In which I go on and on about my hamster

That’s right – he gets his own post.

When Vladimir, my little Russian dwarf, went to the big hamster wheel in the sky, I scoured Craigslist and Kijiji for available hamsters to fill the little hamster-sized hole in my heart. Alas, none could be found. I think I might have even emailed the SPCA, and the ones there were waitlisted. So I reluctantly turned to pet shops.I’m not a fan of getting hamsters from pet shops, as the pet shop-bought ones I’ve had in the past have all been either aggressive or sickly. Or both. My longest-lived, healthiest, and most tame hamsters have all come from online ads posted by people who deliberately bred their hamsters and raised the baby hamsters until I came to get one. Plus, they’re often free online. Two of them came from families who were using the breeding project as a way of teaching their children about pet care and commerce (those hamsters were both free). At pet shops, you often see the rodents neurotically trying to dig their way out of glass aquariums. Over and over. All day. It makes my heart sink a little.

At one pet shop, they had a clear sexing problem because there were actually not just one, but two mommy hamsters with litters and as I looked down into the bin, I saw the daddy and mommy making the next brood (in case you’re unfamiliar with hamsters, females become fertile right after giving birth, which is why males stick around to help out). So it was a no to that pet shop. I considered trying out rats, as I hear they are quite affectionate, but I was warned they have a lot of health problems and plus the ones I saw in the pet shop were not tame at all. I think they were probably used as feeder rats. This was the same pet shop that had the breeding hamsters.

Fortunately, my search ended at a nice pet shop in the Rockland Mall. Or, Rockland Centre (because Canadians seem to like to call everything a centre). There was a docile young Chinese hamster, but the poor thing just trembled and trembled. And then there was a big whitish-grey Syrian hamster that screamed and flailed around on his back when picked up. Of course, I had to have that one. I saw it as a challenge that he wasn’t tame. He didn’t bite; he was just terrified. And I was on maternity leave, so I figured I had the time and patience to work with him. The sales clerk tried to gently steer me in another direction, but that white warrior hamster was mine. I took him home.

Fortunately for this story, my mighty mite settled in after just a day or two. The first day, I left him alone. When I got close to the cage – a glass aquarium with a metal wire mesh lid to deter felines – he would rear up on his hind legs and flail his tiny paws in the air. Like he was challenging me to battle, shaking a fist, and totally standing his ground. So I dubbed him Maximus Decimus Meridius, after Gladiator. Maximus is so courageous. And even-tempered – to this date, he’s never bitten me. After the first couple days of screaming – the likes of which I have never before heard from a hamster – and flailing when approached, he calmed down and was relaxed being handled. By relaxed, I mean not trying to sprint out of my hands. I regularly drop him treats like unsalted peanuts, unsalted stove-popped popcorn, hunks of celery or carrot, or the occasional raisin. My husband, who only interacts with hamsters when I place them on his shirt as he’s working on his laptop, is even able to hand feed him treats, as well. He no longer screams or flails and is calm being carried around for short periods of time.

I’ve never seen his colouring before in a Syrian hamster. He’s a light grayish white with a few little darker gray hairs. Very handsome.

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In which I go on and on about my other cat

I’m convinced that Olaf is at least part Norwegian Forest Cat. He’s got that triangular-shaped head, common markings, went from being a lanky shorthair to being a burly longhair, and carries his fluffy tail high up in the air like a banner proclaiming “I will pillage your village.” He’s very athletic and can leap nearly five feet onto the top of a small bookshelf in a single bound. At one point he enjoyed diving off of a ceiling-high hutch onto the nearby bed, causing the hutch to shake, but fortunately he’s stopped doing that now.

He’s very much a cat, but has some doglike behaviours. He used to determinedly lick our faces and arms, which hurt since his tongue is very rough. Now he just occasionally licks our hands. When the mood strikes him, he will play fetch and retrieve toys over and over again until he gets tired and pants. Particularly if they are circular, like hair elastics. He greets you at the door with an excited meow and tail waving, often jumping up on you. Somehow that’s acceptable for cats, but not for dogs. He will greet visitors with an excited meow and tail waving and jump up on them, too. He likes being picked up and carried around. His adorable fluffy face and cheeky charm means that almost every visitor in our home has sneaked him food. He used to put his paws on the table when we ate, always searching for a weak spot to strike, but I don’t feed my cats from the table so he stopped. Now he’ll just lounge on the table alongside the food like Jabba the Hutt. If you pet him long enough he will drool.

When we lived in our previous apartment, he’d race out the door as soon as you opened it, and you’d have to chase him back and forth in the hallways. He liked crouching behind a support beam, and then dashing back to the door, only to dart back out when you got too close. My husband and I both admitted that we would hurry back home from work in anticipation of seeing him. He doesn’t do the chasing game in our current place. Maybe he’s too old and dignified now.

His SPCA papers said he was about 3-4 years old, but I think he was younger when we adopted him. He was long and lanky, shorthaired with a magnificent fluffy tail. Then he kept getting bigger and bigger and fluffier until he became the 13 lb. longhaired beast that he is now. He ate twice as much and twice as fast without putting on fat. His paws were big for his size then, and he had a puppy’s clumsiness – lots of running around and trying to jump onto chairs and tables…only to misjudge and fail. He had so much energy. He is still energetic, but not as go-go-go as he was four years ago.

He has such an outgoing personality that I tried leash-training him several times to take him out for walks. As soon as I put the harness on him, his ears would go back, and he’d crawl around under tables and chairs, getting the leash caught and tangled. The harness wasn’t a total waste – my daughter sometimes puts her Pete the Cat doll in it for…walks.

I also considered trying to enter him into a cat show under the house cat category. He’s so beautiful. Then I had my baby and I abandoned that idea. I cannot fathom the grooming needed to make him show-ready, and also devoting an entire day to a cat show instead of doing other fun things at home like laundry and cleaning up play dough.

He’s gentle and doesn’t use his claws when playing with people.

If he gets something particularly yummy – turkey skin, liver – he will growl and drag it under the table or to a private corner to feast in private. Mighty hunter. Actually, our old place didn’t have window screens, and he caught butterflies and ate one before I could save it. I can set him after big spiders; the little ones he ignores. But he’s too much of a housecat to eat a chunk of meat or whole chicken liver without it being chopped up first.

Olaf is the dominant cat. When he came home, it looked like he was trying to befriend Ethel, but she just hissed at him and ran away. He wasn’t neutered until we got him, so perhaps he was trying to be more than just friends. Anyway, when his overtures went unrequited his put his mighty paw down and established himself as the alpha cat. Ethel is not allowed to even touch the scratching post. About once a month Olaf will chase Ethel around and reaffirm that he is supreme cat. If I interrupt, he meows piteously like he’s the one who’s been beat up. He also sometimes tries to mount Ethel, even though they’ve both been sterilized. She puts up with it for the most part. I’m considering getting a hormone spray to make her smell male to protect her from unwanted advances. She’s an elderly cat and too old for that kind of harassment. No means no!

Unlike Ethel, it was impossible to get Olaf to stop jumping up on the counters and tables. I’d say no. I’d move him to the floor every time. I got frustrated. I gave up. Cats are now allowed on the counters and tables. You can tell he hears you saying “no!” but he chooses to ignore you. When he does something he shouldn’t, like drink my daughter’s milk when she’s not paying attention, you can’t get him to stop unless you physically pick him up and move him away. And he’ll just keep coming back for more. You’ve got to admire that kind of determination. I was so sure that my baby’s first words would be “Olaf, no!”.

I think our move and subsequent baby did a lot to traumatize Olaf out of his energetic youth. Since she came back from the hospital, Olaf has been afraid of my daughter. So far, he’s hidden from all babies and toddlers. Now that she’s a toddler and can chase him, I guess the avoidance is totally warranted. Ethel isn’t quite as fast, unfortunately.

In which I go on and on about one of my cats

Ethel, aka Kitty, is my elderly 16-year old cat. The majority of her teeth have been extracted due to periodontal disease; now her tongue regularly sticks out. I did try to brush her teeth for a while, but it didn’t work for us. Fortunately, she adapted and eats quicker than my other, younger cat. She finishes first, and then sits and stares at him while he finishes, or tries to steal his food.

Ethel is arthritic. She’s always been a floor and sometimes bed cat. But now when she wants to get on the bed, she needs to be lifted onto it. She’s very strategic about it, too. As soon as I get near it, she’ll appear and meow until I move her onto it. Sometimes she’ll even go there and meow and meow until I come over and boost her up. Then she’ll lie there all day until dinner, curled tightly into a ball. Or press herself against the radiator. Or haunt the kitchen when the oven is on. On warm days, she likes lounging on the window, but also needs to be air lifted onto it. I offered her a microwavable rice heating pad a couple of times, but she wasn’t interested. Sometimes she crawls under the duvet with me at night, but then she unleashes her claws as she kneads me, and neither my skin nor my sheets can take much of that.

I adopted her when she was already an adult, and she has never been very playful. In order to get her to play, I have to wave the cat toy right in front of her several times. Then there’s a 20/80 chance she’ll move a paw.

One cool thing about her is that she’s polydactyl, which means she has six toes on all her paws. She can actually catch a ball and hold it in her paw.

Another thing is that I swear she could talk when I first got her. Every morning, she would very clearly say “cat food” in a soft voice right by my ear. She’d say it over and over, with each repetition becoming less enunciated. Unfortunately, she kept trying to wake me up earlier and earlier each morning, and I think she gave up speaking after I decided that I was not going to wake up at 4am to feed her.

She’s very much a lady, with impeccable scaredy-cat manners. She’s not very athletic, but she is more agile than my other cat. She can dart across a shelf with a bunch of things on it, and not disturb a single tchotchke. As she’s grey on the top and white on her belly, I’ve always thought of her as shark-coloured. But mighty hunter is she not. And here she goes meowing, so I’ve got to go feed the cats now.