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Behavior

Do Hamsters Pretend To Be Dead? (Thanatosis)

Last Updated on: 24th September 2023, 05:25 pm

Hamsters are constantly on high alert for predators and other environmental dangers. One of the ways hamsters avoid being captured and eaten is by pretending to be dead.

While playing possum doesn’t always work, especially when a hamster’s in the jaws of a predator, it serves as a last-ditch attempt at survival that sometimes works.

Hamsters feign death by going limp and reducing their heart/breathing rate to give the impression they’re no longer alive. Stress, anxiety, and extreme fear are common causes of thanatosis.

You’ll sometimes witness hamsters pretending to be dead. Even though it looks cute, it’s not a behavior you want to see or should seek to encourage.

If a hamster plays possum, improve its environment to incorporate more hiding spaces and escape routes to feel confident it can flee from danger in an emergency.

Do Hamsters Play Possum?

“Playing possum” (thanatosis) is commonly used to describe when animals pretend to be dead. It’s a survival instinct that can protect prey animals from harm, but it’s poorly understood.

Predators stalk live animals because they prefer their meals to be moving, which means they get fresh and healthy meat. According to Current Biology, this hypothesis is largely unproven.

Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology describe thanatosis as “death-feigning” and “tonic immobility (TI).” Its purpose is to inhibit further attack and reduce the predator’s need to subdue its prey further.

Specifically, the unlearned adoption of a motionless posture makes the animal appear dead. Thanatosis usually occurs when the hamster is physically restrained, and the act is triggered by physical contact.

Can Hamsters Fake Death?

Hamsters can fake their death and do so whenever they feel in danger. Most hamsters attempt to flee or hide first but pretend to be dead if they can’t escape.

Hamsters haven’t been domesticated for long, so these wild instincts haven’t gone away. They’ve been passed down through many generations of hamsters.

When hamsters pretend to be dead, they enter an immobile state that lasts from a few seconds to several hours, even after the predator has let go. When hamsters play possum, they’ll do the following:

  • Reduce their breathing rate.
  • Slow their heart rate down (bradycardia).
  • Set their eyes wide open.
  • Protrude their tongues.

If the hamster survives the ordeal, it can recover and return to its normal state. Unfortunately, hamsters are commonly left with long-lasting issues like anxiety and severe stress.

Pet hamsters also have trouble trusting their owners if they’ve caused them to play dead, most commonly due to unwanted handling or mishandling.

can hamsters fake death?

Why Do Hamsters Play Dead?

Thanatosis is an instinctual defense mechanism that hamsters exhibit when they feel threatened. They’re at the bottom of the food chain and have many predators, including snakes, owls, and hawks.

Playing dead isn’t something you’ll want to see a pet hamster do because it indicates that its environment isn’t sufficiently well-equipped to make it feel safe and secure.

Evade Predators

Hamsters mainly play dead to evade predators. However, it’s more likely to occur in the wild, where they’re most at risk of being eaten and have no means of escape.

Although pet hamsters don’t have to contend with predators, their instincts tell them to remain on high alert. So, provide hiding spaces in a hamster’s cage to allow them to flee when feeling threatened.

Fear

Many owners have a common question: “Do hamsters play dead when scared?” Unfortunately, death-feigning is one of the most common signs of extreme fear.

As mentioned, predators are the main cause. Cats, dogs, and other animals interested in hamsters are blamed in captivity, so put them in their own room.

Similarly, if you haven’t tamed your pet, it’s more likely to play dead each time you reach your hand in its enclosure because it feels scared.

Taming is a slow process, so avoid picking a hamster up until it feels comfortable around you.

Stress and Anxiety

Stress and anxiety cause hamsters to be on edge. As prey animals, they’re constantly on the lookout for dangers. Several things trigger stress in hamsters, including:

  • Bright lights.
  • Loud noises.
  • Manhandling.
  • Too much cage cleaning.
  • Not enough bedding.
  • Lack of chew toys.

Hamsters need fun and enrichment to be happy in captivity. Otherwise, boredom will manifest as anxiety, making it more likely to respond to negative emotions by pretending to be dead.

To prevent this, incorporate texture into a hamster’s enclosure with the following:

  • Cork logs.
  • Seagrass tunnels.
  • Sprays and millet.
  • Sand.
  • Coco soil.

How Long Do Hamsters Play Dead?

Hamsters play dead for as long as is necessary. Depending on the duration of the threat, they can pretend to be dead for a few seconds to a few hours.

Frequent or prolonged danger will cause a hamster to play dead for longer, depending on how threatened it feels.

Similarly, some hamsters never play dead – they flee from danger. This is more likely if you’ve provided hiding spaces where a pet hamster can retreat.

Tamed hamsters will be less inclined to play dead than those who don’t trust their owners.

Is My Hamster Dead or Sleeping?

As hamsters can lower their heart and breathing rate during thanatosis, it’s easy to mistake this for being dead, especially if you’ve never seen this behavior before.

Hamsters remain warm during thanatosis, even if their body temperature is lower than usual. You should also be able to see small chest movements if you look closely.

Dead hamsters eventually go stiff once rigor mortis sets in. According to Veterinary Pathology, rigor mortis can take as little as a few hours.

It’s best to leave the hamster briefly to ensure rigor mortis doesn’t occur. If a hamster remains warm and limp when you check on it, this is a positive sign, and it’s likely still playing dead.

You must be careful if a hamster’s playing dead. The chances are that it’s pretending to be dead because of your well-intended actions and needs to be left alone.

Also, loud noises and sudden movements will likely make a hamster feel more anxious or stressed.

While it’s uncommon to see hamsters pretend to be dead in captivity, all hamsters have these instincts and will play possum if needed.

Although it looks funny, it’s not an endearing behavior, so the trigger must be avoided.