Random Facts About … a Wee Little Animal That Can Drink You Under the Table

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By David Martin – 

When we opened our internet tubes for cleaning this week, out tumbled some staggering statistics about animal drunkenness. (Staggering … get it?) We’re not sure how researchers come up with these ideas. Sitting around the lab, not much to do, and one of them says, “Hey, let’s get a monkey drunk!” In this case, according to the website Animalogic, it was researcher-student Kori Radcliffe who convinced a psychology professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage to check out the alcohol tolerance of a hamster, specifically the Syrian or golden hamster. 

The professor, Gwen Lupfer, wasn’t intoxicated by the idea because animals usually don’t like the taste of alcohol and it’s a pain to train them to ingest booze. Earlier research on animal tolerance to alcohol, back in the 1950s, used rats, but rats had to be bred to drink alcohol or had to have the booze mixed in with sugar solutions. But a hamster, according to Danielle Gulick, a University of Florida addiction researcher, could be taken right from a pet store and it would “happily drink” grain alcohol. 

In fact, offered both water and alcohol, the hamster will skip the water and drink the alcohol. In the Alaska experiment, one hamster, named Bacardi, was so eager for the booze that it would perform tasks to get a drink. 

So after giving all this Everclear to hamsters, you have a bunch of inebriated rodents fighting at the exercise wheel and falling over in their cages, right? No. Without showing signs of intoxication, hamsters can drink an amount of alcohol-per-weight that would make you reach for that button and announce to the world, “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” 

Why is the hamster so immune to the effects of alcohol? 

Wild hamsters store seeds during the summer months and then feed on those seeds in the winter. Some of these seeds and other stored foods will ferment as the cold months continue and will become alcoholic in the depths of winter when the hamsters need the food the most. Speculation is that getting accustomed to and even developing a taste for alcoholic goodies is an evolutionary result of equating fermented-alcoholic food with survival. 

The hamsters’ tolerance for the effects of alcohol is based in its digestive system and specifically the ability of the animal’s liver to process alcohol. When researchers injected alcohol so that it went into the hamsters’ bloodstream, bypassing the digestive system and liver, the wee little animals became New Year’s Eve tipsy, drunk-dialing exgirlfriends and rereading I-love-you texts from exboyfriends. Pitiful. Not exactly true but still pitiful.

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