Lymphoma in Hamsters

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While the average lifespan for hamsters is only about 2.5 years, and they are therefore less prone to long-term illnesses, it is possible for a hamster to develop cancer, especially lymphoma. Lymphoma in hamsters is usually the result of the Hamster Polyoma Virus.

Golden Hamsters as Pets

The most popular breed of hamster as a pet, the golden or Syrian hamster came from Syria (as one might expect) in 1839, but they did become commercially available until the mid-1940s. They are calm, easygoing, and don't mind being handled. They are one of the largest kinds of hamster.

Hamster Polyoma Virus

In the 1970s, hamster aficionados began to notice a new infectious form of lymphoma in hamsters. Initially confined to European populations, this disease, termed Hamster Polyoma Virus (HaPV) by researchers, has since appeared in North American hamsters. It is still relatively rare, and cannot be transmitted to humans or any other animals.

As a member of the Papovaviridae family of virus, HaPV is noteworthy for the vast array of secondary diseases that it can cause. In its role as a trigger for hamster lymphoma, it can produce any of a number of variations of that disease, leading to its classification as a polyoma.

Transmission and Symptoms

HaPV is likely spread by exposure to the urine of infected animals. Symptoms will appear between four and 30 weeks following exposure, and can include palpable tumors, weight loss, scaly skin (mange), and trichepitheliomas, which are wartlike nodules that appear on the skin around the eyes, mouth, and anus.

An extremely infectious virus, HaPV can spread to nearly 80 percent of a given hamster population with ease. Breeders in particular must be extremely vigilant and maintain high standards of hygiene to prevent contact with infected urine.

Diagnosis

There is no reliable test for HaPV, but lymphomas not caused by HaPV are exceedingly rare, especially among young hamsters, so often the cancer itself is indicative of HaPV. Furthermore, trichepitheliomas in hamsters are only ever caused by HaPV, making their appearance sufficient for a definitive diagnosis.

Treatment

There is currently no cure for HaPV. While proper hygiene measures may help slow the disease, only by euthanizing the entire infected population can the disease be completely halted. Individual hamster owners need not take these precautions unless another healthy hamster is present. Before placing healthy hamsters in enclosures that belonged to HaPV-positive animals, the environment should be thoroughly decontaminated with an antiviral agent like Virkon.

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