Are Hamsters From a USDA Licensed Breeder Better?
by Linda Price
I have often been asked what it means to be USDA licensed.  Most people misunderstand the meaning of being licensed.  They think it means that those hamsters are somehow better or healthier than those of a non-licensed breeder.  It does not mean that at all -- and often means the opposite.  Personally, I would feel far more comfortable buying from a serious hamster hobbyist (like an active hamster show breeder) than from a USDA licensed breeder.  A hamster from a USDA licensed breeder can be an unhealthy or sick animal – or a mean and nasty hamster.  Then again it can be a very happy and healthy hamster.  The whole range is possible.  USDA certification is NOT a stamp of quality and should not be so interpreted.  It only means the breeder meets a minimum set of requirements.

As anyone who has been to my house knows, I keep a lot of hamsters.  The documentation and confirmation of genes requires a lot of cages.  Thus, I do keep a USDA license (the non-business license) since my extra babies go to local pet stores.  This is written from my experience in this process over the last couple of years.

What is the USDA?
"USDA" stands for the United States Department of Agriculture.  They are the organization which regulates hamsters in the United States.

Who needs to be licensed?
USDA licensing is for large-scale breeders -- mostly commercial breeders.  If you sell more than $500 in animals per year, you need to be USDA licensed.  Sales directly to the final pet owner do not count toward this $500.  Only hamster sales to someone else who will then re-sell to pet owners count.  Thus, if you sell more than $500 in animals to pet stores or to pet distributors, you need to be USDA licensed.

What is a pet distributor?
The large chain pet stores like Petco, Petsmart, and Petland usually buy exclusively from a specific pet distributor.  This pet distributor is typically under contract to provide all small animals as well as potentially other animals, food, supplies, etc.  These pet distributors must then raise or purchase all of the various small animals which that chain carries.  Some pet distributors raise some or most of the animals they supply.  Others buy all of their animals from a few key breeders.  Obviously, they prefer to buy from large breeders so that they do not have to deal with large numbers of people.  Some pet distributors require their breeders to raise a minumum number of animals; others require their breeders to raise a certain number of species to be one of their breeders.  Some distributors even have most of their animals shipped in by plane.  It varies by distributor.  These distributors then typically deliver to all of the stores at a regular interval.

These pet distributors must be USDA licensed.  They are often audited and must keep on file the names of all of their breeders to confirm that they are indeed also USDA licensed.  Since they only deal with large breeders, virtually all of their breeders would have to be USDA licensed.

What is the process to become licensed?
The process requires filling out an application and paying a fee.  (The fee is determined by your sales volume.)  Part of the process includes having a veteranarian visit your hamstery (at your cost) at least once a year.  A USDA inspector will also visit your facility, typically twice a year although he can come more of less often and even pop in unannounced if he feels the need. The inspector may not handle a single animal.  He may also know little about hamsters since he covers inspections for all species.  He relies on the vet to verify the health of the animals -- and the vet only comes once a year.  The vet will only be as good as the breeder choses.  (Note:  the rules are different for other species.  These are the requirements for hamsters.)

What does the inspector look for?
The inspector verifies that you meet the minimum criteria for a clean facility.  He does NOT verify that your hamsters are healthy and happy.  He only verifies that you are following a given process in the care of your animals.

Here are some examples of things my inspector has asked about.

1.  You must be able to sanitize your facility.  Thus, your animals may not be kept on carpet.  They must be kept on a surface such as a floor or on cement since that can be better cleaned.  They can’t, though, be kept directly on the floor but must instead be on a shelf or other surface.  (I believe this is because a cement floor would transmit temperature extremes – particularly cold.)

2. You must keep your open food and bedding in sealed containers.  Most USDA breeders use large trash cans since they typically buy supplies in bulk.  This minimizes the risk that wild rodents will raid your supplies potentially spreading any diseases they may carry.

3. You must have adequate ventilation for your animals as well as temperature control to avoid heat and cold extremes.

4. You should keep a cleaning and feeding log as well as maintain records of all your vet visits to your vet for care.  You must also maintain a record of all animals which enter your facility from other sources.

There are many other rules on the adequacy of your facilities and your animal care.  There are also regulations on shipping since many commercial breeders ship.  There is an entire handbook for review.

Does the USDA control what cages you use?
No.  They do not mandate whether you use wire cages, aquariums, or any other type of cage.  The truth is that most large commercial breeders use “lab cages” since they are the easiest to maintain.

The reason most large breeders use these cages (and your larger commercial hamster breeders will keep literally thousands of hamster cages) is the ease of feeding, watering, and cleaning.  Feeding and watering are done from outside the cage with minimal disruption to the hamster (and yes, minimal contact or touching of the hamster).  It is quick and easy.  The cage only needs to be opened when the cage is cleaned.  A previously sanitized lab cage can be prepared, the hamster(s) transferred, and the dirty cage sanitized for use with another hamster.  It is by far the quickest way to maintain a large number of hamsters.

The USDA does, though, maintain a minimum cage size for hamsters.  It is much smaller than anything a pet owner would think of putting their hamster in.  In my opinion, it is appallingly small.

The USDA specifies that an adult syrian (over 10 weeks of age) needs a minimum of 15 square inches of floorspace (100 square centimeters).  That’s a 3 x 5 inch rectangle (12.5 x 7.5 centimeters) and totally inadequate..  They allow a maximum of 13 adult syrians in one cage, and you can put them in a cage the size of a ten gallon aquarium (approx. 200 square inches).  Obviously, this would not “safely” house 13 adult syrians.  It would most likely lead to the death of most of these animals!  You never house even two syrians together let alone 13 adults in a cage the size of a ten gallon aquarium!
Syrian on 3x5
Here is one of my older syrian females on a 3 x 5 piece of paper.  She's quite average for my show lines.  You can see the problem.  She is just plain too large for the space.
The rules state that baby syrians up to the age of 5 weeks only need 10 square inches, and syrians aged 5-10 weeks need 12.5 square inches.

The minimum USDA space for dwarf hamsters is about half that for syrians. Dwarves up to 5 weeks of age need at least 5 square inches, from 5-10 weeks of age need 7.5 square inches, and over 10 weeks need at least 9 square inches each. The maximum per cage is the same as syrians. Thus, you could “safely” house 11 adult dwarves in a 5 gallon aquarium. I wouldn't want to house even one in a 5 gallon aquarium. I find it amazing that they allow 11 adult dwarves in that space!

Regulations for nursing mothers are even worse. A nursing syrian needs a minimum of 121 square inches. That’s about two-thirds the size of a ten gallon aquarium. The most amazing requirement to me, though, is the nursing dwarf requirements. They state that a nursing dwarf mother only needs 25 square inches. That’s a 5 inch by 5 inch square! They would hardly be able to turn around in that space! And there is no mention of dad. Virtually all commercial breeders would house the dwarves in pairs. So, if you followed the minimum USDA rules, your little dwarf family would by literally on top of each other. You couldn’t even fit a food dish or toy in there.
Dwarf Family on 5x5
Here is one of my little Blue Moscow dwarf families.  They are quite average with a mother, father, and five babies.  Many of my litters are larger, yet this poor family would barely survive in a space as big as the yellow piece of paper (5 inch x 5 inch).
So following the USDA rules is certainly not hard – as far as space it concerned. Truthfully, it’s not hard for anyone. In my opinion, it is really only a restriction if you are neglectful of your animals.  It is a bare minimum.

What should you consider before buying from a USDA breeder?

Generally, you would look for the same things as when you buy from a private breeder. Below are some of the concerns you might want to consider asking about.

1. You might want to know how many cages the breeder keeps. Obviously when a breeder has more cages, they have less time per animal to handle and care for them. Of course in this number you would have to include other species they raise.  And remember that it is hard to be an expert in all species.  Someone who focuses on just hamsters is more likely to have the knowledge to accurately assess hamsters.

2. You might want to ask how the breeder avoids and/or deals with inbreeding issues. Most commercial breeders (and show breeders) use inbreeding. Problems can and do crop up. Understanding the process for identifying and dealing with these issues is important.

3. Ask if and how the breeder introduces new stock into their hamstery. How often do they bring in new animals? Do they quarantine all new animals regardless of the source? If so, for how long?

4. Have they had any infectious or genetic diseases in their hamsters? If so, when? How was the problem dealt with? What is done to prevent such problems in their hamstery?

5.  What do they feed their hamsters?  Do they choose a good quality feed or mix their own?  Large breeders will sometimes buy rigorously tested feeds from lab companies.  If so, these companies sample and monitor the nutritional ingredients in each batch to ensure they provide what their ingredients claim.  They also do regular testing of their feed on live animals.  If a breeder mixes their own, though, this process can be bypassed and the animals can lack some of the nutrition they need.  So if the breeder you are considering mixes their own food, how did they assess what ingredients were needed and in what quantities, and what is their process for on-going assessment?  And how do they monitor the nutritional needs of their animals on a regular basis to ensure that they are healthy?  This is very important especially in a large commercial breeding environment.

6. If you are interested in showing your hamsters or are interested in a particular color or gene, make sure you ask the breeder about it. Some know their genetics. Many do not. Some also get creative in their naming and don't follow the the BHA or other naming conventions. Find out what they mean by a particular name. Ask for the genetic symbols of that animal and its parents if you plan to breed for specific colors and/or patterns. This will save you a lot of heartache later when you can't get what you wanted and have to start again with fresh animals.

Also, don't expect a commercial breeder to sell you a show-quality hamster. It is very rare that they would show their hamsters or even know what "show quality" was. First, there are few clubs. Second, most aren't raising for show purposes. You can certainly ask them if they show and what awards they have won (and if your prospective hamster comes from this line and is nearly on par with the winner), but it is generally better to buy show animals from active show breeders.

7. You might want to ask how young and how frequently they breed their syrians. Most will pair their dwarves for life, but many commercial breeders over-breed their female syrians. The rule of thumb that show breeders use is to only breed a syrian 2-3 times in her life. The generally accepted ages are at about 4 months, 8 months, and 12 months. The breeding at 12 months may or may not occur depending on the health of the mother. After this point, she becomes a pampered retiree pet. Many commercial breeders start breeding syrians at under two months of age and give very short breaks between litters. This can lead to less than healthy mothers and babies.  Many also "do away with" any hamsters which are no longer actively producing pups.  If you are concerned with how they treat their hamsters for their entire lifespan, ask.

8. The last one should be obvious, but I’ll mentioned it just since I know some commercial breeders who violate this one. Syrians should never be colony bred (including the so-called "black bears"). Males should only be introduced to females for a half hour at the time of mating. Leaving syrian males and females together – for days, months, or for life – is irresponsible breeding. It is both unhealthy for the animals and leads to fighting. I would never support such a hamstery.

In summary, being USDA licensed does not mean those hamsters are of a higher quality than any other hamsters. In fact, most of the hamsters you find at Petco, Petsmart, etc. are hamsters from these USDA licensed breeders. These are the hamsters you are getting.  Thus, I would be just as wary as you are of pet store hamsters.  It is always the same rule:  Let the buyer beware!  Don't rely on anyone -- the breeder or an outside organization -- to tell you what a quality hamster is.  Learn about hamsters yourself, and make your own decision.  Handle the hamster before buying, and make sure it meets your needs.

If you have a hamster club in your area, it would be much better to check with them before buying your hamster. Most active club breeders (and see if they are active and attending shows) spend a lot of time with their animals, are intimately familiar with their strengths and weaknesses, and handle them regularly. They would far exceed the minimum USDA standards and would have a better chance of providing you with a well-rounded and socialized hamster. If none are available in your area, try to find a small hobby breeder who focuses on temperament.
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