This guide applies to golden Syrian hamsters and dwarf hamsters. Despite being different species, these pet rodents are similar in their internal makeup and their nutritional needs.
All hamsters need animal protein as well as plant rich food as they are omnivores. In contrast to chinchillas, guinea pigs and rabbits, hamsters can tolerate grains well. Grains are concentrates of plant nutrients, mostly in the form of seeds and seedlings, and these are ideal for hamsters.
The incisors are sharp and chisel-like and are used to cut up chunky pieces or to open the shells of seeds. They grow continuously and must be worn down all the time. The teeth should ideally grate against each other when the rodent bites off and chews up good quality, hard feed and when cracking open shells.
The incisors are located at the front of the mouth in the centre with two at the top and two at the bottom. It is important to keep them healthy with the correct diet and by offering rough bedding material that needs to be shredded up the hamster. Straw, rough hay and small sticks are ideal for this. When choosing to breed, you must be aware of the health of the teeth so that deformities are not passed on.
Further back in the mouth lie the molars which, in contrast to those of rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas, have roots and so don’t grow continuously. These crush and grind pieces of food. Between the molars food gets mixed with saliva and becomes soft.
The fluid comes from the salivary glands. Enzymes in the saliva are biocatalysts which start the process of digestion.
Leading from the opening of the mouth back to the pharynx along the right and left sides are the pouches. They are extremely stretchy and flexible and they pass between the skin and the muscles. They are outside of the belly and they reach almost down to the back legs when in full use!
The insides of the pouches are made up of hard, bristly skin and they are used to transport food from where it is found to the nest. Hamsters in cages will transport food in this way from the feeding bowl to their bed.
The forestomach and the glandular stomach
Hamsters have two stomachs which are connected. The forestomach is distinguished by its use for brief storage and for moistening the food. The second part of the stomach is the glandular stomach and many experts even refer to it as a second stomach, however, the distinction between the two is not as clear in hamsters as it is in birds.
After the food has been chewed in the mouth and moistened in the forestomach, the real work now begins on the digestion of the food and the first components are broken away. The food is acidified with hydrochloric acid produced by special cells.
The stomach muscles, which are all around the stomach, ensure both a thorough mixing of all of the stomach’s contents and that it gets emptied. This process is the passing of the mush of food through the sphincter at the end of the glandular stomach into the digestive tract.
The upper small intestine
In the small intestine enzymes and plenty of tissue fluid are mixed with the mush of food so that fluid can be drained off at a later stage.
The pancreas and the liver
After a few centimetres, there are the outlets of the pancreas and the liver. The liver can store excess sugar for a short time in the form of glycogen, apart from that, it is responsible for detoxification. Furthermore, bile which comes from the liver balances out the digestive fluids and changes the environment from acidic to alkaline.
The pancreas regulates the blood sugar levels and sends out enzymes to break down fat and carbohydrates.
The small intestine
Then the food reaches the small intestine which is where the main part of the digestion process takes place. The extremely active villi transfer the decomposed substances from the food to the bloodstream. Only the elements of the food which have been broken down as far as possible can pass through the intestinal wall and can then be put to good use by the other organs.
The small intestine is where everything that has been digested up to now is transferred to the rest of the organism. An incorrect diet with too much fatty or sweet food or an excess of oilseeds causes most of the problems in the small intestine. Preventative health care with suitable modern pet food products is effective.
A good range of foods is essential to your pet! In the mush of food only so called raw fibre is left, this is made up of parts of the plant cell walls from the food.
At the intersection of the small intestine and the colon, the appendix branches off. It is like a big fermentation chamber which is filled with lots of specialised bacteria. The remaining energy must be drawn out of the plant material which is high in raw fibre and roughage and elements of the plant cell walls are extracted, in particular glucose from cellulose.
Hamsters have a smaller appendix than chinchillas, rabbits and guinea pigs. Abrupt changes in diet should be avoided so that the process of fermentation by the appendix can run smoothly.
Contrary to many other rodents who eat a purely vegetable-based diet, hamsters, rats and mice don’t produce caecotrophs.
The large intestine
The intestine behind the area where the small intestine connects to the appendix has the task of recovering the water from the pulp which is already mostly digested but still runny.
In the large intestine there are more bacteria everywhere which, like their counterparts in the appendix, are capable of creating fermentations and metabolic processes. The bacteria make fatty acids from the food remnants available to the cells of the intestine wall. These fatty acids can’t get into the bloodstream from here onwards. The pellets are formed in the rear part of the large intestine.
The rectum forms the dry pellets and draws out as much remaining moisture as possible, sometimes hamsters will eat these pellets too but that is quite normal for rodents. Diarrhoea or constipation can indicate that there is an issue with regulating water due to a problem in the upper sections of the digestive system.
The anus is the exit for the pellets. These firm excrements contain waste which is not excreted through the kidneys as urine as well as undigested food or surplus nutrients. The anal sphincter marks the end of the digestive tract.