There are many ways to acquire a hamster. The method you choose, and the time and energy you put into the decision, may make the difference between having a healthy, loving pet or having a hamster with major medical and temperament problems.
Before beginning your search for a hamster, ask yourself the following questions.
• Do I have the proper cage, accessories, and knowledge necessary to care for the species of hamster I am interested in, and am I willing to be a responsible pet owner? (If you answered no to this one, STOP! Don't get a pet hamster!)
• What type of personality do I want in my pet (calm, excitable, loving, gentle, tolerant, etc.)?
• Does it matter what color/coat type my hamster is, and if so, what are my preferences?
• Do I want a male or female, or does it matter?
• Do I also plan on showing and possibly breeding my hamster?
Your answers to these questions will determine the best plan of action for finding that "perfect pet."
Buying from a reputable breeder is the best place to get a hamster. Responsible breeders focus on producing healthy animals with great temperaments. They handle their pups once they are old enough, feed complete and wholesome diets, and are very knowledgeable about the species and lines they breed.
One advantage to buying from a breeder is that you often have the opportunity to see and/or handle the parents of your hamster. Often, babies pick up much of their personalities/temperaments from their parents. Breeders also know the background of their animals and are a good source of information on the longevity and likely health problems in a particular line.
Another advantage of a breeder is that they often know their hamster species well. You may have had one species in the past and are considering another species. A breeder can help you understand what differences to expect. You may find that the shift to a different species is not a good match for you or that a particular species is not good for your children at their current ages. A breeder can often help you with this process or may even recommend an entirely different species (non-hamster) as a better match given your expectations.
The availability of breeders and animals varies from area to area throughout the country, and throughout the world. The IHANA has a listing of member breeders who have agreed to abide by the IHANA codes (Code of Hamster Care and Breeders Code).
Not all breeders are reputable. Some breed animals simply because they can make money selling the more unusual and "rare" colors. There is truly no such thing, and being a particular color does not make a hamster worth more money nor does it give it a better temperament. Others seem to enjoy producing huge numbers of babies, and give no thought to their care, health, temperament, or eventual placement.
Responsible breeders only breed to improve on the animals they already have, and are familiar with and breed towards BHA or NHC standards. They have specific goals and objectives for their breeding program as a whole as well as for specific litters, and they will be happy to discuss them with you. They know proper names of colors and do not use the nicknames created as a marketing tool such as "black bear" and "calico." They will not consider breeding an animal if its health or temperament is in question. They will be happy to discuss the animal's background, parentage, and lines with you. They may insist that you own more than one dwarf hamster, or that you not use specific kinds of food/bedding. You may be asked questions about what kind of cage you have, the ages and number of children in the family, and your past pet history. The breeder is not being nosy, they are instead trying to be sure their pup is going into a suitable home. They will also be sure you have their contact information, and they will be available to answer future questions and assist you with any issues or problems. In addition, you may be able to buy a starter kit with the hamster's current food and bedding. You may want to request it if the breeder doesn't offer it. It can greatly reduce the stress when bringing a new hamster into your home.
Some breeders will allow you to see their hamstery. While there, use your eyes and nose. Any enclosed space with a large number of animals in it will have a bit of a "critter" odor, however, the smell should not be overpowering, nauseating, o r make your eyes water. In particular, if there is an ammonia odor, the husbandry of that breeder comes into question. Do the animals look healthy and come out to see what is going on (midday they are likely to be slower about doing this)? Do they act like they are familiar with being handled regularly? Does the breeder handle them without fear? Do they have food and water readily available?
There are a few breeders who will not allow anyone into their hamstery. Often, this is done to protect their animals, after all, a "visitor" is the most likely carrier of potentially harmful germs. In this case, you will have to use the condition of the animals you are shown, and the breeder's reputation, to make a decision if this is the breeder for you.
If you are buying a pet, temperament and health should be your primary concern. Visit several breeders if possible and handle a number of animals, then pick the one that is the most appealing to you. This may mean multiple trips to different breeders and potentially even a return trip to your breeder of choice. Not all breeders keep a lot of animals on hand which are not reserved.
If you are buying an animal to show, you will have to rely on the breeder for an educated recommendation on which animal to choose. Your choices will be limited to a few breeders and the animals they have on hand at the time you are looking. Whenever possible, attend a show before choosing a breeder or a show hamster. Ask questions at the show. Most judges will allow questions after they are done judging (some will allow them during judging). Ask why specific animals won over others and start gaining the experience needed to evaluate animals for show. See how the animals from the lines you are considering did at the show. Remember that most breeders will give you an honest opinion and spend time explaining why they recommend one animal over another and what the strengths and weaknesses of their different lines are. Don't expect a breeder to sell you pick of the litter -- they usually keep that baby themselves; however, most will go out of their way to try to see that someone starting out in the fancy gets quality animals. They will continue to be a good source of help and information for as long as it is needed.
While breeders are by far the absolute best option for finding that perfect pet hamster, it is true that in some areas they are nearly impossible to find. For this reason it may be necessary to look to a pet shop as the key possible source in your area.
There are many problems with obtaining any animal from a pet store. In the case of hamsters, most pet stores (particularly the large chains) obtain the animals they have available from commercial "producers." The vast majority of these individuals are making a living breeding animals for the pet shops. In order to do so, these animals are produced with as little monetary and labor input as possible, which often leads to animals who are neither physically nor emotionally healthy. They are often sent out to the pet shops when they are very young and not yet ready to be weaned. Not the "perfect pet" by anyone's standard. Unfortunately, every animal purchased from a pet shop is money going straight into the hands of the "producers" who will continue mass-producing animals under very bad conditions to fill the need.
If you do decide that your only option is a pet store, please be prepared. In the course of looking it is very likely you will find animals that you feel very sorry for. Often these animals are sick and bringing one home creates a heartbreaking situation. Many hamsters are ill before they ever leave the commercial supplier's premises, and even the healthy ones quickly can become sick under the stressful conditions present in the majority of pet shops. Some breeders medicate their animals in an attempt to keep them well enough to get through the stress of the distribution and sales process. If you already have a hamster at home and are in search of a friend, please remember that any animal brought in from a pet shop will need to be completely quarantined for 8 weeks. Even at that, there are some viruses that can make your current pet fatally ill just by the newcomer being in the same house. Also remember that it is very difficult to get a friend for a dwarf hamster. They often don't accept a new cage-mate, so you need to be prepared with a spare cage in the event the newcomer is not welcomed.
When buying from a pet shop, your prime consideration will need to be health and temperament. Color should become unimportant right up to the point that you find a suitable group of animals to pick from, and the chances of finding an animal which can be shown are next to none. Because their backgrounds are totally unknown, it is also recommended not to breed animals obtained from a pet shop. Your major challenge will be finding animals which are healthy enough to consider. Visit all of the pet shops in your area and become familiar with their animals. Ask questions. Sometimes you may be pleasantly surprised that a pet shop owner knows of a local person with a litter of babies. That is usually a better option and at least worth checking out.
Consider the health and living conditions of the hamsters at all the local pet shops. Do they have adequate food and water? Do the animals look healthy and active? Do you see diarrhea, runny eyes, lethargic animals, animals that are very young, or any sign of parasites? Ask to handle the hamsters. Are they friendly? Scared? Aggressive? Are the animal's coats thick and shiny? Do you see bald or thin spots? Part the hair and look at the animal's skin. Is it clean? Do you see any tiny specks that look like dirt but which move on their own? If you do, that animal has parasites.
Check the ears and tails of the hamsters. Shredded ears or sores on or near the tail indicate fighting. Run your fingers up and down the fur to feel for sores. Over-crowding or even keeping two adults in an enclosure can lead to significant fighting in dwarves or Syrians.
Also ask what animals are in the back room. Many employees will tell you about those not on display. Ask why these animals are back there and expect the answers to vary from fighting injuries to diarrhea/wet tail to pregnancies or new litters to animals being quarantined after just arriving. Realize that you can expect to encounter any of those problems in the animals you buy from the store, and make sure you are ready for them. Ensure the store will allow you to take your new pet to the vet personally in the first couple of weeks if you encounter one of these cases in your animal. You'll want to see the vet yourself and talk directly to the vet and assist your pet with personal care and minimize any stress he or she encounters during this process.
When you find a pet store (or if you are lucky, a couple of them) which appears to have healthy animals, ask when their next shipment is coming in. Go down the day it is due and look over the animals. Check their health again, paying particular attention to any signs of diarrhea or parasite problems. With these problems you can assume that if one has it, they all have it. Also see if they appear old enough. It can be hard to tell, but typically if a hamster looks like a real "baby" or is very small, it is too young. Younger is not better in this case, the stress of the whole experience often makes very young hamsters highly susceptible to all sorts of nasty things. If the group of animals seems healthy, make an attempt to assess their temperaments. They have most likely never been handled much in their short lives, so don't expect them to be extremely snuggly . . . in fact, that in itself can be a sign that there might be a problem. While they may be nervous of you, hamsters with good temperaments will allow you to pick them up. They may vocalize out of fear or jump suddenly in panic however. They also will make no attempt to bite
Needless to say this is a lengthy process. You may have to look at numerous groups of hamsters before finding one that is both healthy and has a good temperament. The time will pay off though, in the health, temperament, and longevity when you finally find your new friend.
Another option which many people don't consider is a rescue hamster. These can often be obtained directly from a shelter or from a rescue group in your area. Pups are often available. If you choose from a shelter, you'll want to follow many of the above guidelines listed above for a pet store. Many in the shelters did come from the pet stores or were the product of pet store pregnancies.
If you have a rescue organization near you, they can be a great benefit in assessing a potential animal to bring into a home. Rescuers usually have a good working knowledge of the species and can help you choose a good match for your family. They will screen for the most common diseases as well as hold new animals past their gestation. When pups are born in rescue, they are fed a high quality food and often well socialized by the rescuer. They can be a wonderful option and are often better than buying from a mediocre pet store. Remember not to expect a show hamster, though. Most make wonderful pets, and taking in a rescue can have additional rewards.
Whether you live where you can go to a breeder, can locate a rescue organization, or are forced to go the route of braving the pet stores, please remember: bringing an animal into your home is a commitment which should not be taken lightly. Our small friends are only with us for a short time. It is our responsibility to be sure that they are taken care of to the best of our ability.
This is a publication of the California Hamster Association and may be reproduced for non-commercial purposes only.
This article originally appeared on our old website, www.CHAhamsters.org.