It was January 2020 and the best time for planning the first season’s litters. I had a couple of pairs I needed to put together straight away as my girls are getting closer to a year old. There’s never a guarantee they’ll have a litter straight away and it’s not a good idea to breed them over a year old for the first time so if they are 9 months old then you’d better get a move on! Later in January I got some amazing and important hamsters from Bradford Champs and some of those needed breeding in short order. It was exciting! 2018 was a very dry year for litters, 2019 saw me desperately trying to salvage lines and losing some despite my efforts. I had to keep everything I bred until the end of 2019 so I had recouped hardly any of my costs at all. 2020 was going to be my year!
February 2020 saw 9 pairs in total introduced to each other. I had at least two months to make the boxes I needed for these litters, assuming they were all successful. Despite some problems with my asthma, due to my pet rats, the hamsters were cheering me up.
Towards the end of February a few of the January pairs had their first litters, bang on time and were even giving what I’d hoped for! Astounding. And, to be honest, a sense of foreboding should have occurred, I never usually get what I’m after on the first try.
March saw me starting to prep for splitting up a couple of pairs although with a couple I did want a second litter if possible. I do this in a very controlled way normally and certainly don’t go for repeated back to back litters as this takes it out of mum too much and pups get too small for me to keep and breed on. By now, every pair but two had their litters.
Lockdown kicked in the middle of March. Yes they had talked about corona virus but there was allegedly no community transmission in the UK. I hadn’t travelled and knew no one who had. I decided to split everyone would be a good idea because rehoming would be difficult under lockdown conditions.
Then I got ill.
I thought it was bad hayfever, then I thought it was an asthma flare up as I’d been having issues with the rats. As the week progressed to the end of March I got a high temperature, a cough and thought I had a cold. It wasn’t a continuous cough afterall…and I hadn’t travelled anywhere. There was still no community transmission in my area apparently, although my friend had been ill with corona virus, we hadn’t seen each other in weeks. We were looking after her dog for her while she was ill, he came over in the week I was already feeling a bit off.
The first week of April saw me confined to bed with pneumonia. I was lucky in a way, I didn’t need hospital, but I was in a big grey area. Clinically my GP thought I had corona, which does lead to pneumonia, but I couldn’t get tested unless I went to hospital. If they sent me to hospital and I didn’t have it, I would certainly pick it up and was in no state to fight it off. So I received a special brand of home care that involved taking lots of steroids and antibiotics (as I was at huge risk of a chest infection on top) and daily phone call check ups from the GP. I don’t remember that Monday at all, I had a very low temperature and couldn’t get warm, I couldn’t breathe properly and getting out of bed caused my heart rate to rocket up and my oxygen sats to drop all the way to 89-90%.
This carried on all week. I ate just soup. We had beautiful volunteers from a local facebook group deliver more soup as we couldn’t get any food shopping at all. I vaguely remember a discussion about running out of toilet roll and how it was all gone in the shops. I still have no idea why people went panic buying for loo roll…..
On the Wednesday my husband called the paramedics. Again they said they were wary of taking me in. It felt surreal to be asked repeatedly if I wanted to go to hospital? I wasn’t well enough to make that decision. After nearly an hour of keeping me sat on the stairs all I wanted to do was sleep. I knew I needed help but help was not forthcoming. The paramedic told us it was so risky taking me in that unless I needed intensive care I should stay at home.
By the end of the week I started to feel better. I didn’t need supervision to go to the toilet and started eating solid food. I felt lucky. The relief from my GP was palpable.
I didn’t know that I was busy brewing the third stage of corona virus. Blood clots.
On the next Monday morning I had spoken the GP about my daughter’s ear infection. They were glad I sounded so good. I was still ill but miles better than the week before.
I started to think about the hamsters, I remember not really being able to grasp the enormity of my situation.
After lunch I got up to the bathroom, and when I got back to bed I felt….weird. I called my son in and found I couldn’t breathe properly. My heart rate went up really fast. I’d had this briefly the night before but it went after 10 minutes. This time it didn’t go away. I couldn’t expand my lungs without pain in my chest.
My husband called the GP and after he listened to me for just 10 seconds, he advised to call the ambulance and insist on hospital. This time the paramedic was lovely, he was a first responder so had to call in an actual ambulance and he stayed with me all the way to hospital. The only thing I remember is the pain and him holding my hand. I wish I could remember his name.
I went straight to resus and stayed there for what must have been at least a couple of hours. They were lovely, I was swabbed, poked, nebulised, injected and monitored to try to stabilise my heart and breathing. I remember only one doctor suggesting a possible blood clot and it is purely thanks to her (I firmly believe) that I didn’t die that night or the following night. Because of her I got my blood thinning injections started that night.
The following day I got my CT scan which showed two large clots in the arteries around my lungs. I had an echo which showed my heart was under strain.
Throughout my week in hospital I saw different wards and different doctors. I was told I should be in respiratory high care but that it was now intensive care for people needing ventilators. Over and over I was told I was lucky.
During a particularly bad night I messaged my close friend and my husband about the hamsters. I didn’t think about the breeding, I was thinking about not coming home. I didn’t want my husband having to deal with them.
The following day, things were starting to get better and I managed to organise the breeding pairs going to my friend. She also breeds and I knew that she could split them all up properly.
It wasn’t until I got home I realised my predicament in it’s glory. A total of 9 breeding pairs had produced nearly 50 hamster pups across two litters and a couple who had three. I mean, it could have been worse if they’d all had six pups each. It took the whole month of May to sort them all out with them coming back to me in two batches, girls and then boys.
Both my friend and I were, and are still, recovering and are both on the clinically vulnerable list now. We both experience severe fatigue so while I wanted to lower her workload, I had to be able to deal with them here too. My thoughts turned to rehoming. I had a total of 109 roborovski in my house, double my normal numbers. Most of these were in same sex groups of siblings but it doesn’t take long for them to start needing to live by themselves.
Every roborovski needed to be coded (I give four letter, the year and a number for a unique identifier on all of my hamster pups), logged into my breeding record, given a pedigree, fed, cleaned out and my keepers chosen. The prospect of photographing each one for sale was so daunting I opted for videos on request. Rehoming could be done socially distanced with a little thought. Videos replaced choosing in person. Photos of whole litters for the website instead of each hamster all helped. Each hamster who leaves goes in their own box and payment is electronic so I don’t have to touch anything belonging to someone else.
Skip to today and I have managed to rehome a lot of the older pups born in February and March. The April and early May litters are ready to go and are up on the website. The upshot is that I still have to breed or I lose the lines I spent the whole of 2019 struggling to keep going. I risk 2021 being a year of keeping everything again and I cannot do that. So I breed or I close. I keep males where I can so I don’t have to breed those until next year.
Private rehoming is more stressful than homing via shows where you can talk to people face to face. A lot of enquiries don’t go anywhere but need to be replied to. A lot of people assume that as I’m shielding I have nothing to do all day so why can’t I provide a hamster by tomorrow? I’m not a back yard breeder or a pet shop so I need to know where the hamsters are going and if homes are suitable or not. I spend 1-2 hours a day just answering emails.
Apologies for the super long blog post!
My experience has brought it home to me that I’m not invulnerable. I never considered myself ‘weak’ before and this is a term the media uses to describe people like me. I’m definitely weak now I guess. What would happen to the hamstery if I did die? I’m only 40 so didn’t think I needed to answer that in terms of an out of the blue illness like this was. I know who all my hamsters are, I know their breeding history like the back of my hand. I know all their names and who many pups they’ve had or why I wouldn’t breed them.
Somebody coming in to take them en mass won’t know these things. This was proven by a member of the hamster fancy who sadly passed away. There were many problems arising from taking her hamsters. Her husband, like mine, helped with the hamsters but didn’t ‘do’ hamsters. So there was a big information gap.
From May onwards I have been improving my existing paper records, my existing spreadsheets and now moving towards improving my labelling.
Having corona virus and surviving is one thing. Doing it while being responsible for a large amount of animals is entirely a different issue. No one can come in to help you do it, especially if you live alone. Responsible rehoming absolutely has to happen for both your own and the animal’s welfare.
I’m still undergoing testing and monitoring to see why my lungs and heart are still not 100%. I hope to achieve some sense of normality soon. I also hope that other survivors reading this know that they are not alone. If you are in the hamster fancy particularly, reach out to your local club for support. If you aren’t a member already, do join up. You’ll get a monthly journal that you can write in to if you would like.
Club information as follows:-
Southern Hamster Club
Midland Hamster Club
Northern Hamster Club
National Hamster Council