Getting Started in the
Hamster Fancy
By Nichole Royer and Linda Price
Getting a hamster or two as a pet is a great way to add a companion to your life. For some individuals, however, it marks the opening of a whole new world.   Just owning a hamster or two is not enough.  They want to get more involved.  It is a very addicting hobby, and one that can be both enjoyable and very educational.  Often these folks write to the CHA for advice on how to get started, so we have put together some tips.

First, how do you want to get involved? There are many facets to the hamster fancy, and one of the first steps is to decide at what level you would like to participate. Many folks are interested in multiple aspects.  It’s honestly best to start with just one, however, and build later.

Do your interests lie in showing hamsters? In breeding them? Or in rescuing them? Perhaps your talents or space restrictions lend more towards helping to get a local club started or perhaps helping out an existing club? Please, get on the internet and do some research. Learn all you can about what it takes to show hamsters, what is involved in breeding, and how rescue is done. Learn about the clubs and what their goals are. Once you have a good overall idea of what you would like to do, start simple. You can always get more involved, but it’s easy to get in over your head in the beginning. Also, if you know what direction you want to head in, you will not waste time and money going down the wrong path the first time.

Pet Web Site Web site with a good overall hamster section covering the main species of hamsters
CHA Newsletter California Hamster Association club newsletter with lots of practical articles
IHANA   Internet Hamster Association specifically targeted at people who don't have clubs in their area

SHOWING – Some people’s interests lie in just showing their hamsters. This is a great place to get started if you have a local club. Pet classes are a great way to get your feet wet and try out showing. It never hurts to enter the standards classes as well.  The worst thing that can happen is that you don’t win.  Regardless, you will get feedback on your animals including some of their strengths and weaknesses.  You can usually go up after the show and talk to the judge about your animals and what direction you might want to take in the future.   Make sure the judge points out the strengths and weaknesses of your animals so that you can really learn the standards and see how to apply them when choosing your own animals  If you are here in Southern California, check on our events calendar and plan to attend the next show.

IHANA North American Association working toward the formation of clubs
BHA British Hamster Association
NHC National Hamster Council (British)

If you are interested in showing seriously, you will need to take stock of the animals you already own. While many folks have gotten wonderful pets from pet stores, it’s rare to find a seriously competitive animal. Particularly in an area with frequent shows and heavy competition, you will want to go to a breeder and tell them you are interested in showing and want to purchase a nice hamster to show. Be honest.  Breeders are happy to see their good animals go into homes where they will be shown. You are likely to pay a little more for the best out of their litters, and if you say you just want a pet they are not likely to offer you one of their best. They also can go a long way towards pointing out the best show animals in a litter and might even recommend waiting a month or two to get an animal out of one of their stronger pairings. It’s still never a guarantee, particularly when purchasing young animals, but most breeders will be happy to share their experience and help narrow your decision to the ones likely to do the best at shows.   They’d like to see their animals win too!

BREEDING – If you think you truly want to enter the world of breeding hamsters, please consider long and hard. There are hundreds of hamsters who get put down every year because they are no longer wanted. Most of these are wonderful pets, so making more wonderful pets is NOT an acceptable reason for breeding your hamsters. Any reputable breeder is breeding not to just make nice pets or more of a particular pretty color. Instead they are aiming to benefit the hamster community (or “fancy”) as a whole by producing animals who have wonderful temperaments, solid health, and who are bred as close to the show standards as possible. Study and learn the standards.  Use the standards to assess your animals yourself before entering them in a show.  See how close you are and have the judge give you feedback after the judging is complete.  You’ll want to set goals for yourself and your breeding program.

Breeding takes research, dedication, and money. You will need to buy extra cages, more food, and additional bedding. You need to learn how to sex pups before ever producing a sinlge litter.  You will also have to take responsibility for every animal you produce and have an outlet for those babies to go to.
If you aren’t prepared to keep every single baby in a litter if all placements fall through, then don’t breed. Also, if you plan to make money by breeding hamsters please look to some other hobby. Properly done, breeding any animal responsibly and correctly is expensive. If you can’t afford to lose money, don’t breed!

The first step is to decide what you want to breed. Don’t just look at what you have now and decide you want to breed more of them. After investing time and money into a breeding program, many folks will discover that what they are breeding isn’t what they want at all. Do some research.  Keep a couple of different kinds as pets first.  Investigate the different species of hamsters.  Each is very different in temperament and needs.  Some are easier than others to breed.  Some have more color varieties.  Some are easier to place.  Learn about the different colors, coat types, and markings. See what really tickles your fancy, and then research that particular variety and see what’s involved in breeding it. Make sure to keep a couple as pets for at least a few months just to see if you really like them and want to focus on that species.  Then pick one thing you would like to work with.  You can always add more later but start small so you don’t get overwhelmed.

Learn about the genetics and any quirks, as well as the proper name of anything you are interested in. Remember, the names “Black Bear,” “Panda Bear,” “Blackberry,” “Calico,” “Rainbow,” and even “Teddy Bear” are all names pet stores made up to sell hamsters for more money.  None of these are the correct name for the variety, and none of them are rare. A reputable breeder would never represent their hamster as something it is not just to get more money for them.  If in doubt about any of the colors or terms you see on the internet, write the breeder.  Ask for the genetics behind a term they are using (and the genetic symbols help a lot in this process).  See if it is a new gene or gene combination which is now well known or if the breeder is creating their own term.

Pet Web Site Pictures of many of the standardized hamster colors
AAA Hamsters Pictures of many of the newer colors (particularly Campbells)
The River Road Excellent Syrian Genetics site

Learn about the different diseases and genetic problems which are common in the species you are most interested in.  Some diseases are common across all hamster species.  Others are limited to one species.  Know the disease well and check your animals frequently so that you can recognize any who might suffer from the problem early.

Honey Hams Group discussion and support about diabetes in hamsters
Wet Tail Article about wet tail in the syrians
BHA News section with articles about Polyoma/Papova in syrians
Genetic problems Article about breeding pairings to avoid in hamsters
Pet Web Site Health section detailing common hamster ailments

Just as with showing hamsters, breeding hamsters is about finding and using the best of the best. It’s a long, long road to take pet shop hamsters and breed them successfully into the kind of high quality animals you will be aiming for. Most breeders are happy to lend a hand or give advice, but they are busy folks and you should not expect them to do your work for you. Please do not go to a breeder and say “I have X Y and Z…what should I do”. This shows you have no goals in mind, no true plan, and you have not done any research yourself. Instead, go to a breeder and say “My goals are A and B. This is what I have, and this is what I know I need to get where I want to go. Can you offer me some suggestions”. Most breeders will be more than happy to offer some suggestions and possibly head off some mistakes. Be prepared for them to give you an honest answer though, even if it is not what you want to hear.

The ultimate way to get started in breeding hamsters (particularly if you also want to show) is to start with the best animals you can get your hands on. This means going to a breeder and purchasing show and breeding quality animals to start with. This is a fantastic route to take, but once again do your research. Go to the breeder with a specific goal in mind and tell them exactly what you are looking for and what you want to do with it. A good breeder will do their best to help you -- and will also tell you honestly when they can’t. Sometimes they won’t have any animals of the particular color or variety you need, or they won’t have a combination that they consider breedable for one reason or another. They may be able to suggest another breeder or source, or point you in another direction.

A note on shipping:  Sometimes what you want will not be available in your area. In these cases you may want to look into having animals shipped to you. Once again, do your research first. It is very expensive to ship ($100 or more for the flight plus the cost of vet certificates, shipping containers, and the animals themselves). It is also very time consuming on the breeder’s end. It takes 20 – 50 hours per shipment (regardless of whether 1 or 20 animals are going) and most breeder’s time is at a premium. For this reason many breeders will not ship just a couple animals.  They just don’t have the time to do it, and they make no money on such shipments. The same breeders are much more likely to consider shipping a large group of animals, particularly if they are going to several people. In this way they are helping out the greatest number of folks with the limited time they have available. Get together with other breeders in your area and split the cost of shipping. Know what your goals are in getting a shipment, and do not be upset if a breeder says they just don’t have suitable animals or they just don’t have the time to ship. Sometimes getting what you want may mean waiting several years.

CLUBS – hamster clubs can be great fun and a fantastic way to meet other people who enjoy hamsters. If you have a local club and are interested in getting involved, go for it. All clubs are short on folks to help out and often all it takes is asking “what can I do”. If you have some particular talent, let someone know. The very best way to truly get involved is to show up early and offer to help set up a show, or stay late and lend a hand cleaning up. Most of the folks involved in clubs are very busy during the show and don’t have a lot of time to chat with other people. It’s during the set up and clean up times that these folks are relaxed and have the chance to chat. And you will find they welcome anyone with open arms who is willing to do some of the dirty work.   Another great way to get involved is by offering to help out at displays. It’s a fun day sitting around educating interested people and chatting with everyone about hamsters.

If you don’t have a local club, you might be interested in starting one.  Clubs are few and far between in North America.  That’s why the Internet Hamster Associations of North America was formed.  It’s goal is to help link interested fanciers in preparation for club formation.

IHANA Internet Hamster Associations of North America focusing on club formation

RESCUE – Many folks are not interested in showing or breeding hamsters, but are touched by the many little lives lost in shelters and the many hamsters abandoned and needing new homes. Just about all breeders out there have helped out to one extent or another. Like all the other aspects of the fancy, you should do some research into rescue before jumping in feet first. Rescue can be done on many scales. Some people have a cage set aside to help out one rescue animal at a time. Other folks devote many cages to rescues. Some rescue animals from shelters, others take in animals only from owners who can no longer keep them. Some give each rescue a permanent home, while others provide foster care until a forever home can be found. There is no right or wrong here.  Each person will differ in what level of involvement is best for them. Before starting, however, you should decide what you can and can not handle. There is nothing wrong with sometimes having to say “no” to rescue animals which are beyond your capability to help. Concentrate on the ones you are able to assist.

Before starting to take in rescues, you should decide how many you are physically and financially able to take care of. Each will need a cage, food, bedding, and enough of your time for proper care and socialization. Some rescues will come in ill, so being able to quarantine them away from the rest of your animals is a must. Money must be set aside for unexpected vet bills as well as other unexpected costs.

If there is already someone doing rescue in your area, ask how you can help. This is a great way to get involved without getting over committed. Most rescue groups would love to have good foster homes to place animals in until a proper home comes along, and even offering to help clean cages can be a huge help.  Financial or supply donations are also gladly welcome.

And note that rescue and breeding do not often compliment each other.  Different skills and resources are used for each of them.  Unless you have an adequate quarantine area entirely separate from your breeding animals, a breeder should really decide whether taking in a rescue or two is appropriate.  The exposure of unknown potential problems to a mother and pups is generally not appropriate.

CHA Rescue Resources

As you can see, there are many ways and levels to get started in the hamster fancy. What path you take and how deeply you get involved is entirely dependant on what you will enjoy most. There is something for everyone though, be it showing, breeding, rescuing, or working with a club. A little time and research will show you right where your own niche may be. Have fun, and WELCOME to the fancy!
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