Constructive Criticism, and Why it is Necessary to Improve Standards

Something many of us are guilty of, myself included, is having the best intentions with wanting to help, but not executing this desire in the most appropriate way. This can lead to you coming across too strongly, or even condescending, and rather than helping the owner improve their hamsters life all you achieve is the opposite, by making them feel like they can never ask for help - or even simply post photos sharing their hamster journey - ever again. So, today we're going to have a chat about constructive criticism; including how to give it, how to receive it, and why it's necessary to improve standards in addition to looking at some examples of what to - and what not - to do should you find yourself in this situation.

Unsolicited Advice:

Unsolicited advice is advice given even though it is not explicitly asked for. Such an example would be someone posting their enclosure just to show it off, and others commenting suggestions on how to improve it. Unsolicited advice seems to often have a negative connotation, and some are very adamant that you should not give advice unless you're explicitly asked for it. However, as it relates to the pet community, this is a very poor attitude to have, and not one a pet owner should possess.

Once advice is given in a respectful, helpful manner, any pet owner should be receptive to receiving it. It does not mean you have to implement every suggestion made to you, but it does mean that you should take it into consideration, do your own further research, and come to your own conclusions as to whether or not it would be beneficial to implement. Unsolicited advice is how standards are improved, because if someone does not know what they are doing is wrong or could be improved, how do we expect them to ask for it? Hence, unsolicited advice is essential to keep standards in check, and for education on species appropriate care. However, such advice should be given in a positive constructive manner rather than negatively critical. This brings us onto the topic of constructive vs destructive criticism.

This is the enclosure I started with when I got back into keeping hamsters in 2013. This is the 'Skyline Fun Area Leon' and housed my Syrian hamster, Chester, before I was made aware, by a German forum, that it wasn't an appropriate enclosure for my hamster. This enclosure is too small, it does not have enough bedding, and the 8"/20cm wheel is much too small for a syrian hamster. Despite all these mistakes, they were kind & helpful, and are the reason my care has made a drastic improvement since. Had they been mean & harshly critical, being a stubborn teen at the time, I perhaps would have never listened to their advice and I don't dare think about what my care standards for hamsters may have been like today.

Constructive vs Destructive Criticism:

Situation Example:

Someone posts a photo of their hamsters enclosure. They have a syrian hamster in a 100cm x 50cm enclosure but they only have a 6" wheel and are being housed on wooden cat litter.

Person A responds: "that wheel is far too small. and your hamster doesn't have enough bedding and can't even dig!"

Person B responds: "Hey, just to let you know that unfortunately a 6" wheel is much too small for a syrian hamster, and won't allow your pet to run comfortably. I would recommend looking into getting at least a 28cm wheel, such as the Trixie wheel that you can buy over here at zooplus. Pellet litter also does not allow your hamster to burrow, and isn't very comfortable on their feet. Hamsters are burrowing animals and so a burrowable substrate is of huge importance to them. I would recommend looking into allspan shavings that can be purchased at x pet store or y online shop. Your cage size looks great though, and your hamster is adorable!".

If we look at the above situation, Person A - while having good intentions - was not helpful. If we compare their response with Person B; Person B offered constructive criticism - and therein lies the difference. Rather than being simply critical of what was wrong, person B offered ways on how these mistakes could be corrected rather than simply just pointing them out, and even went further with helping the person by showing them where they could buy the things they needed to fix their mistakes. Adding a compliment can also help the person in the situation not feel like your constructive criticism is a personal attack - but this is only beneficial if you are being constructive in the first place (i.e. had person A complimented the enclosure size, it would not matter - they were still negative, and did not help the person at all).

While I'm sure Person A wanted what is best for the hamster, being harshly critical like this is not the way to achieve this. Being destructive like this only makes the owner be less inclined to listen to your advice - if not guaranteed to not take it all. If you are offering critique, you must be constructive otherwise you are not going to help the situation improve at all. Ask questions rather than assume the worst, i.e. if you see a hamster with shallow bedding, perhaps ask "is there a reason for why you have little substrate? as deep bedding is really important for a burrowing animal like a hamster!" rather than dogpile on them by saying something along the lines of "you need more substrate!" as it could be the case that the owner isn't aware of the importance of deep bedding, or perhaps it could be because the hamster has mites.

Receiving Constructive Criticism:

So now that we've discussed the difference of constructive vs destructive criticism, now we will discuss a topic of equal important: being at the receiving end of constructive criticism. While it is important that those giving criticism be respectful & constructive, it is equally important for those at the receiving end keep the same, positive attitude. All too often I see owners who are at the receiving end take a defensive stance to any constructive criticism they receive - regardless of how positive the advice given was - often responding in a very negative, "who asked you", manner. This is a prevalent problem in the pet community, that facebook groups & instagram account in particular are notorious for.

The issue with this is that of which we discussed earlier: pet owners should have an open mind, and welcome to advice that may improve their pets life in captivity. We should be conscious of the fact that being at the receiving end of advice doesn't make you a bad pet owner. Everyone starts somewhere, but you will stay in that somewhere if you are egocentric & and don't allow others to politely help you. Any good pet owner should welcome any advice. Again, this does not mean you have to necessarily implement said advice, but it does mean that you look into it & form your own opinions, and act on it as necessary. Let us look at an example of how to & how to not respond to constructive criticism, by using our example from earlier:

Person A: "Hey, just to let you know that unfortunately a 6" wheel is much too small for a syrian hamster, and won't allow your pet to run comfortably. I would recommend looking into getting at least a 28cm wheel, such as the Trixie wheel that you can buy over here at zooplus. Pellet litter also does not allow your hamster to burrow, and isn't very comfortable on their feet. Hamsters are burrowing animals and so a burrowable substrate is of huge importance to them. I would recommend looking into allspan shavings that can be purchased at x pet store or y online shop. Your cage size looks great though, and your hamster is adorable!"

Person B: "I did not ask for advice, keep your opinions to yourself, thanks."

The above example is to not respond to constructive criticism, and does not reflect the attitude a pet keeper should possess. Person A was very helpful, and offered only constructive criticism in a positive manner. Person B responded to said advice that would have only benefited their pets life for the better very poorly, and their hamster will have to suffer as a result of this. This is an egocentric attitude, and unfortunately, it is one I see more often than I would like. Furthermore, when you post your care publicly, you are welcoming the critique that may come with doing so - whether explicitly asked, or not (as we discussed under 'unsolicited advice'). With all that said, let's look at how this person should have responded using that same example:

Person A: "Hey, just to let you know that unfortunately a 6" wheel is much too small for a syrian hamster, and won't allow your pet to run comfortably. I would recommend looking into getting at least a 28cm wheel, such as the Trixie wheel that you can buy over here at zooplus. Pellet litter also does not allow your hamster to burrow, and isn't very comfortable on their feet. Hamsters are burrowing animals and so a burrowable substrate is of huge importance to them. I would recommend looking into allspan shavings that can be purchased at x pet store or y online shop. Your cage size looks great though, and your hamster is adorable!"

Person B: "Hey, thanks! Actually this wheel is only temporary, and I have a bigger one on the way. I will look into the bedding; I thought this was an appropriate choice, but I guess not! Thank you for your suggestions, I'll look into that!"

This is a perfect response from Person B. Even though in this example they were aware that their wheel was too small and already ordered a new one, they did not become snarky in their response (as can often happen!) and even though they thought that their bedding choice was right (perhaps misinformed by a pet store worker), they were still accepting to hearing otherwise. This is how someone who wants the best for their animal should respond to advice. Remember: this is about your pet, not you. Constructive criticism is never a personal attack; it comes from a genuine place of wanting to help you help your pet live the best life possible, and any pet owner should be welcome to that.

After being made aware of my mistakes, I listened, did my own further research, and made changes as necessary. I upgraded Chester to half of this enclosure that was 4ft x 2ft x 2ft, a drastic improvement to what he had before (I expanded it to the pictured example further down the line, with a different Syrian) and further improved my care from there. But it's important to note that I would have never made these changes had it not been for the unsolicited advice I received, as I was made believe - by a different forum - that my previous care was perfectly adequate, when it was far from it.

Dealing with stubborn owners:

Sometimes regardless of how polite you are, the person at the receiving end of your advice is stubborn and writes you off as being ridiculous anyway. Should this happen, remain calm and don't retaliate - this just adds fuel to the fire. Instead, remain level headed and if possible, leave them links to other sources (be it other sites, or scientific studies) as this can help show them that your advice isn't simply just your opinion, but is backed by many others (this is especially beneficial if your source is back by scientific sources). Of course, this (in terms of scientific research) isn't possible for every aspect of hamster care - but, particularly as it relates to cage size, bedding depth, and substrate type (as these, in my experience, are frequently the topics owners are stubborn over) where scientific research is available, I would recommend you link them when in these situations. Once you leave your sources, walk away from the conversation unless the owner responds positively. I know this can be hard for some to do, as I know I myself often feel a burden of responsibility to help every hamster I see, but it is important to understand that once you have done this you have done all you can do and that it is ultimately up to the owner to implement any necessary change in their hamster care.

As hamster owners, I believe it to be our responsibility to hold each other accountable & educate when possible - but, it is not our responsibility to ensure every hamster actually receives species appropriate care. It is our responsibility to educate their owners on how to do so - but it is their owners responsibility to implement any required change, and to ensure their pet is receiving the appropriate care that they require.

Mistakes do not define you:

To further expand off our discussion on some perceiving constructive criticism as a personal attack, it's of further importance to remember that a good pet owner is not defined by the how little or how many mistakes they make. Rather, a good pet owner is defined by what they do about those mistakes when they're pointed out to them - do they ignore them, or do they act upon it and improve? This is incredibly important, and something I see frequently around the community. If you started with species appropriate care immediately, and have never made a single mistake in your care during the time you've owned hamsters, that's great! But, it's important that we don't make caring pet owners be defined by how little or how many mistakes they made. Some of the greatest owners I know have made every mistake in the book - but they learned from them, and corrected them. Someone who makes a lot of mistakes, but corrects them, is no less of a great pet owner than someone who makes little or none at all. Many hamster care books are outdated, and even many hamster forums still possess outdated ideas, so whether a person makes a mistake or not is also not reflective of how little or how much research they have done (as i often see accused). It is unfortunate that some just do not know trustworthy sources, or know when a source is up to date or not - and to place blame & shame those who only want what's best for their hamster is just not okay.

While I believe we should not turn a blind eye to inappropriate housing conditions, as there are opinions and then there are facts (hamsters requiring species appropriate housing being a matter of facts), we also should not be mean and spiteful to those who make mistakes either. If you want to help someone, then encourage them to do better by being helpful, respectful, and considerate and if you want the best for your hamster in captivity, then take any advice given into consideration rather than acting defensively & dismissive.

In short, constructive criticism & unsolicited advice as it relates to the pet community is necessary, and is how change occurs and how standards improve. Without it, standards would drop, and education would be impossible. Despite unsolicited advice often having a negative connotation, in the pet community it should be a positive thing - once, of course, it is done in a means of constructive criticism. Had it not been for unsolicited advice & constructive criticism, the standards you see today - along with this blog - would simply just not exist!

 

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