Evaluating Breeders
By Linda Price
Q: In looking over the breeder listings, I often see that breeders breed for colors rather than standards. Obviously, if I wanted to get a hamster for showing, I'd like to get one bred more for standards (which, of course, includes color).  How could I determine which hamsteries breed for standards? Would it be worthwhile to include/add a column for either "comments" or "breeding goals" on the breeder listings?

A: There is no easy answer to this question.  I would say that the overwhelming majority of US breeders breed for color only.  (The sad thing is that many people buy for color only too.)  I am immediately turned off by anyone who advertises that they have “rare” colors.  That is a strong signal that they are only breeding for color – and for the latest fad color.  Additionally, many of them don’t know enough about breeding to breed a good example of their “rare” color.  They just bought something “rare” from someone else and want to make some fast money.  There would obviously be no standard for the color if it were indeed rare, and you would have to rely on them to have used high quality and properly colored animals in the process of breeding their “rare” color, and I suspect most such people would not have done that.

So how do you identify a good all-around hamster -- one that is a good pet but show quality too?  Can you do it by having people list it on a breeders list?  I don’t think so.  Anything that requires the person to assess their own hamsters will encourage them to answer whatever they think will sell the most animals.


You could have them list how many awards they have won, but that is deceptive too for a number of reasons.  There are not a lot of clubs.  New clubs will take a couple of years (maybe more depending on the quality of the hamsters they started with) to start producing show quality hamsters.  That was certainly the case with the CHA.  We are a little over two years old now.  I gave some Best in Show awards the first year to hamsters which were not strong show animals.  They were the best of what was there, but I considered those awards an encouragement and a part of the educational process in helping the members understand what a show quality hamster was.
Now, those same hamsters would not even be contenders (thank goodness).  So even animals who have won awards from new clubs or from clubs who don’t understand the standards themselves are not always show quality.

Additionally, judges cannot show their animals, yet they generally can best assess show quality (but check with the judge to find out their training credentials and level of experience).  I have never won an award at a CHA show since I am the only judge.  (I do travel, though, to enter at other shows.)  Nevertheless, judges are at a disadvantage when it comes to awards yet they typically understand the standards better than anyone else.

If people claim to have show hamsters, you should also find out what shows their animals are bred for and have won.  Just yesterday I had someone write me to say she was breeding show quality black and black banded syrian hamsters.  After further e-mails, I learned that she had never been to a show and had never seen hamster standards.  She had sold hamsters to kids who entered 4-H events at local fairs.  She explained that her hamsters were known for their temperament, and that they looked pretty and had shiny coats.  That is a good description of pet-quality hamsters.  The pet class is judged on temperament and condition.  So find out what standards are being used and get a copy of them.

On top of that, are all of my hamsters show quality?  Absolutely not!  I have a couple of lines which have repeated winners in their recent pedigrees.  Nevertheless, we do not yet fully have those traits fixed in our hamsters.  They can still produce mediocre show animals.  Now they will not produce hamsters like you see pictures of on the web with those long rat-like noses and poor type.   Nevertheless, I never guarantee whether a particular youngster will be show quality or not.  Anyone who does is fooling themselves.  I can tell you about the quality of the animals in the line and about their potential, but I can’t even pick the best ones myself when they are young.  If I could, I wouldn’t sell them.  I see many of the animals that I have sold on the show bench.  In many cases I am pleasantly surprised and would love to have them back.  On occasion, I actually can borrow a male for breeding.  Other hamsters I have sold, though, are disappointing.

What colors are best?
I was skimming the classifieds last night and noticed a person advertising that they had “all dwarf colors” including the “rare champagne.”  Well, I doubt she really has all the colors since there have been new ones documented in the last couple of years, and they’re so new that they don’t have names.  Second, the champagne is certainly not rare.  I’ve been breeding them for the last couple of years and have bred dozens of them.  The truth is that they are not particularly striking in color.  They aren’t what most people pick unless they are aiming for a “rare” hamster.  And they are definitely not a good hamster for any breeder to begin with or buy unless they are experienced.

So why shouldn’t a breeder start with a four gene color?  Because they don’t know enough about the four genes that make up that color and about the combined colors using pairs or trios of genes.  You need to work up to a color like that.  You can do it through your own breeding.  Buying it just to get all of the genes is a common mistake for inexperienced people.  Their colony then becomes full of colors that they can’t identify since they don’t understand the genes and gene combinations which are involved.  They start breeding mutts and pass out poor information.  The color quality is often entirely wrong in their animals.

I won’t tell people what hamsters are “rare.”  When someone asks to buy the rarest color I have, I just tell them that that is a golden.  I don’t want them to buy based on rarity.  If they don’t know what they want or what is common and uncommon, I’m certainly not going to lead them to a multi-gene color.  They’re too inexperienced and have a lot of research to do.

I sell my colors equally without fanfare.  For example, I had someone here last month to purchase a couple of hamsters which were going cross-country with him.  It was well planned out although he did not know what colors he wanted.  He came to my house, looked at the colors available, and picked a pair of brothers – Blue Moscow by color.  Now this is a color that I am 99% certain has not been bred by anyone else in the world.  It is Black plus Opal plus Moscow and is a very pretty color and nice addition to the fancy.  I didn’t tell him until he had chosen them how uncommon these hamsters were.  I wanted him to pick by what he liked and what had the temperament to suit him.  He was not going to breed, so that was not an issue here.  No one should buy or breed based on supposed “rarity.”

So what’s the answer?
There is only one answer.  Let the buyer beware!  Know the sellor and don’t just buy based on a list on some website.

The buyer must educate himself on what a quality hamster is.  The show standards do aim a breeder toward a quality hamster if he chooses to study them and really learn what they mean.  The buyer must assess the animals he is interested in.  It is so easy now to get pictures of the hamsters you are interested in from the breeder.  I send them to people who are serious about buying whether they buy for a pet or for show.  Know what you want.  Don’t get carried away with the “exotic-ness” of the color.  Buy basic animals that are well bred and cared for.

And don’t think that because you bought a couple of hamsters from a breeder who has show hamsters (even if they claim that the ones you got were “show quality”)  that you now raise show quality hamsters.  You don’t!  Raising show quality hamsters is a process.  Good traits definitely are not fixed here in the US.  You must work on this with every breeding.  YOU must understand show quality and not rely on someone to sell it to you.  It’s still best to start with animals as close to show quality as possible, but it can be far more rewarding to work with your own animals and see their improvement.  The improvement will be more noticeable.

Things to consider
Here are some pointers I have for new buyers who really want a quality animal.

Use caution and ask lots of questions of:

Anyone who claims that all of their animals are show quality.  The only real exception to this might be a handful of European (mostly British) show breeders who have been breeding and refining just one or two colors for so many years that the traits are fixed.  These people are definitely the exception and not the rule.

Anyone who is a commercial or large volume breeder since they probably don’t have time to focus on show traits.  (See
USDA article to understand how USDA certification affects quality.)

Anyone who breeds lots of species especially if they claim to be an expert in them. Few people can really focus well on lots of species.

Anyone who ships a lot – domestically or internationally.  This is not a sign of quality – but of quantity.  It usually means that they have a lot of species, raise hamsters in volume, and/or do it for the money.  Anyone who works closely with other clubs and/or ships show animals will not make money and will only do it sporadically for the fancy.

Anyone who breeds lots of colors and/or patterns.  It takes work and multiple pairs to get good at anything.  Too many colors often leads to mutts.

Anyone who hasn’t been breeding this color and/or pattern for many generations.  It takes that long to learn the subtleties and know good from bad.

Anyone who uses the word “rare” or “exotic” to describe their hamsters.  Most likely they are breeding for nothing other than color -- and money.

Anyone who uses nicknames like “black bear” or “panda bear.”  Show breeders will use the internationally accepted names.

Anyone who can’t tell you the strengths and weaknesses of the parents and the lines.

Anyone who can’t tell you what traits and features they are focusing on in their animals.  They can’t focus on everything at once and need to tell you what they have previously focused on (and hopefully fixed in their animals) and what they are currently focusing on.

Anyone who is using another hamstery name for credibility saying they got animals x generations ago and thus theirs are show quality.  Make sure this person knows show quality and has maintained or improved on those lines since.  Lines can go downhill fast if not bred by someone who knows and selects for show qualities.

Anyone who is claiming a color name or pattern which is not listed on any other site.  If they do not have the research to back up the claim of a new gene or name, most likely they have re-named an existing internationally recognized name or they don’t know what they have and are guessing.  Always get the genetic symbols for such an animal.

Anyone who can’t tell you the genetics of their animal.  If they don’t know anything about genetics and their animals, they can’t tell you whether they are a good representation of that color and gene nor can they give you a clue about what animals you are likely to get out of pairings.

I’m not saying that this is a perfect list or assessment.  People may violate one or two of these guidelines for very good reason.  I violate a couple of them myself.  I have more animals than I think is optimal.  I do this to document the new genes.  I have to keep pure lines of these colors going as well as lines crossed into the different colors.  This takes cages.  Then I still have the lines focused on the show qualities.

Because of my work with new color genes, I also have lines which are more focused on color than other qualities.  That is because documenting color is the focus of those pairings.  Thus, the type is not what I would like it to be.  Of course I have focused on improving the type of my worst line, the Moscow line, by crossing it into the best of other lines when I do that crossing.  For example, to get the Blue Moscows, I crossed the Moscows into my blue line with the best type.  Thus, my Blue Moscows actually have the best type of any of the Moscow lines.  So I compensate as best I can for their weaknesses when creating new pairs.
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