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Sat, Apr. 8th, 2006, 06:33 pm
The life and times of young Porco Bruno

Porco Bruno is my new hamster, successor to the much-missed Arthur. PB's young, high-strung, and athletic. Recently while handling him I noticed what may be a scar across his face, running upward diagonally from the outer edge of his right eye (which eyelid droops a bit) past the centerline up between his ears. If so, I'm mildly impressed that he survived it. I'm wondering now whether his tendency to go into sudden thrashing panics might be a bit of brain damage, or possibly the hamster equivalent of PTSD, or whether he came from a careless hamstery that wasn't good about socializing their young. Hamsters have to be handled, just like kittens, if they're to grow up to be human-friendly pets.

It could be that PB's just young. I'm going with that theory, since it's the one I can work with. I've been cultivating his acquaintance, establishing my character as Nice Human With Lettuce. He's still twitchy, but he's learned the "come here, I have a snack for you" noise. I've moved him to the old CritterTrail cage so I can get hold of him more easily. PB initially foiled this plan by moving his seeds and bedding up to one of the observation areas, from which he could instantly jump down and hide in the access tube. You'd swear he had bat in his ancestry. He's perfectly happy hanging upside-down in his tube, eating sunflower seeds from his seed stash in its bottom right-angled curve.

PB's antics in the tube were fun to watch, but he wasn't getting socialized that way, so I temporarily put domed stoppers over the bottoms of his two access tubes. This limits him to the main cage area. He's rejected the little dome-shaped hamster house I gave him, and instead has bermed up his cage litter and dug a foxhole in the corner under the wheel, with a thicket of paper towel strips stuffed in above it. He makes little noises while he works on it.

That's one of the weirdest things about Porco Bruno: he's vocal. Most hamsters are silent, or nearly silent except for an occasional squeak of dismay. The day I brought him back to Tor from the pet shop, he expressed his displeasure by I-swear-to-ghod roaring -- sounding, as our intern Torie said, either like bad plumbing, or an extremely small velociraptor. He hasn't roared much since he got here, I assume because he's never been that upset again. But he continues to express himself with a wide variety of squeaks, growls, peeps, chirps, and other strange sound effects.

Yesterday afternoon, when I was working at home and he was curled up asleep in his nest, he suddenly let out a seriously distressed hamster-scream, followed by a series of loud squeaks. I went over to see what was the matter and found him hazily thrashing around, feet-up, obviously half-asleep. I cupped my hand around the corner of the cage and held it there so his nest would be dark and warm, and he soon went back to sleep.

I know hamsters dream; all mammals from the marsupials up exhibit REM sleep. Besides, I held Arthur while he was sleeping during his final illness, and he was definitely going in and out of dream sleep. What I want to know is, do hamsters have nightmares? Because that's exactly what this looked like.

Sat, Apr. 8th, 2006 10:43 pm (UTC)

What I want to know is, do hamsters have nightmares?

I hope they can't. Bad enough being a human and having a nightmare but at least we have the language to say to ourselves afterward, "whew, wow, that was awful, thank god it was only a nightmare."

I can't imagine what life would be like if we had to go around believing the nightmares we've had are accurate descriptions of the world we live in.

Sun, Apr. 9th, 2006 09:28 am (UTC)

Small children do this exactly. I remember Marianne at about 18 months, waking up incoherent and completely inconsolable. We couldn't work out what was wrong and she couldn't explain; but eventually we worked out that it had to be a nightmare. Jonathan is five now, but he still has some dreams that he has to be persuaded aren't real.
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Fri, Jun. 15th, 2007 05:36 pm (UTC)
(Anonymous): YES!!!

they do...I just got my first taste in it today...I got my hamster 6/14/07 at 5 weeks and today 6/15/07 he started screaming while sleeping...it went on for 20 seconds and then it stopped but he was breathing rapidly and still made little noises. I quickly took him out, pet him, and then gave him a honey treat....now he is sleeping happily.

Sat, Apr. 8th, 2006 11:05 pm (UTC)

They're using rats to study acoustic startle response in PTSD. I'd say that argues quite strongly that rodents can get it. PTSD, neurologically speaking, is a series of brain changes that lead to an ongoing state of hyperarousal to certain kinds of stimuli. No reason it couldn't happen in some form to any mammal.

Poor little creature. It's awful enough to be human and have that kind of damage. It's worse for animals.

Sat, Apr. 8th, 2006 11:22 pm (UTC)

I expect anything can have nightmares that can dream and feel fear.

Sun, Apr. 9th, 2006 01:05 am (UTC)

Just what I was going to say.

Sat, Apr. 8th, 2006 11:47 pm (UTC)

Skippy, Jane's cat, had to stay a few days at the vet to get an abscessed paw treated. Jane said that one night, soon after comming home, he had an unusually active dream that woke him up suddenly. When he realized where he was, he got very purry and snuggly.

Sun, Apr. 9th, 2006 12:00 am (UTC)

Both my cats and my dogs occasionally have bad dreams. But they do seem to be able to tell that it was just a dream, once they wake up. More often, they have dreams that seem to be really good (lots of running, some barking or meowing, occasional eating).

Sun, Apr. 9th, 2006 12:20 am (UTC)

You've already answered the question: from the marsupials up exhibit REM sleep. Theories on what REM sleep is exactly are currently held in two polar spectrum of theory: 1) REM is nothing more than random synaptic firing, 2) REM is actually internal and sub-conscious dialogue.
Both are indicators of stressors, external and internal. The more stress results in either: 1) More random synaptic firing to alleviate stressed out or blocked neural receptors or, 2) internal dialogue generated by the subconscious in order to sort out 'issues'.
REM doesn't distinguish between pleasant and nightmarish. If you follow theory string 1), then you have a hamster that is taking in a lot of external environmental stressors and dealing with it partially by having active or somnambulistic episodes while under REM. If you tie in facial scars, asocial behaviors, and train of thought 2), you have a hamster that may/may not have been subject to physical(therefore also emotional) abuse, and his/her REM sleep is currently preoccupied with nightmarish qualities as it is trying to sort things out with internal dialogue.
Your hamster is motivated by associations of pain and pleasure. Keep the hamster associating human contact with food, tummy rubs, fun noises etc.. and it'll turn around to be total pet quality. Promise.

Sun, Apr. 9th, 2006 02:48 am (UTC)

Fun hamster facts from Wikipedia:

The English word “hamster” comes from the German hamstern, meaning to hoard. The Arabic word for hamster means “father of saddlebags”.

Israel Aharoni, a zoologist at the University of Jerusalem, found a mother and litter of hamsters in the Syrian desert around 1930. They were bred, sent out to research labs around the world, and it’s likely that all golden hamsters currently kept as pets (or lab animals) in the US are descended from that batch.

Sun, Apr. 9th, 2006 02:51 am (UTC)

i love the fact that PB makes noises.

you might want to share this article with him.

Sun, Apr. 9th, 2006 03:18 am (UTC)

He is an odd and fearless fellow. Keep cuddling him. I suspect he will figure out how cool you are. He really is rather cute...

Sun, Apr. 9th, 2006 03:31 am (UTC)

I remember, one night not so long ago when winter was at its thickest, doing my usual end-of-the-day rounds before going to bed myself. Both dogs were curled up at the foot of my bed, twitching their legs as if they were running as fast as any dog had ever run. One cat was awol, no doubt prowling the dark recesses of the basement, but the other lay on the couch, shifting and sighing in her sleep in that particular way cats do when they are remembering moments of great satisfaction. In my daughter's room, the hamster was curled up in a caldera of pine shavings, shivering nervously, and my daughter herself was sprawled across the bed in a tangle of blankets (requiring the subtle extraction and reapplication of said blankets), murmuring to herself words I could not make out.

I couldn't help but wonder if, in their dreams, they were each of them chasing one another. In which case I hope the hamster had the good fortune to dream herself thirty feet tall and possessed of fangs (-:

Sun, Apr. 9th, 2006 04:38 am (UTC)

I had completely forgotten that hamsters will gladly stand upside-down in their tubes for extended periods. (It's been about five years since the last of our hamsters, the lovely Jezebel, died and we went over to the rat side of the force.) Thanks for reminding me!

Sun, Apr. 9th, 2006 04:41 am (UTC)

I don't know if our hamsters have ever had nightmares, but if they can achieve REM sleep, it's certainly possible.

Here's hoping it doesn't last long and he adjusts to his new home soon.

Sun, Apr. 9th, 2006 06:43 am (UTC)

I wonder if this hamster got any nightmares afterwards…
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Sun, Apr. 9th, 2006 01:31 pm (UTC)

I'm suddenly tempted to write a High Fantasy story about Porco Bruno, scarred warrior, and the merciful goddess Tay-Rey-Zha who rescues and comforts him.