If you’re a parent, you’re probably well-used to your kids pestering you for a pet – that is, if you haven’t succumbed to their pleading already. The decision to allow children to have a pet can be a hard one, particularly if your kids are very young. Remember that even until well into the early teens, children are not really able to take on the full commitment of a pet and the main responsibility of caring for the pet will lie with you – therefore, think carefully about the time and commitment you are able and willing to make – as well as the cost – before deciding to add an animal to your household.
So what are good pets for younger children?
The Usual Suspects
Rats & Mice
– these are popular pets for good reason: they are relatively easy to keep and can provide hours of entertainment with their antics, crawling around their enclosure and running on their wheels. Beware though that unless tamed and socialised, they can bite if frightened and children will have to be taught the correct way to hold and handle them. For very young children, they may be a bit too fast-moving and not ‘cuddly’ enough. Hamsters are nocturnal so may not be ideal if children go to bed early – in addition, the smaller species do not tolerate clumsy handling as well as the larger Syrian varieties. Mice and rats can have a strong odour and need their cage cleaned frequently – however, rats can become very affectionate and can even learn tricks.
Guinea Pigs – these usually make good pets as they are sociable and if handled and hand-fed a lot, will become quite ‘cuddly’. They are cheap and easy to look after, although they can be messy. Short-haired varieties are much easier to care for although guinea pigs do not like to be kept alone so are often paired with another guinea pig company.
Rabbits – many people believe that rabbits do not actually make good pets for young children as they can be physically delicate and may struggle and kick if handled roughly or picked up suddenly, thus hurting the child. In addition, they are nervous of sudden changes and may run away or bite if approached quickly or loudly. However, if they have been tamed, socialised and handled gently from young – and if you have a calm child who knows how to respect animals – then rabbits can make good pets. They are quiet and can be trained to use a litter box; they are amusing to watch and can be taught to be social and affectionate with other members of the family, including other pets. They need access to some kind of sun-lit, exercise space – be it indoors or outdoors – and they also need to be supervised constantly when allowed free run of the house, as they are insatiable chewers and a hazard to things like electrical cords and furniture. They can be messy and adult involvement in their care is a must.
Cats – a kitten that grows up with young children would probably make a better pet than an adult cat, although a lot depends on the individual personality of the cat. Some are very playful and others can be as affectionate as dogs. While cats are fairly independent, they still require daily care and commitment, such as cleaning out the litter box if it is to remain indoors. In addition, cats have much lower tolerance than dogs for rough handling and adult supervision is important when allowing cats and young children together.
Dogs – dogs make fantastic pets but require a HUGE amount of time and commitment and really should not be considered unless the parents are keen to have a dog themselves. There is an enormous variety of choice in terms of size, activity levels, temperament and looks to choose from but all will require training and socialisation, as well as daily walks and other maintenance, such as grooming. Again, as in cats, puppies which grow up with young children might tolerate them better but remember, a puppy is a lot of work, especially when a parent is already busy with the needs of a toddler or preschooler, and some adult dogs are wonderful with children. It all depends on the temperament of the individual dog. However, no matter how friendly and good-natured the dog, adult supervision of all interactions between young children and dogs is absolutely vital to avoid any tragic accidents.
Birds – certain species of birds can make great pets, although a lot of adult supervision is necessary to make sure that children do not inadvertently hurt the bird by rough handling. Several of the smaller parrot species can make entertaining pets for children, being active, vocal and able to be trained to sit on a finger and mimic sounds.
More Unusual Choices
If you or your child is not keen on the usual “furry friend”, there are some other animals which can make great – if unusual – pets. Freshwater fish, for example, are actually a great option for younger children who are fascinated by their movement and colours. They are easy to care for and popular after the success of films like Finding Nemo. A related pet is ‘sea monkeys’ or brine shrimp, which can be bought in ready-to-hatch pouches together with all the kit needed to keep them. They require almost no care at all and it is fun and educational for children to observe their life-cycle over the course of several weeks, from hatching to producing further babies. Another interesting pet is an “ant farm” which is essentially a colony of ants enclosed within two panes of glass. This is again an educational as well as a fascinating pet option.
* NOTE: although pet tortoises may have been popular in the past, reptiles in general do not make good pets, except for genuine enthusiasts who understand their special needs. Different species vary hugely in their requirements and it is more of an expensive hobby than a household pet. In addition, reptiles are not really interactive in the ‘cuddly’ way that children desire.