFERATIVE ILEITISSyrian Problems
a.k.a. Wet tail

What is Proliferative Ileitis?

Proliferative Ileitis, also known as "Wet Tail", is a serious, life-threatening intestinal bacterial infection resulting from stress. A bacterium (singular for bacteria) is a single-celled organism that cannot be seen by the naked eye (note: not all bacteria are pathogenic). Bacteria that are often responsible for Wet Tail are: Escherichia coli (E. coli), Campylobacter species, Cryptosporidium species, and Chlamydia species (3). There are mixed opinions that Campylobacter jejuni can cause Wet Tail. Hanes states that this organism has been isolated from infected hamsters and from normal, healthy hamsters. It is proposed that hamsters can "shed" this organism (3). In addition, a study concluded that this organism in pure cultures does not reproduce the disease (9).

It is found that Wet Tail is misdiagnosed often by owners and veterinarians. It is important to remember diarrhea is a symptom of Wet Tail, not the disease itself. Wet Tail is a bacterial infection. It happens many times that a hamster will have diarrhea, but it is because the owner fed his hamster too many vegetables, etc (for example). Misdiagnosing the disease results in a prescription of antibiotics, instead of educating the owner to adjust the hamster's diet. Or perhaps, the possibility is the owner irresponsibly served his hamster undercooked chicken. (It's analogous to a human contracting a Salmonella infection, which normally results in diarrheal symptoms.) In this case, the veterinarian may prescribe the inappropriate antibiotic (a drug that may not effectively fight off that strain of bacteria). This presents a serious problem that is similar to what we are observing in human medicine today. Doctors often over prescribe or prescribe inappropriate antibiotics and patients often misuse antibiotics (please, always finish your antibiotics completely!), which allows bacteria to become resistant. For instance, there is a dangerous Staphylococcus aureus strain that is resistant to every antibiotic available and even hand washing! Veterinarians unnecessarily prescribing antibiotics will cause this problem to arise in hamsters. The veterinarian and owner together must evaluate all symptoms to determine if the problem is indeed Wet Tail and decide what is the appropriate treatment. Regardless of the diagnosis, diarrhea is very serious and life-threatening, so it suggested that the owner sought treatment immediately.

"Who" can get Proliferative Ileitis?

Young hamsters (three to six weeks) are the most susceptible; however a hamster at any age can contract Wet Tail (1). According to the Animal Health Center's website (1), long-haired Syrians are more susceptible. This site did not explain the reasoning behind this statement. Causes of Wet Tail include stress (transport, overcrowding, surgeries, and diet), genetic predispositions, and contraction from another infected hamster or human with poor hygiene (1, 6).

Lorraine Hill states that Wet Tail does not occur in Dwarf Hamsters, meaning diarrheal symptoms is signaling a different problem (4). This was illustrated from a major outbreak at a large hamstery (2). Sadly, many hamsters died from this Wet Tail outbreak; however, there were no dwarves in the hamstery suffering from Wet Tail (4). Pamela Milward states that Wet Tail seldom occurs in Chinese hamsters and Russian dwarves (8).

Wet Tail caused by certain species of Campylobacter can cause disease in swine, dogs, ferrets and primates (1). Humans, however, cannot be infected by these bacterial strains responsible for Wet Tail.

How common is Proliferative Ileitis?

Wet Tail is actually a relatively rare disease that mostly affects litters in pet stores. I was unable to locate any specific statistics expressing how many new cases per year and the prevalence of the disease.

What symptoms should I look out for?

  • Symptoms usually take up to 7 days to appear from initial infection
  • Watery diarrhea, accompanied by a foul smell, often mucous, and traces of blood
  • Tail area may appear wet and dirty from diarrhea
  • Hamster is in a hunched/uncomfortable posture and lethargic
  • Loss of appetite, not drinking
  • Sometimes squeak in pain
  • Lack of grooming
  • More serious cases can result in a rectal prolapse (protrusion of rectal lining)
  • Symptoms can last up to a week with proper treatment. Without treatment, the hamster can die within 24-48 hours

How can I treat my infected hamster?
How effective is "Dri-Tail" found in pet shops?

First, it is important to isolate the hamster from other animals. The cage should be moved to another room and other animals should be prevented from entering (dogs, for example, can behave as vectors). Excellent hygiene practice is imperative in order to prevent spread to other hamsters. It is advisable to change clothing after handling the sick hamster. The infected hamster should be placed in a quiet location to reduce stress (6).

It is imperative that the hamster is kept hydrated and warm. It is advised to mix Pedialyte with water (50%) and feed with dropper. Pedialyte is a children's oral electrolyte maintenance solution that can be found at most grocery stores and drug stores; the non-flavored solution is the most recommended. Fruits and vegetables should be discontinued, as it will encourage the diarrhea to worsen (6). Failure to keep the hamster hydrated can have a greater impact on the hamster's life compared to the actual effects of the bacteria.

It is often necessary to clean the hamster's bottom area with a warm, damp tissue and dried thoroughly immediately. It is not good for the hamster to groom his messy bottom. The cage and cage accessories should be cleaned often, in intervals of 2-3 days to reduce stress; bleach is recommended as the cleaning agent (5, 6). Cleaning tips will be discussed.

The mortality rate of Wet Tail is unfortunately very high. Wet Tail requires immediate veterinary attention. The veterinarian will most likely prescribe oral anti-diarrheal medication and antibiotics, most commonly, an effective dose of neomycin. Neomycin is an aminoglycoside that prevents the bacteria from making new proteins and is generally effective against many strains of bacteria.

Dri-Tail is an over-the-counter drug found in most pet stores to treat Wet Tail. Neomycin is the active antibiotic of Dri-Tail. However, the antibiotic dosage is often not adequate to cure the disease. In fact, without veterinary supervision, Dri-Tail can actually worsen diarrheal symptoms by killing off the hamster's "friendly" or resident bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract. This in turn, lowers the ability of the hamster to fight against the disease (6). Resident bacteria are usually kept in high numbers in healthy individuals, which compete against lower numbers of "intruder" bacteria. In a sense, these resident bacteria play a role in your immune system. Under stress, the number of resident bacteria can lower, thus allowing "intruder" bacteria to invade and thrive.

I don't want my hamster ill.
How can Proliferative Ileitis be prevented?

Wet Tail is caused by stress. When an animal undergoes some stress, it becomes more susceptible to an infection. It is similar to when students are more susceptible to illness around final exams. It is important to reduce stress, especially during weaning and when the hamster is transported to a new home. Preparing a cage ahead of time will help ease the hamster's transition to a new home.

When selecting hamsters at a pet store or from a breeder, be sure to observe hamsters in the litter carefully for symptoms. Unfortunately, it is still possible to purchase an infected hamster, as it is not always evident that it has been infected because symptoms have not yet been shown at the time of purchase. Since symptoms of Wet Tail do not appear for seven days, it is recommended to isolate new hamsters (as with any new pet) from other pets for at least a week (4). I personally feel it is safest to isolate your new hamster for two weeks, as it is impossible tell when exactly a hamster is initially infected (i.e. in the pet store? sometime during transportation? at home?).

To prevent spread to your other hamsters, complete isolation is necessary and the infected hamster's cage and accessories must be cleaned thoroughly, preferably by bleach. It is best to use a 1:10 solution of bleach (1 part bleach, 10 parts hot water). All areas should be scrubbed thoroughly and left to soak completely for at least 20 minutes. The cage should then be left to air dry without wiping. Finally, the cage can then be washed with a dishwashing liquid soap with caution (fumes can be a hazard). It is advised to dispose of accessories that are difficult to clean (i.e. wood and straw). If the cage is to be used by another hamster in the future, clean with bleach as described and let it sit for at least a month. After this period of time, wash the cage once again with a dishwashing liquid (7). It is advised to wash the cage and accessories in intervals of 2-3 days to avoid increased stress (5), while removing soiled bedding and adding fresh clean bedding daily.

It is advised not to purchase another hamster from the same pet store where the Wet Tail outbreak occurred.

There is some evidence that the susceptibility of getting Wet Tail is inheritable. Therefore, it is strongly recommended that survivors of Wet Tail should not be bred (4).

Can it be transmitted between my hamster and me?

Humans cannot contract this disease from hamsters. However, proper hygiene is essential, as our hands can transmit the bacteria from hamster to hamster.

Interesting Facts

  • Conflicting Morbidity Rates: 20-60% (3), 100% (9). The important point: high morbidity rates
  • Mortality Rate is near 90% (3)
  • Some survivors become runts, be thinner, and generally weaker (3)
  • Hamsters have different tolerances of stress. Not all hamsters subjected to the same levels of stress necessarily get infected (4)


  1. Animal Health Center. 2002. Medical Concerns (Hamsters). Accessed 8 December 2002.
  2. Baglin, David. 1999. Dealing with Wet Tail: The importance of containing infectious germs--my personal experiences. J. British Hamster Association. No. 31. Accessed 12 December 2002.
  3. Hanes, Marti. D.V.M. 1999. Diseases of Hamsters. Mesocrictetus.htm. Dept of Lab Animal Resources. University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio, Texas. Accessed 8 December, 2002.
  4. Hill, Lorraine. 1999. Facts about Wet Tail. J. British Hamster Association. No. 31 Accessed 12 December 2002.
  5. Hill, Lorraine. 2002. Wet Tail. Accessed 13 December 2002.
  6. Landis, Jane. Public Information Officer, California Hamster Association and American Hamster Association. April 19, 2002. Hamster Has Wet Tail - Need Help. Response to post on alt.pets.hamsters newsgroup. Accessed 8 December 2002.
  7. Landis, Jane. Public Information Officer, California Hamster Association and American Hamster Association. Oct. 14, 2002. Wet Tail. Response to post on alt.pets.hamsters newsgroup. Accessed 9 December 2002.
  8. Milward, Pamela. 1999. Wet Tail. J. British Hamster Association. No. 29. Accessed 12 December 2002.
  9. Schoeb, Trenton. 1990. A Study of Hamster Diseases from the Dept. of Comp. hamsters.html. Dept of Comparative Medicine, University of Alabama at Birmingham. Accessed 8 December 2002.

Important: This article is strictly for informing purposes and it is no substitute for professional veterinary advice. If you have any questions or concerns, consult your veterinarian.

Written by: Lari for MSN Group Hamsters Galore! Used with her permission here.

This page was last edited on October 14, 2011
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