A Discussion on Hamster Welfare: Why Do Different Countries and Organizations Have Different Standards for Hamster Care?
If you’ve seen our page on hamster enclosure standards from around the world, you'll notice that the minimum size requirements can vary significantly depending on the organization and country. In some cases, certain organizations may advocate for substantially larger enclosures, while others may need to reconsider their stances and increase their minimum size recommendations to better ensure the welfare of hamsters. This article tackles the various reasons for the discrepancy in hamster care and welfare.
Countries vary in legal guidelines for hamster care
Various countries have established specific legal guidelines pertaining to the care of hamsters and their general animal welfare.
According to the Code of Federal Regulations in the United States, hamsters are required to be housed in an enclosure that is at least 5.5 inches (14cm in height) for a Syrian hamster, and 5 inches for a dwarf hamster. For the floor space, if your hamster has pups, the legal requirement is at least 121 square inches (780 sqcm). If your hamster is a dwarf hamster, the legal requirement is even smaller at 25 square inches of floor space (161 sqcm).
In Canada, the CCAC (Canadian Council on Animal Care) sets a minimum of 100 sqin (650 sqcm). They recommend having at least 7 inches or 18cm of height. They do acknowledge that hamsters are solitary animals, but also provide that hamsters kept in groups (such as breeding hamsters), need an extra 15 sqin (100sqcm) of floor space per animal.
Germany is known for their high standards of hamster care. The Bundesministerium für Ernährung und Landwirtschaft recommends a minimum of 5,000 square centimeters or 775 square inches. However, this is only a recommendation and is not a statutory implementation. This means pet stores can still sell enclosures well below this minimum and anyone who keeps hamsters below this minimum won’t be punished by the law. The statutory law according to the European Parliament is the hamsters must be kept at a minimum of 800sqcm (124 sqin).
Switzerland prohibits the confinement of multiple Syrian hamsters in one cage. Swiss regulations mandate a minimum enclosure size of 1,800 square centimeters (approx. 280 square inches) and require a minimum of 15 centimeters (approx. 6 inches) of bedding for Syrian hamsters. However, the Swiss Animal Protection Agency has recommended that Syrian hamsters be kept at a minimum of 10,000 sqcm (1550 sqin) and dwarf hamsters kept at 8,000 sqcm (1240 sqin).
While many of these legal requirements fall below the standards we advocate for, they serve as a crucial foundation. They ensure that pet stores cannot sell cages smaller than these dimensions. It also means that these laws can be improved.
Having laws that protect animal welfare also means that people can get in trouble for harming animals. In the United States, for instance, signed the PACT (Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture) Act in 2019. This act banned the creation and distribution of videos that depict people torturing or killing small animals like hamsters.
While organizations and individuals may establish their own “minimum standards,” it's important to understand that only legal regulations are enforceable with legal actions. If you want to see how your country fairs with general animal welfare laws, we highly recommend checking this tool created by World Animal Protection.
Please see our list of petitions you can sign to improve enclosure sizes for hamsters and to learn more about the various standards in different countries.
Many countries have no guidelines for hamster care
In certain countries where hamsters are available, there are no laws or legal guidelines for their care. While these nations may have broader animal welfare laws that cover larger and more traditional animals (like dogs or cats), they often do not extend these protections to smaller animals like hamsters. This legal gap can result in varying standards of care.
Without specific guidelines, hamster owners may not be aware of the best practices for their care, leading to potential health and well-being issues for these small creatures. The lack of legal oversight can make it challenging to hold individuals or businesses accountable for improper treatment or neglect of hamsters.
Many animal welfare advocates and organizations stand up for the inclusion of hamsters and other small pets in comprehensive animal welfare legislation to ensure their proper care and protection. In countries where legal guidelines are limited or lacking, people often turn to hamster care organizations or clubs for their information.
Hamster communities and clubs face the challenge of pushback
Many people join hamster organizations, clubs, and communities that are usually specific to the area that they live in. These organizations/clubs often have leaders or a team of people who decide on the standards they use and the information they spread to the people in their community. Many of them create care sheets and information posts, and most communities try to stay up-to-date and have the hamster’s welfare as their priority.
However, even with new information, sometimes jumping to a higher standard is not always easy. Some organizations aim to make hamster keeping more accessible to a broader audience by setting inclusive standards that more people can initially follow. This makes the barrier to entry for their organization low, and many people who are leaders of these communities try to set an example and encourage members to improve their hamster’s living conditions. This approach allows them to encourage proper care while recognizing that not everyone may have immediate access to a wide range of suitable enclosures.
Setting an exceptionally high standard in areas where commercial options are limited or expensive could potentially deter people from providing proper care, leading them to purchase unsuitable enclosures instead. Thus, to them, a gradual approach to raising standards can be a more practical and effective way to promote hamster welfare.
Lack of Research or Outdated Research
There are some organizations that promote smaller standards for different reasons too. Some might lack comprehensive research on hamster care. Hamster care in the 1990 - 2010’s looked very different, and there are some organizations that still follow these standards.
One of the books that provided hamster care guidelines is the book “The Hamster Handbook” by Patricia Bartlett published in 2003. Some of the things that she recommends in her book are the following:
- A cage that’s 15 inches by 12 inches (180 sqin or 1200 sqcm)
- Recommends the use of “hamster balls” to give pets a chance to roam safely
- Changing the substrate of the cage once a week
Many of these things used to be acceptable care practices. However, with more research and awareness in the community, we now have different opinions on this advice. We now know that hamsters require far more space than what was once recommended. We know that hamster balls are dangerous. And we know complete cage cleans are very stressful.
Companies make inappropriate cages because they’re easy to sell to children
Organizations and companies often adopt smaller enclosure standards for various reasons. For many companies; the purpose is definitely for monetary gain. Most cages that are advertised for hamsters in pet stores tend to be marketed to small children—they are bright in color, shaped like toys, and barely provide enough space for a wheel or for a hamster to burrow.
Take cages from the Tiny Tales series for example, some are shaped like castles, dinosaurs, and even firetrucks. These cages look exciting and enticing to children, but are so impractical and even hazardous for hamsters to live in. Hamsters cannot even enjoy these enclosures for temporary play due to the various ways they could get hurt. A lawsuit was filed in 2019 against PetSmart for these cages.
Shelters have limited resources
Many shelters worldwide operate independently, without government funding, and often rely on the personal finances of their dedicated owners. As a result, both the physical space and essential resources for housing hamsters and other small animals are typically in short supply. Many of these shelters depend on the generosity of donors, and due to the rapid breeding rate of hamsters, they often find themselves stretched to capacity due to surrenders stemming from individuals who have chosen to surrender their hamsters.
Hamsters also reproduce quickly and rapidly, and a single pair can average 6-8 pups in a single litter. This rapid breeding rate can quickly overwhelm shelters with limited resources, leading to overcrowded and stressful conditions for the animals. The high number of surrenders to these shelters, stemming from unplanned hamster pregnancies or individuals who can no longer care for their pets, further compounds the capacity issues they face.
The ASPCA reports that every year 6.3 million companion animals enter animal shelters in the United States. Shelter Animals Count reports that there are just more people surrendering animals than people adopting those animals. Many shelters have to support hamsters and their vet care, up until the end of the animal’s life due to the high probability of the hamster permanently living in the shelter.
Despite these challenges, it is essential to recognize the dedication and hard work of shelter volunteers who strive to provide the best care possible given their constraints. Supporting local shelters, whether through adoption, donations, or volunteering, can make a significant difference in the lives of these small animals.
Commercial Breeding Practices, Rodent Mills, and the Pet Trade
The pet trade in many countries lacks uniform animal welfare standards. This lack of consistency in care can result in a spectrum of conditions, from responsible breeders who prioritize the health and temperament of their animals to those who prioritize mass production and sales at the expense of animal welfare.
Commercial breeding practices, often associated with rodent mills, raise significant concerns regarding the welfare of animals in the pet trade. These operations are driven primarily by profit. Because of this, they prioritize quantity over quality and frequently disregard the animal’s well-being.
Rodent mills, similar to puppy mills for dogs, often subject small animals like hamsters, mice, and rats to overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. The animals within these facilities are typically treated as commodities, with minimal regard for their physical or psychological needs. An article done by HamsterWelfare.com shows the kind of cages and conditions rodents are subjected to in rodent mills.
An exposé done by Ameena Schelling on Homes Farm , a large Pennsylvania-based breeder who supplies animals to PetCo, PetSmart and other chain pet stores in the United States. Her article covers an extensive three-month investigation conducted by PETA on this company and shows the squalid and inhumane conditions these animals face. Companies like this regularly commit animal abuse for profit.
According to the Animal Welfare Institute, the United States does not include animals that are subjected to testing in their welfare laws. This includes rats, mice, and certain birds. AWI reports that the basic standards for their housing and care are also not overseen by USDA veterinary inspectors. They also claim that the number of these animals used in research is also not reported.
AWI states, “The federal Animal Welfare Act was amended in 1970 to include all warm-blooded animals who are commonly experimented upon. However, the term 'animals,' for purposes of the protections delineated in the statute, is defined so as to expressly exclude rats, mice, and birds—the very animals who constitute the majority of animals in research!”
The lack of comprehensive regulations and oversight allows substandard practices to persist, making it crucial for consumers to make informed choices when acquiring small pets like Hamsters, and for authorities to implement stricter standards to protect these animals.
The fight for good welfare
In their book “Domestic Animals, Humans, and Leisure: Rights, Welfare, and Wellbeing” Drummond titles hamsters (alongside some other exotic pets such as guinea pigs, rabbits, parrots, and reptiles) as “marginalized companion animals”.
Animals that fall into this category are considered a minority in the pet world and have limited access to qualified veterinary care and other resources usually available to more popular animals such as cats and dogs. Most of the time, these animals are wild or semi-wild animals.
Caged animals such as hamsters tend to be subjected to a lower standard of care. Many times, the care that is given to them satisfies human desires and aesthetics more than it satisfies their own natural behavior.
Drummond writes “caged pets are expected to fulfill their roles in the human sphere from within the confines of their compact and minimalist spaces”. Humans get fulfillment out of owning a living creature. They depend on us, and many times we benefit from this care. However, when they’re provided a less-than-livable environment, it emphasizes that their ownership is more for humans than it is for them.
The environments that humans put them there tend to lack most of the necessities that they need to freely express the natural behaviors they would find in the wild. For hamsters, this could mean a lack of deep bedding, the lack of access to a decently sized enclosure. Many of the people who keep these animals justify their substandard living conditions because they’re provided with “water, food, shelter and some interaction”. However, it has been shown in studies that hamsters that lack enrichment, bedding, and live in small cages are all prone to becoming more stressed (Bethell 2015, Hauzenberger 2006, Fischer 2005, Kuhnen 1999).
The hamster minimum is a human-imposed limitation. In the wild, hamsters have miles and miles of space that they can freely roam or occupy. There is pushback from certain communities or legal institutions to increase or set a high legal minimum for hamsters standards possibly because people cannot or do not want to invest that much money or space on an animal they spent so little on acquiring. The sad reality is, for many people, it is not worth it to them, nor is it a priority. Many times, people will not even seek veterinary care as vets for exotic pets tend to cost more than that of a dog or cat.
According to The Unusual Pet Vets (An Exotic Veterinary Clinic), they state that one of the most common questions they receive is “Why do [you] charge what [you] do for a consultation when [your] patients are often ‘worth’ less than that?…I could buy another 10 rabbits/chickens/guinea pigs/rats for that!”
Drummond states “human caretakers deny marginalized companion animals all but the most rudimentary of existence”. To paraphrase a saying used often in the community, these hamsters and other marginalized animals like them are surviving and not just living.
We need to do better
While we can acknowledge that certain regions and areas may have more difficulty meeting our standard of hamster care, it's crucial to remember that our hamsters are not aware of our human limitations. Regardless of the circumstances, it is our duty as hamster parents to ensure that these small animals have access to at least a basic standard of living.
By acknowledging this responsibility and striving to at minimum meet their basic requirements, we can help ensure the well-being and happiness of our hamster companions, regardless of the constraints we may face.
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