1. Pet Store Animals
What to look for: An ethical breeder should not be using animals purchased from pet stores within their lines. Pet store animals often carry more genes than meet the eye, and some combinations of genes can be lethal or create serious health risks.
Additionally, this practice undercuts the hard work we do as breeders by supporting rodent mills--which we should be actively working against. It also offers an easy way out. Getting the desired genes should take time and practice. Our obligation as breeders is to seek to better the species as a whole, and using pet store animals backtracks on that goal.
What you can do: Usually, asking the breeder where her animals come from will not be answered with "XYZ Chain Pet Store." So, you should ask about the parents of the litter in question. A breeder that is knowledgable will respond with photos of the parents, accompanied with the correct colouration and/or pattern terminology. It can also be helpful to look for words such as "carrying." This indicates that the breeder has knowledge of the ancestry of their animals they would not otherwise have.
2. Proper Husbandry
What to look for: Despite likely having many animals, each one should be treated with respect. Hamsters are not our employees, and they should not be treated as such. Look for the same standards that you should be following--cage size meets or exceeds 450 square inches, wheels should be appropriately sized for the species and have a solid running surface, toys shall be provided (modifications for those meeting USDA standards will be considered), and food and water shall always be present. Yes, these standards apply for every individual hamster in a breeder's care. Additionally, all Syrians shall be housed separately following 6 weeks of age.
What you can do: If you would like to know the quality of care hamsters from your breeder is providing, you may ask for photos. Keep in mind that most hamsteries are located in the person's home, so it may not be akin to a professional set up, and that is okay.
3. Clear and Ethical Goals
What to look for: The motivation behind breeding hamsters should never be monetary. Additionally, it should not be as an experiment in the miracle of birth, or just to have cute babies.
As stated before, ethical breeders work toward the sole goal of bettering the species in its entirety. They understand that each litter should be an improvement on the parents, and understand what that means in terms of their animals. This does not mean that the breeder does not specialize in one or more aspects, such as a specific colour or temperament, but that they continually seek to develop those traits to a reasonable (and healthy) standard of perfection.
What you can do: Ask! If there is a breeder you are interested in adopting from, ask them what their goals are. This should be a passionate subject for any ethical breeder. Although it will differ from person to person, the underlying reasoning should be to provide an ethical alternative to rodent mills and to contribute to the species as whole.
You should also avoid those peddling "rare colors," or offering hamsters for different prices based on their colouration. These people clearly have money as their main motive for breeding. A "rare" colour does not take any more time or resources to produce than more common colours and patterns, and truly rare or valuable animals should be kept back as future breeding stock. This is a common gimmick.
What to look for: Breeding should be treated as a long-term commitment. While we work toward a huge goal, it is an ongoing process that takes time and care to develop. Therefore, breeders should only breed on an as-needed basis. An ethical breeder should maintain a waitlist, as their reputation for healthy and well bred animals should suffice to encourage serious fanciers to be added to the list. The breeder should only breed when there are enough people on the waitlist to ensure that every potential pup gets a home, or otherwise be prepared to take on multiple pups themselves.
Occasionally, people will drop out of the waitlist and leave pups without a home. This means the breeder may choose to advertise their animals. It is advised that breeders advertise only through their social media pages or websites, but they may choose rehoming websites such as craigslist or place a classified ad at their own discretion. While this is generally not considered good practice, it is not inherently bad so long as the other guidelines are followed.
What you can do: Join a waitlist! This indicates that the breeder is responsibly breeding a reasonable amount of animals to ensure each one has a home to go to. You can also use sites other than pet rehoming websites to look for breeders--try Facebook and Instagram first. Finally, ask about their breeding practices. If they seem to have too many animals to reasonably manage or too many litters in a short amount of time, then something is not right.
5. Breeding Age
What to look for: Hamsters are not able to be healthfully bred under the age of 4 months. Female hamsters over one year (and preferably over 10 months) are also not able to be bred in good conscience. The stress of pregnancy and rearing a litter is enough to overwhelm their sensitive bodies, and we see a correlation between number of instances bred and lifespan.
Because of this relatively short window of time, litters should not exceed two in a female's lifetime. The mother should be allowed to rest between pregnancies, so a general rule of first breeding at 4 months of age, rest between 6 and 10 months of age, and final breeding at 10 months should be followed.
We should be striving for genetic diversity and rebreeding the same animals also keeps a hamstery in a rut. This may indicate issues within the hamstery, such as lack of knowledge of genetics, lack of proper breeding stock, and/or severe inbreeding. There simply is no reason to breed more than twice.
What you can do: Ask and observe. You may politely ask how many litters a breeder's females are expected to carry. They should give an answer of two or less, and preferably offer an explanation similar to the one above as to why. Also pay attention to their website and social media pages. You should easily be able to identify him many litters a female has had by posts, photos, and other information.
What to look for: An ethical breeder needs to relate to the public and inspire change. They need to be an advocate for proper care and treatment of hamsters. This cannot be achieved without transparency.
A transparent breeder will be open to questions and answer them honestly. By looking through their portfolio (website, social media, etc.), the public should be able to clearly see what goes on at their hamstery and ensure it meets these criteria. A transparent breeder is one that is obviously ethical, so much so that many of the questions above do not need to be asked of them--but if they are, they will be enthusiastically answered.
What you can do: Support transparent breeders! If you find a breeder whom you can tell is ethical simply by looking through their work, choose them. Of course, the same questions above may be asked to double check--and a transparent breeder will be happy to answer them for you.
An ethical breeder is someone who breeds hamsters for the right reasons, and does so with the necessary knowledge and support. Their hamsters are treated with kindness, dignity, and respect at all stages of life. Finally, they uphold their obligations to the animals they create throughout the entirety of their lives.
This description is left vague on purpose, as it is not our place to dictate the exacting quality of care from breeder to breeder. As such, we have added some guides that should help you find a high quality breeder below.
California Hamster Association