It’s been awhile since my last blog post! Back at the beginning of the year I handled a major crisis surrounding an outbreak of Ornithonyssus sylviarum, the Northern Fowl Mite, that normally prefers chickens and other birds but is readily zoonotic to other animals. I detailed my, somewhat despairing, journey towards their identification and ultimately finding they were resistant to Ivermectin. I’ve decided to update my advice as below.
I’ve been mite free since April following three doses of Stronghold (salamectin). There’s a stigma about these things but by being honest about what is happening to your hamsters, you can save others a lot of grief.
Sadly, I find myself again under siege. It seems these mites, or similar mites and fleas, are rampant amongst keepers and needless to say it will take us all treating them with something stronger than Ivermectin before they will truly disappear. Thankfully I’ve only lost a couple of elderly hamsters this time, as I would have expected to due to their age.
As a pet owner you may find yourself encountering fur mites, fleas, lice or the more visible mites of other species. If you visit shows (main class or pet class, or socially) your first step is to stop. For the benefit of containing any outbreak, whether its an illness or a parasite, you have to assume you could pass it around on your clothes, on hamsters that look clear but who live in the same house etc.
The next step is to identify and get to know what you have. You can do this via your vet and mine were sent to the lab for an ID. Knowing this is invaluable when it comes to judging treatment and isolation. These mites, for example, can spend 3 weeks without eating and often travel, especially once their host has been removed. This makes them highly contagious. It also means that when an animal dies, their entire burden of mites immediately travels to the nearest cage and this is what causes the outbreak of deaths as each infested animal becomes overwhelmed by an exponential increase in mite load.
This can happen in the space of a week.
They are also likely to be found more in the bedding than on the animal, making them hard to spot early on. In chicken houses they have been known to readily infest small mammals and can complete their lifecycle on mammals (but not on humans although they do cause a lot of irritation when they bite us). Moreover, it means that these mites, unlike lice or hamster fur mites, will readily move into the bedding off the animal and so will be in the show pen, for example, and then kicked out on to the show table, onto clothes or shoes and they have three weeks to find a new host. The early life stages are almost invisible to the naked eye, becoming visible and black as adults and red once they’ve fed. You won’t see just one, or a few if they are young. Easy, and scary, when you think about it.
Chicken farmers have long found these, and similar mites, to be resistant to Ivermectin. Your next step is to treat your animals with a prescription strength treatment that is ovicidal. As detailed above, you want your treatment to kick in as quickly as possible. Most of the hamsters I lost died in the first week of treatment. Biting the hamster will kill the bug but they’ve still taken blood. Anaemia kills small animals very quickly.
The identifiable difference between these and Ornithonyssus bacoti, the Rat Mite, is that these do not cause itching to the hamsters (according to the lab). So you don’t see them scratching, they don’t get scabs and they don’t lose fur. Again, this makes them very hard to spot. If you have the Rat Mite, please read up carefully on it’s lifecycle and, most importantly, how long it can go between feeds. This is the minimum amount of time you will have to dose your hamsters for to make sure you get them all. Some mites (such as the red mite, Dermanyssus gallinae) can survive for up to 9 months……..The nice thing is they will be within a close range of the ‘nest’ so are unlikely to occupy your bedding storage or food bins. Again, this will be different for each parasite so do check.
If they are zoonotic for Syrians, they will be for dwarfs. I found these things on the gerbils, the Chinese, the robos and the Syrians. Thankfully none made it to the pygmy mice who were in complete lock down bar me feeding and watering them using fully disinfected hands/arms and rolled up sleeves!
Next is the length of treatment. Initially, Stronghold requires three treatments spaced 2 weeks apart (according to vet advice). It’s really important that you follow this regime, even if the cages and animals start looking clear. It’s very hard to spot just one mite, or flea or louse but you only need to miss one.
Unfortunately, then you have to evaluate your whole hamstery plan. If you regularly attend shows it’s not enough to just treat those that go there. If the parasites you encounter are like these, they can come in on your clothes, show pen carriers etc. If you treat the hamsters that have been, the mites on them may choose to wander (quite far) to find a new food source and still infect your hamstery. Therefore, you would need to treat your entire room/shed monthly like you would for your cat or dog. This can be done relatively cheaply using a prescription and taking advantage of online prices. Vets are starting to come around to the idea that small furries need medication marketed for bigger animals and it is possible to get a 1ml vial of stronghold for your hamsters (assuming you need that much!) and dilute it as needed depending on whether you are treating dwarfs or Syrians.
Think about yourself during treatment. These mites will be all over your hands, clothes and shoes/socks so consider stripping down and washing after each treatment, or even while feeding/handling the hamsters during the initial treatment phase. These things are not fun when they bite you and as you haven’t treated yourself, every mite that picks you isn’t getting killed by the treatment!
Lastly, be vigilant not complacent. Treat everyone, not just the one or two you’ve seen. Assume everyone has it, whatever ‘it’ is or at least has been in contact with it. Assume, if it’s bugs, that they are on your shoes, clothes, other pets, carpet etc and treat accordingly. If you have to flea spray areas, use something like Indorex. Rethink your procedures. I now use Poultry Shield regularly to clean my cages as this kills most things and as it affects the outer coating of the mite, they can’t become resistant to it.
This time I spotted these little buggers a lot quicker, before I became infested, and treatment has already started. Stronghold is so effective that most of them will have died by now but I’m not complacent and I’ll follow the full plan.
You may read this and think that you’ve only got a couple of hamsters that go to pet class and you need not worry. Please bear in mind that other exhibitors, with many more hamsters, judge your pets and so are at risk of bringing these back to their hamsteries. All of us need to treat these things when they appear, and treat them seriously.
The same can be said about a virus or bacterial infection. Isolate, identify, treat, complete the course, prevent.
It only takes one. One bug, one shaving, one sneeze.
My preferred method of treatment, if hamsters weren’t so flammable of course –