Hamsters are constantly on high alert for predators and other dangers. One of the ways hamsters avoid harm is by pretending to be dead.
While playing possum doesn’t always work, especially when the hamster’s in the jaws of a predator’s mouth, it serves as a last-ditch attempt at survival.
Hamsters feign death by going limp and reducing their heart/breathing rate to create the impression that they’re no longer alive.
Stress, anxiety, and extreme fear are common causes of thanatosis. For example, coming into contact with predatory animals, like cats and dogs, results in this behavior.
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 encourage.
If your hamster plays possum, improve its environment to incorporate more hiding spaces and escape routes so it feels confident it can flee from danger if the need arises.
Do Hamsters Play Possum?
“Playing possum” 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 not well understood.
Predators stalk live animals because they prefer their meals to be moving, which means they get fresh meat. However, as explained by Current Biology, this hypothesis is largely untested.
Like many other prey animals, Hamsters have evolved to fake their deaths when cornered by predators, which is known as thanatosis.
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 triggered by physical contact.
Can Hamsters Fake Death?
Hamsters can fake their death and do so whenever they feel in danger. Most hamsters will attempt to flee or hide first, but they’ll pretend to be dead if they can’t escape.
Hamsters haven’t been domesticated for long, so these wild instincts haven’t disappeared. They’ve been passed down through the generations.
When hamsters pretend to be dead, they enter an immobile state that lasts from seconds to hours, even after the predator lets go. When hamsters play possum, they’ll:
- 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, such as anxiety and stress.
Pet hamsters also have trouble trusting their owners if they’ve caused them to play dead, most commonly due to mishandling.
Why Do Hamsters Play Dead?
Thanatosis is an instinctual defense mechanism that hamsters exhibit when they feel threatened.
Hamsters are at the bottom of the food chain in the wild and have many predators, including snakes, owls, and hawks.
Playing dead isn’t something you’ll want to see your pet hamster do, as it indicates that its environment isn’t well-equipped enough to make it feel safe and secure.
As mentioned, hamsters predominantly play dead to evade predators. However, it’s more likely to occur in the wild when they’re most at risk of being eaten and can’t escape.
Even though pet hamsters don’t have to contend with predators, their instincts tell them to remain on high alert. As a result, provide hiding spaces in your hamster’s cage to allow it to flee if it feels threatened.
Many owners have a common question: “do hamsters play dead when scared?” Unfortunately, death-feigning is one of the most common signs of fear.
As mentioned, predators are the main cause. Cats, dogs, and other animals interested in your hamster are blamed in captivity, so you should put it in its 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, and it’s wise to avoid picking your 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, including:
- Bright lights
- Loud noises
- Too much cage cleaning
- Not enough bedding
- Lack of chew toys
Boredom also causes stress. Hamsters need enrichment and boredom breakers to be happy in captivity. Otherwise, its 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 your hamster’s enclosure with the following:
- Cork logs
- Seagrass tunnels
- Sprays and millet
- Coco soil
How Long Do Hamsters Play Dead?
Hamsters play dead for as long as they need to. 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 your hamster to play dead for longer, but it depends 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 your pet hamster can retreat.
Tamed hamsters will also feel less pressured to play dead than those who don’t trust their owners.
Is My Hamster Dead or Sleeping?
Because hamsters can lower their heart and breathing rate during thanatosis, it’s easy to mistake them for being dead, especially if you’ve never seen this behavior before.
However, hamsters remain warm during thanatosis, even if their body temperature is lower than usual. You should also be able to see tiny chest movements if you look closely enough.
Dead hamsters eventually go stiff once rigor mortis sets in. According to Veterinary Pathology, this process can take as little as a few hours.
It’s best to leave your hamster for a short while to ensure rigor mortis doesn’t occur. If your hamster remains warm and limp when you check on it, this is a good sign, and it’s likely still playing dead.
You’ll need to be careful if your hamster’s playing dead. Chances are, it’s pretending to be dead because of you and needs to be left alone. Also, loud noises or sudden movements will likely make your 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. Even though it looks funny, it’s not just cute and endearing behavior, so you must try to find the cause to stop it.