Some of the fascinating things about owning a hamster are its unique characteristics apart from other small mammals. One of these characteristics is their ability to expand their cheeks.
I found this trait very fascinating the first time I saw our hamsters do it, and it made me curious, why do hamsters stuff their cheeks?
A hamster’s ability to expand its cheeks is a biological necessity. In the wild, hamsters avoid becoming a predator’s snack by using their cheek pouches to store extra food during the day. That way, they don’t have to go out at night to forage for more food. Hamsters also use it to transport bedding.
I wanted to know why hamsters stuff their cheeks and if storing was the only reason they had these cheek pouches. I researched this topic extensively, and I thought I would share interesting information on why hamsters stuff their cheeks and if they only stuff them with food.
Why Do Hamsters Stuff Their Cheeks?
I know it’s one of the funniest things to see such a small animal put such large pieces of food in their cheeks. They look so cute, but did you know there are a few biological reasons they stuff their cheeks?
In the section below, we will dig deeper into the reasons why hamsters stuff their cheeks.
1 – Food Storage
The main reason hamsters stuff their cheeks is to store food. In the wild, hamsters need to keep themselves hidden from predators, so they only go out once or twice at night to forage for food. Hamsters have a ferocious appetite because they are very active and have high metabolic rates.
Therefore they have to eat every 2 hours, which is challenging to do when you need to avoid becoming prey to the predators that hunt at night. They utilize their cheek pouches by stuffing as much food as they need in their cheeks, so they have enough food to last during the night.
That way, they don’t have to leave their burrows too often and stay safe. Stuffing their cheeks is also beneficial to keep their burrow hidden. The hamster’s natural predator is snakes and birds of prey.
If the hamster runs around foraging for food every 2 hours, they will give the location of their burrow away. So the more food they can stuff into their pouches, the better. They won’t have to leave their burrow as often and will attract less attention to not give their burrow’s location away.
2 – Transporting Bedding
The second reason why hamsters might stuff their cheeks is to transport bedding. When hamsters build their burrow, they can’t leave it too often for the same reason we saw above; predators may find it.
So they stuff the material they want to use for bedding in their cheeks; that way, they get it done quicker and keep the location to their burrow safe.
It can be dangerous for a hamster to do this because the material they want to use for bedding might have a sharp object that might damage the poor hamster’s cheek.
3 – Transporting Their Babies
As strange as it may sound, hamsters have been seen transporting their babies in their cheek pouches. The experts say they protect their babies from predators in emergencies where they need to evacuate their burrows or when foraging for food.
They tend to carry their babies in one cheek and stuff the other with food. It’s is only seen in the wild and only in emergencies. They will remove their babies as soon as they are in a safe place.
4 – As Floaties
The last reason hamsters stuff their cheeks is to float. Mind you; this was only seen in the wild, not in domesticated hamsters that I have found during my research.
Experts have observed hamsters filling their cheeks with air. The air allows them to float on the water and keeps them from drowning.
How Do Hamsters Stuff Their Cheeks?
Hamsters can fit 20% of their body weight in food in their cheek pouches. Their cheek pouches act like deflated balloons, and they stretch from the hamster’s mouth to their shoulders when deflated.
As soon as it finds food it likes, the hamster will put it in its mouth and rotate the food to the desired angle that best fits into its cheek pouch.
The hamster will slide the food into the pouch for storage. The cheek pouches can extend past the hamster’s shoulders when they are full. It doesn’t bother the hamster or affect the speed it runs at, even when its cheek pouches are full of food.
Hamsters can even eat with stuffed cheeks because the food stays in the cheek pouches and won’t stick out and bother them when they are eating. They usually empty their pouches before they eat, though.
What Problems Can They Get from Stuffing Their Cheeks?
As cute as it might be when we see a hamster with its cheeks stuffed to the brim, there are health issues that hamsters have to deal with related to their cheek pouches. If you suspect your hamster might have any of the following problems, you need to take your hamster for a vet visit to have it checked out.
Here are some of the most common cheek-related health problems you will see in wild or domesticated hamsters.
Cheek abscesses are the most common issue hamster owners have to worry about. Some of the ways a hamster can get a nick, cut, or small wound in their cheek pouch include:
- Chewing on food with a sharp edge and getting cut
- Chewing on toys with sharp edges and getting a cut
- Nibbling on wood snacks and getting cuts or abrasions
- A tooth could grow into the cheek and can leave a puncture wound
If the small cut or wound is exposed to the food, the hamster will stuff into their cheeks, and the bacteria in the food might cause an infection. The infection can lead to an abscess that you must take care of immediately, or your hamster can get very sick.
Some of the signs that your hamster has an abscess include:
- swollen cheeks (more than just usual food stuffing)
- the hamster’s cheeks are filled with pus (but only a vet can see this)
- the hamster will stop eating
- the hamster will seem like it’s in pain and uncomfortable
It’s crucial to get your hamster to the vet if you suspect it might have an abscess because the infection is likely localized in the cheeks, but failure to treat it in time means it will travel to the rest of the body and spread to the bloodstream.
A vet can quickly remedy this issue with the proper medication.
Cheek eversion in hamsters is a rare occurrence, but it sometimes happens. Cheek eversion is when the cheek pouch inverts and pops out of the hamster’s mouth.
The hamster will have a pink bulge peeking out of the corner of its mouth, and it will have trouble eating properly. You will need to take it to a vet to replace or repair the cheek pouch.
The other common health risk that plagues pet hamsters is tumors. The tumors that can grow the cheek pouch are typically cancerous.
The tumors usually grow in one cheek and can grow to infect the entire cheek, stretching back to the hamster’s shoulders. These tumors are commonly squamous cell carcinomas.
Cheek impactions is not a common problem, but it does happen. It happens when your cute little hamster gets a piece of bedding or food stuck in its cheek, and your hamster can’t get it out.
If cheek impactions are not cleared out, your hamster could end up with an abscess or an infection when the object starts to rot in the cheek. If you are unsure how to clear the obstruction out of the cheek, taking your hammy to the vet might be best.
How to Empty a Hamster’s Cheek Pouch
If you see that your hamster has food or bedding tuck in their pouch as with an impacted cheek, there are three different ways you can help your hamster get the obstacle dislodged. It’s vital to get the debris cleared out as soon as possible before your hamster gets cut or gets an infection.
Here are 3 ways to help your hamster empty its cheeks:
The Natural Way
A hamster uses its front paws to empty its cheeks like you would take something out of your pocket. You can try to help them by using your fingers to massage their cheeks gently; if done correctly, the muscles of the cheek pouch will relax, and the object (food or bedding) will pop out of the hamster’s mouth.
Using A Tool
If the natural way didn’t work, you could try to use a small round tool without sharp edges to try and coax the object to dislodge. You need to be patient and careful not to push too hard, or it might hurt your hamster. Gently move the object from side to side to loosen it.
Physically removing the object is not the easiest way to get the pouch cleared out, but your hamster will love you for it if you can dislodge the object as it is very uncomfortable and can become painful.
Flushing It Out
The last home remedy you can try to clear your hamster’s cheek pouch is to use a small eyedropper filled with water to try and wash the item out.
Because the object is stuck in the cheek and the cheek is dry, the water will act as a lubricant. It should be easier to clear the cheek pouch out if the item is wet and more slippery.
If none of the three methods mentioned above help get the item out of your hamster’s cheek, you need to consult a vet. They can remove the item and give you some added advice on how to help your hamster should they get something stuck in their cheek pouch again.
How Long Do Hamsters Keep Food in Their Cheeks?
If you are like me (curious by nature), you have probably wondered how long hamsters keep food in their cheeks? I always wondered how long until food spoils in their cheeks.
In the wild, hamsters are vulnerable to opportunistic predators when they are out foraging, meaning they don’t stop and eat, or they might become the meal.
Hamsters will stuff their cheeks to total capacity until they get to their burrow, where they relax their retractor muscles, and they can quickly get the food out of their cheek pouch. It’s safer to wait to eat when they are not out in the open.
So don’t worry when you see your hamster stuff their cheeks pouch full of food or find food stored in different places in their enclosure. They don’t feel unsafe or that you’re not feeding them enough, it’s a natural instinct, and all hamsters do it at some stage.
The food they store in their cheeks is usually in the pouches for short periods or until they get to their burrow where they can eat. Their cheeks don’t produce saliva, so the food stays relatively dry. Thus it won’t spoil if the hamster is away from its burrow for a bit longer than usual because it’s not moist, and bacteria grows slower without moisture.
The lack of saliva is another reason the food might get stuck as saliva acts as a lubricator when we eat, so the food slides down the throat easier. Consequently, there is no saliva to lubricate the food, so it will stay in the pouch and not move until the hamster takes it out of its cheek pouch.
Hamsters are some of the cutest little fluff ball pets, especially when their cheeks are stuffed full of food, but this instinctual behavior helps them survive in the wild. We know that there is no need for our pet hamsters to worry about predators or a food shortage.
Still, when their instincts kick in, they will stuff their cheeks to the max and horde as much food as they can. You only need to ensure they don’t get injured when stuffing their cheeks, and taking them for regular check-ups is always a good idea.
I have a bachelor’s degree in Film/Video/Media Studies, as well as an associates degree in Communications. I began producing videos and musical recordings nearly 15 years ago. I am a guitarist and bassist in Southwest MI and have been in a few different bands since 2009, and in 2012 I began building custom guitars and basses in my home workshop as well. When I’m home, I love spending time with my three pets (a dog, cat, and snake) and gardening in my backyard. I also like photographing wild birds, especially birds of prey.