Is There Such A Thing As Ethical Breeding?

I much prefer the term ‘responsible breeding’ because ethical is actually a bit vague and some might argue that if you are truly ethical you wouldn’t breed at all.

The short answer is yes. The longer winded answer is below!

So what is responsible breeding? This question was emailed to me by a prospective owner last week. It’s a very good question that is best answered in my blog because, as you’ll see, it needs quite a long answer!

A responsible breeder, in my opinion, is someone who breeds for a different reason than just producing pets to sell. I breed to continue my show lines or to investigate new colour mutations, or to try to standardise existing colours that haven’t been yet. Additionally, my breeding makes certain varieties available in the UK that otherwise would not be.

This key point is what separates many small animal hobby breeders from those who breed cats and dogs.

Next key point is that a responsible breeder breeds with the care of the animal as first and foremost in their minds. My cages are all set up to current welfare standards such as the Five Freedoms, and my hamsters are fed the best diets for their needs and are given the best bedding for their needs too. They don’t live in cramped or overcrowded cages and if I don’t have space to breed, I don’t breed.

Moreover, health amongst litters is tracked where owners give me details so that any worrying trends can be spotted and the line stopped. An unhealthy hamster doesn’t win shows, and isn’t a good foundation for the continuation of a line so it’s in my best interest to keep their long term health a priority.

One common misconception is that breeders contribute to the rescue population. Small animal hobby breeders don’t, with the odd exception. I know this first hand from my years running my own rescue that it is pet shops or those breeding rodents as reptile food that account for 99% of all small animals in rescue. Suffice to say I offer lifetime back up for everything I breed so that none of my hamsters have any need to go into the rescue system.

As a responsible breeder I also educate new owners on the care, bonding, feeding and health of their pets.

I don’t rehome to people who I don’t think will care for my hamsters properly. To help me achieve this aim I have a form to initially screen new enquiries and I ask a lot of questions if I spot any red flags. I have only had a problem with a hamster rehoming once, thanks to this system of checks.

I don’t breed for profit. So my hamsters have two litters in their whole lives (rarely three) and then they are free to live out their lives in retirement. If a hamster chooses not to breed (yes they can choose), then they just retire early. Sometimes, if they are young enough, I’ll rehome a retired hamster to be properly spoiled in a pet home.

By far the biggest plus point to any responsible breeding is that there is no culling. I didn’t cull when I bred mice and I don’t cull now. Instead, I sell any extra pups I get in order to fund their care and help with future plans.

So……

What’s the difference between me and a commercial scale outfit? That’s like asking what the difference is between a family with a chicken coop and a battery hen farm.

The people who supply large chain pet shops breed in huge proportions. To put some perspective on things, I had 100 pups (ish) in 2020. A commercial facility produces 1000 roborovski hamsters a week. A WEEK. If you google some of these breeders you can see the stats. This report here from 2014 gives the annual number of animals bred by a southern breeding facility at 160,000.

2000 syrian hamsters a week. The following picture is over a generic breeding cage racking system. That’s a mouse for size comparison. It’s easy to see why it’s important for commercial breeders to keep their animal’s small. There are no photos of the actual cages by the facility I mention, you can probably see why.

Laboratory Animal Equipment - Tecniplast UK

Thinking logically then we can assume that, while they may cull any unhealthy animals, the trait they are selectively breeding for is fertility. Fertility is governed by hormones and so commercially produced animals will have higher levels of testosterone and oestrogen than smaller breeder produced animals, who are not specifically selected for fertility. These higher hormone levels are thought to be responsible for the higher energy levels (near ADHD levels), and various behavioural issues found in pet shop versions of nearly all small animal species.

Additionally, to breed 2000 syrians a week means you have to have an extremely large population of hamsters or that you are breeding the same individuals constantly. A syrian’s gestation is the shortest of all hamsters at 16 days (on average). Unlike other species they cannot live together but mums are fertile again the same day they give birth. Syrians often cull a litter if you disturb them before the pups are at least a week old, ideally two weeks. Lets assume then that one mum can have one litter every four weeks.

Syrian litters are anywhere from 1 to 20 pups, but if you are breeding for optimum yield (keeping mums who give the biggest litters) then you could have an average of 15 each time. That’s 133 litters in the first week. From 133 mums. The second week you have to have another 133 mums giving you litters, and so on until you start again after week four. So that’s a potential minimum of 532 syrian mums to give you 2000 pups a week. Conservatively you’ll need, say 100 males to sire all those pups, so 632 total syrian hamsters.

Let’s digest that. 632 syrian hamsters, breeding pretty much back to back to produce 2000 pups a week. If they don’t breed them back to back then that number is even higher. So these hamsters have to be kept in racking. Racking lab cages are a minimum size of 1800 square cm by law. For a large hamster having pups all the time that’s not enough space at all. You can imagine they don’t keep older females who can’t breed anymore. There’d be no room and a business is there to make money. You therefore wouldn’t know if there are older age health conditions occurring as well as the limited feedback you’d get from sold hamsters.

We’ll stop there lest my rant continues on into a dissertation! But I hope you can already see the clear differences and clear benefits to purchasing your pet from a small hobby breeder!

Obviously, of course, adopt don’t shop where you can but there aren’t normally a lot of hamsters in rescue so if you can’t find a rescue hamster then people like me are a best alternative.

Points to look out for in a genuine hobby breeder – You’ll get knowledgeable care information and a family tree, ideally your breeder will have a prefix with the National Hamster Council, they will know what colour and species they are giving you, your animal will be sexed correctly and you’ll be able to see them before you buy (by video during covid). Good breeders won’t overcharge you or charge more for ‘rare’ colours or coat types and will ask you lots of questions about your set up and how you plan to care for your pet.

Watch out for backyard breeders who just purchased two pet shop hamsters and then try to sell the pups for upwards of £20 each. Not to say we don’t sometimes need to use animals from a smaller chain pet store that sources from a smaller breeder but the origins of your hamster should be clearly stated to you

Not all breeders will be a part of the NHC but if they are they have to follow a code of conduct which is available on the National Hamster Council’s website

If you have further questions for me please email me and I’ll do my best to answer you.

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