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All hamsters have cheek pouches. These expandable parts of the oral mucosa resemble small deflated balloons that can be filled with food, sometimes all the way back to the hip bone.
The main purpose of the pouches is to carry food from the source back to the burrow. This doesn’t only mean that the hamster can eat their food in peace, but also that they limit the number of times they have to leave the safety of their home. Hamsters in the wild are prey animals that have to eat every two hours, and if they had to return to the nest every time they found a seed or nut, they would potentially expose the position of the nest to predators. Instead they go out to collect food in the evening, and thanks to their pouches they only need to go once or maybe twice.
Hamsters can both eat and run with their cheeks full. They can stuff the cheeks with up to 20% of their body weight, but as the cheeks are extremely elastic and stay in place along the shoulders, they don’t noticeably affect the speed of the hamster or how far they can travel.
To keep the food fresh and dry during foraging trips, the hamster’s mouth doesn’t release any saliva into the pouches.
Female hamsters in the wild occasionally carry or hide their babies in the cheek pouches if the nest has to be evacuated for some reason. This is however probably not something you will see among pet hamsters.
In the wild hamsters will regularly sort through their stash and throw away food that has gone off. Again, you will probably not see this behaviour with a pet hamster, as they don’t have to forage for their food in the same way. If you give your hamster fresh fruit and veg, it is therefore important that you check if they have been storing these somewhere in the cage, and remove them before they go mouldy.
Hamsters do not only carry food in their pouches, they can also bring bedding or building material back to the burrow for nesting or decorating.
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Some hamsters have a favorite cheek pouch that they will fill before the other one, whereas others always go for equal amounts in both.
Pet hamsters can sometimes experience problems with their cheek pouches, including abscesses, infections and tumours, so it’s important that owners keep an eye out and carry out regular health checks. The only thing you as an owner can do to avoid these problems is to stay away from sharp or sticky food that might get stuck in the cheeks or cause cuts, as well as contact your vet if you do notice something that doesn’t seem right.