Choosing Where to Get Your Hamster: Adopting vs Shopping, and Problematic Hamster Mutations
Whether you choose to adopt or rescue, or whether you choose to buy from a breeder, is totally up to you. The most important factor is that regardless of if you choose adoption or a breeder, you go about getting a hamster responsibly.
Shopping for a hamster in the sense of going to a pet shop should be largely discouraged. Pet shop hamsters are typically sourced from pet mills or smaller scale, backyard breeders. Make no mistake about it: neither of these options are good. Not only are the hamsters oftentimes poorly bred, but they are often (and always, in the case of pet mills) kept in below average (and often neglectful) conditions. Ultimately it is your choice, and no one else can make it for you, but you must be aware of the impact your decision to buy a hamster from a pet shop will have. Buying from a pet shop is not rescuing, regardless of the situation the hamster is in: even if they are injured and you buy them, the hamster is just going to be replaced by another (or ten), and the endless cycle begins again. If you can get the shop to relinquish the animal to you free of cost, this is an entirely different situation - but paying for the animal is not rescuing it, and is instead supporting the industry responsible for their suffering in the first place. Even if the display cages in the store are kept clean and the animals appear healthy, it is what goes on behind the scenes that is the problem.
If you truly want to stop hamsters being sold in pet shops, the only way to do this is to stop buying them. Many attempt to pardon the support of pet shops by using the excuse of "all hamsters need homes", and to that I ask you this: if you saw a sad puppy in a pet shop, and you knew it was from a puppy mill and by you purchasing that puppy you were giving your support to the horrific industry responsible for the suffering of thousands of animals and essentially saying "i support you!", and if I told you that should you buy it, it is going to keep getting replaced by another poor puppy from the exact same place, would you buy it? and if not, why not?
My point is: if you would not support a puppy mill, you should not support a rodent mill or a backyard breeder of rodents. These places are equally horrific, and hamsters suffer just as much as dogs or cats. We would not use the excuse of "all dogs need homes" to pardon the support of puppy mills, and we should not accept it as an excuse to pardon the support of unethical breeding of any other species. The harsh reality is that we cannot save them all. But, by boycotting it is a few hamsters suffering until the selling of hamsters in pet shops ends in comparison to the infinite number of hamsters suffering should you continue to purchase animals from pet stores. As one person, you can make a difference - don't let anyone convince you otherwise. It only took one person to create a movement against buying dogs, cats, rabbits, and large parrots from pet stores... and look around the globe; these species have disappeared from many stores as a result. If you want to support a pet shop, that is only a choice you can make but, it is important you are not under any illusion as to what you are supporting and it is important that we do not make excuses for it.
This is the largest issue posed by supporting large chain pet stores as they are the ones who source their animals from pet mills, but it is still problematic even amongst smaller, family owned stores. Even if these breeders claim to be ethical, it becomes a question of whether a breeder can be truly ethical if they sell animals with no regard to where they end up. However, there are pet shops - although as rare as they are - who do require animals to be housed appropriately before allowing you to purchase an animal from them. Although a rarity, these stores do exist. Ultimately, if you must buy a hamster, please at least try and avoid supporting large, chain pet stores. I do not want to give you the illusion of smaller, family run stores being 'good' - because I do not believe ethical breeders should sell their animals in pet shops who sell them to homes who house them in inappropriate enclosures, and even if the pet store did have requirement on enclosure size, small family owned stores who breed their own hamsters do not necessarily do so with the knowledge or goal to breed for health & temperament and so can often be 'backyard breeding' - but in terms of large chain pet store vs family run stores, the latter is at least the lesser of two evils.
Adoption & Rescue:
Adoption/rescuing has the con of the animal having an unknown background, and oftentimes you have no idea of the age the hamster is that you are getting - they could be with you for 2 years, or 2 months. But, while the hamster likely originated in a pet shop, the pet shop is not profiting or benefiting in any way from you adopting the hamster from the person who is rehoming them. While the con of adoption/rescue is that you have no idea of the health or oftentimes age of the animal, the pros are that you are giving a home to an animal in need, not giving your support to unethical breeding, and they can be - and often are - just as sweet as hamsters from breeders.
However, it is important that when it comes to hamsters adopted via rehome sites like craigslist, donedeal, gumtree, adverts, etc that you do not fall into the trap of unintentionally supporting what we refer to as 'backyard breeding'. This is when animals are bred for money, with no concern for the genetic health or welfare of the animal. Not all 'accidental litters' available on rehome sites are actual, genuine accidents. Unfortunately many backyard breeders will label their litters as accidents in an attempt to get your support. To ensure you do not fall for this trap, always check the previous ads of the seller (i.e. if they seem to frequently have 'accidental litters', chances are they are not an accident!) and ask as many questions as possible.
Additionally, while a con of adopted or rescued hamsters is that you often have no idea of the health of the animal you are getting (in terms of genetic health/how well bred the animal is, as they are often from unethical breeders), this does not necessarily imply that all adopted/rescued hamsters are ticking time bombs in relation to their health, the same way it does not imply that all hamsters from ethical breeders are guaranteed to have no health problems. Being fairly hardy animals as is, this is not a problem we frequently encounter with poorly bred hamsters. But, it is something to keep in mind nonetheless, especially as it relates to Chinese & hybridised dwarf hamsters who may have increased risk of diabetes.
female rescued Winter White hybrid, 'Nanook'. The intentional breeding of hybrids should not be supported, as animals from poor genetic backgrounds can have increased risk for diabetes, but can also have issues birthing young due to the difference of head shape between Campbells & Winter Whites (the two species interbred to create 'hybrids'). However, there is nothing wrong with adopting or rescuing hybrids in need of a home. It is only their intentional breeding that we view as unethical to support.
Tip: if hamsters are sold in pet shops in your area, it is inevitable that one will show up for adoption - but you must have patience. Turn on notifications so you get an email when new ads are posted, to give you the best chance of getting in before others!
Buying from a Breeder:
There is absolutely nothing wrong with supporting ethical breeders. I use #adoptdontshop because it is my belief everyone should think adoption first - however, this is not always an option for everyone (regardless of what their reasonings may be). Ethical breeders breed for health and temperament of their animals, and they are ultimately treated as pets and not just breeding stock. However, it is important to remember that there is more to ethical breeding than just knowledge on genetics, and/or having the money to pay for vet bills: they must also have suitable housing conditions.
Rescues are given a pass on providing appropriate housing conditions because unfortunately it is just not a realistic expectation or standard for them to adhere to. However, breeders make a decision to bring more animals into this world, and they should NOT be given any slack when it comes to housing standards. It is acceptable for a breeder to house young or nursing mothers in smaller enclosures (but not drastically small; a general recommendation for this is the size of the largest IKEA Samla bin, or equal to 450"2) but all adults must be housed in species appropriate setups. While some breeders may not allow you to see their setups in person due to concerns many will have over cross-contamination, they should at the very least provide a photo of their setup to allow you to see how the animals are being housed. If the breeder refuses to show you even a photo of their setup, or they do and the housing conditions do not meet bare minimum standards, they are not ethical. Remember: just because a breeder claims to be ethical, does not mean that they are. Even if your breeder was a world renowned geneticist, if they are housing their animals inappropriately and/or over-breeding females, they are not an ethical breeder and you should not support them. Please also ensure your breeder is not working with problematic hamster mutations ('hairless' or 'chushy'), or breeding non-pedigree or 'hybrid' dwarf hamsters: these are warning signs for unethical breeders, and once again, should not be supported. While there may be some slack with the following bedding depths, there is no slack given for cage sizes:
Why Not Hairless Hamsters?
Some may think that hairless hamsters "aren't that bad because they're just hamsters without fur". However, they fail to consider the importance of fur, and how it serves as a protection barrier for your pets delicate skin, and how important it is in allowing your hamster to stay warm. When you take away a hamster's fur, they can have issues with maintaining their weight as they put so much energy into simply maintaining their body temps. They are also at increased risk of torpor, which can be deadly, and this is a possible contributing factor to many hairless hamsters often having a shorter lifespan compared to their normal, furred counterparts. On top of that, because of being hairless, they are notorious for having dry skin issues.
Photo showing rescued male long haired Syrian, 'Keiko'. It is not the fact that hairlessness is a 'mutation' that's the problem: every coat type & colour other than short haired agouti is a genetic 'mutation', i.e. long haired Syrians. It is the fact that hairlessness is a problematic genetic mutation that interferes with the animals ability to live a normal, fulfilling life. If the hamster above was hairless, he would be unable to have any of the enrichment surrounding him & would instead be sitting in a boring, empty enclosure.
As mentioned, the fur is an important protection barrier for a hamsters delicate skin therefore hairless hamsters cannot have natural setups as they are injured on rough surfaced items include cork bark, grapevines, and even sand or forage (like leaves and branches). You may think this is not a big deal, 'just give them a plastic set up', but safety hazards of providing a rodent who chews plastic cage items aside, it is just not as straightforward as this. Hamsters have poor eyesight, so they're not stimulated by bright, flashy objects. Rather, we rely on providing them with enrichment via providing them multiple textures in their enclosure and the only way we can do this, is with natural setups by providing them with different types of wood (grapevine and cork), and different substrates (like sand, and dried forage). This is the problem - hairless hamsters can't have any of these things. Therefore, we cannot provide hairless hamsters with the appropriate enrichment that hamsters need to truly thrive. To add insult to injury, even smooth surfaced tunnels can injure them as with a normal hamster, their fur would allow them to slide effortlessly through the tunnels but with a hairless hamster, they don't have the ability to do this. Instead, their skin can get easily pulled back and injured with the even the slightest amount of friction.
To further add to the problem, hairless hamsters also do not have whiskers and so can't feel their way around their environment & determine what spaces they can safely squeeze into. Whiskers are important for any animal who should naturally have them, but especially one with poor eyesight & one who is drawn to tunnels - like hamsters. So we can just remove tunnels from them, or just provide them with items with very large openings, right? Well yes, but also no as there is more to the issue than just them being unable to determine what tunnels they can and cannot safely run through. Removing an animals whiskers can also result is disorientation, as it can cause your pet to bump into objects (which is not only completely disorienting, but can injure them too!) that they would have been otherwise able to avoid had they had whiskers. They simply need their whiskers to detect objects & navigate their environment, and this is why you are told you shouldn't trim your pets whiskers when grooming them... so why would we support a gene that removes them if they are so important? Well, we shouldn't.
female rescued Syrian hamster, 'Shasta', shown above. Not only do hairless Syrian hamsters not have fur, but they also do not have whiskers. Whiskers are an incredibly important tool for an animal who is drawn to small spaces, and has overall poor eyesight - i.e. hamsters. To breed an animal without them for your own aesthetic desires is simply just not fair.
The hairless gene also interferes with the females ability to lactate, and so they are unable to successfully raise their own young & any pups born to a hairless female are destined to not survive without human interference - even nature is opposed to their existence. So if hairless females can't raise their young, how do we still have hairless syrians? It's because the hairless gene is recessive and to get a hairless hamster, you just need to breed a furred female carrying hairless to a hairless male for at least 50% of pups in a litter to be hairless with the other 50% being carriers for hairless, or alternatively you can breed two furred hairless carriers for a 25% chance of getting a hairless hamster. 'Accidental' litters of hairless hamsters are practically non-existent, and the chances of accidentally mating two hairless carriers is very rare. Please be cautious of any hairless litter labelled 'accidental', and ask plenty of questions before adopting one. Many backyard breeders will label litters as 'accidents' to trick you into supporting them - do not fall for it.
If you adopt one from a rehome site or rescue, that’s fine as you’re not supporting the intentional breeding. But please always research an animal and their breeder before you buy it or support them. Even if your breeder claims to be ‘ethical’, there is absolutely nothing ethical about the intentional breeding of hairless hamsters, and it is frankly shameful that they are even still being produced intentionally. Please don't contribute to the problem, and think twice before supporting the breeding of hairless hamsters. The same can be said for 'chushy' Syrian hamsters who, while not quite as bad as hairless hamsters as they do have very sparsely furred coats & whiskers, are still more prone to injury when housed in natural set ups and increased risk of torpor due to their very thin fur with other reports also noting a negative effect on longevity with hamsters with a fur-deficiency. While they are not completely hairless, the gene still has negative implications on the hamsters health and should not be bred and the breeding of them not supported.
Overall, hamsters have fur, and they have it for a reason. It is considered unethical to intentionally breed for hairless, and we do not consider breeders who breed hairless hamsters ethical - regardless of setups or knowledge. They can't live normal, fulfilling lives, are prone to skin issues, and it is just simply not fair to the animal to subject them to such a life when there are only cons and no benefit to them having no fur. They are 'rare' because no ethical breeder works with them, not because they are a difficult mutation to produce. Ethical breeders breed to better the overall health of the animal; if breeding a hamster without fur only makes their life in captivity harder, we should not be breeding them. If it's not bettering the health of the animal, then you are breeding for selfish desires of humans and that's simply not ethical.
Once again I stress that it is perfectly fine to support ethical breeders - but unethical breeding in general, to include hamsters being inappropriately housed or hamsters intentionally bred for problematic genes - must be frowned upon & should not be supported. It is unethical, and gives even good breeders a bad name.