Start Small: What’s the Best First Pet for Your Child?
Pets provide an excellent opportunity for children to learn about responsibility, relationships and other valuable life lessons. However, caring for a pet shouldn’t be taken lightly. Children, especially young ones, should start with a pet that’s hardy, easy to care for and friendly. A pet that’s chosen specifically for your child can offer years of fun and happiness. From hamsters, guinea pigs and ferrets to bunnies, hermit crabs and fish, there’s a pet for every family and situation.
When deciding on a first pet, it’s important to consider the pet’s specific needs and your capability—and your child’s—to care properly for the pet. While pets can provide great physical and psychological benefits, including decreased blood pressure and lowered anxiety levels, it’s usually a good idea to do a little research before bringing a small animal, bird or reptile home. (That’s not to say the pet search can’t be spontaneous. Feel free to ask for help or ask questions at the pet store.)
Some pets are very social, while others (such as fish) can only be watched. Some pets are active during the day—guinea pigs, for example—but other pets (such as hamsters and hermit crabs) prefer a nocturnal schedule. Dietary and exercise needs can vary drastically depending on the pet’s species, as can requirements for heating, exposure to UV light and other conditions.
Additionally, there are certain care requirements that are unique to each pet type. You should thoroughly research the pet you are interested in to determine if you and your child are ready for the commitment. Some reptiles, like aquatic turtles, are potential carriers of infectious diseases such as Salmonella, and are not recommended for children. While a child can be a primary caretaker of some pets, parental supervision is necessary with others for safety reasons. It’s good practice to always wash your hands and use hand sanitizer after handling pets, especially reptiles and small animals like hamsters and rats. Parents should always supervise younger children to make sure they practice safe animal handling.
Entertaining and Cuddly: Small Animals
When it comes to the furry side of the small pet spectrum, rodents and small mammals take first place for a child’s first pet. They’re small, cute and cuddly. They’re active, social and friendly. And as they bounce around their brightly colored habitats or roll around the house supervised in a small animal exercise ball, they’re extremely entertaining to watch. Some rodents, such as guinea pigs, are excellent starter pets for young children, whereas other pets, including ferrets, require much more time and attention.
Guinea pigs are small, heavy-bodied rodents native to South America. They are one of the largest rodents—weighing between 1.5 and 2.5 pounds—with males typically heavier than females. Guinea pigs have docile, calm temperaments, but they’re known for their unique, outgoing personalities and social nature. When particularly excited or happy to see a favorite person, guinea pigs chirp, grunt or make a variety of other sounds. They also hop in the air when they’re happy, which is called “popcorning.”
Guinea pigs are a great first pet for children old enough to handle them gently and treat them with respect. Due to their larger size (in relation to other rodents), a single guinea pig requires an escape-proof habitat that has at least eight square feet of total floor space (larger is better). There are many options for housing; just make sure to set up their habitat indoors since guinea pigs are susceptible to changes in temperature and thrive in a calm location. Bedding should be placed in the bottom of their habitat (paper bedding, crumbled paper bedding or hardwood shavings are best) and they need a hiding place, such as a tube or tunnel.
These friendly animals primarily eat pellets and hay, although they do need a selection of fresh fruit and vegetables to supplement their dry diet. Offer guinea pigs small slivers of orange, kale, broccoli or strawberries with their food. If you opt not to feed them raw foods, guinea pigs require a daily vitamin C supplement to remain healthy. To keep their teeth in check, provide plenty of wood chew sticks. Brush long-haired guinea pigs and trim nails when necessary.
Hamsters come in many different species and varieties, including short-haired, long-haired and hairless. They vary widely in size and coat type, although the most common hamster is the Syrian, or Golden, hamster. Regardless of species, hamsters tend to be cute, small, fuzzy, round, inquisitive critters with large cheeks and short tails. They are active at night and prefer to live alone because they are territorial.
Hamsters make great family pets and are perfect for people living in apartments or dorm rooms. Hamsters live up to two to three years with proper care and require a habitat with an exercise wheel or tubes to climb and explore. They don’t require a lot of grooming, but long-haired species may need brushing. While friendly when tamed, hamsters are very easily startled and may nip when woken up from a nap or frightened by loud noises, sudden movement or rough handling. Hamsters are best-suited for older children since they are fragile and require very gentle handling.
They eat a commercially prepared diet of high-quality hamster food and limited amounts of grains, vegetables and fruit. Offer wood chew sticks to keep teeth from growing too long.
Rats are outgoing, highly social animals. These sleek, large rodents require several hours of daily interaction and companionship, so if your child is unable to fully meet a rat’s social needs, then it’s better to get a same-sex pair of rats that have been raised together. Rats come in all colors, shades and coat types. They weigh anywhere from just under one pound for females all the way to two pounds or more for larger males.
Rats are very clean animals. They can be litter box trained and taught to do tricks. A healthy pet rat can live up to three years. They require a large, tall habitat with bedding, toys and opportunities for mental stimulation (such as climbing activities, tubes, wheels, puzzle games or hiding places). Rats rarely need baths but can be spot cleaned with a damp washcloth or small animal wipes.
Rats should eat a commercially prepared diet of high-quality rat food or blocks, supplemented with small servings of fresh foods. Rats especially enjoy nuts, seeds, grains, fruit and veggies. They are gnawers, so they need plenty of wood chew sticks to help keep their constantly growing teeth in check.
Rabbits are intelligent, affectionate, friendly pets that enjoy being social and involved in family activities. Bunnies can vary in size from two-pound dwarf breeds all the way up to the 14-pound-plus Flemish giant. While rabbits can safely live outdoors in well-lit, clean, warm hutches, keeping pet bunnies indoors helps them stay safe and meet their needs for social interaction. These super soft, long-eared buddies can do simple tricks and be litter box trained.
A healthy rabbit can live 5 to 10 years with proper care, so adding a bunny to your family is more of a commitment than some of the other pets on this list. Bunnies do not typically like to be carried, although they enjoy being snuggled on laps. Rabbits are fragile and can be seriously injured if dropped, so they’re best suited to older children.
While most people picture rabbits living in habitats, they can be taught to free-roam in a pet-proofed room after they’ve been litter box trained. A bunny should have a habitat of its own, though, even if allowed free reign of a specific room. They are fastidious self-groomers and rarely need baths, but may be bathed with a shampoo specifically designed for rabbits and kittens. It’s a good idea to clean outside the ears frequently with a cotton ball and check in with a veterinarian if the teeth or nails get too long.
Rabbits eat high-quality rabbit pellets and/or timothy hay, although they also need leafy greens such as spinach or carrot tops. Provide wood chew sticks for rabbits to gnaw on.
Affectionately referred to as “carpet snakes,” ferrets are fun-loving, mischievous, clever members of the weasel family that make excellent pets and family members. They’re highly interactive and require several hours of play a day. Likened to kittens that never grow up, ferrets love to chase small balls, play gentle wrestling games or romp around with stuffed animals or other small objects.
Ferrets require large, multi-level habitats with ample space for play and exploration. They need hammocks or small spaces to sleep in, tubes or balls to exercise in and opportunities to climb and stretch. Ferrets can live up to eight years with proper care. They can have a slightly musky odor, but their scent glands can be removed and regular baths help them smell fresh and clean. The joyful antics and escapades of a ferret can easily entertain the entire family, but these pets are best kept by older children, with supervision from parents.
All ferrets should be properly vaccinated, which includes a series of distemper vaccinations and a rabies vaccination. Ferrets should receive a temporary distemper shot at six weeks of age, then the series of distemper vaccines at nine, 12 and 16 weeks of age and then once annually. A rabies vaccination should be given at 13 to 16 weeks and then once annually. Check with your veterinarian to schedule the necessary vaccines for your ferret and your state’s requirements.
These long, furry, short-legged animals eat high-protein diets consisting of commercial ferret food and treats. They are strict carnivores and too many carbohydrates can lead to health issues.
Extraordinary and Stunning: Reptiles and Crustaceans
The appeal of cold-blooded critters such as leopard geckos, bearded dragons or hermit crabs may not be immediate. But when you consider that most reptiles require small amounts of interaction and don’t take up much space, their draw as a first pet is a little more obvious.
Leopard geckos are one of the most popular pet lizards. These colorful creatures require minimal space (a 10- to 20-gallon glass aquarium) and they can live up to 10 years with proper care. Leopard geckos make great pets for children ages 10 and up. Though these active and alert geckos are fun to watch, it’s best to keep handling to a minimum since over handling can cause them stress. On very rare occasions, leopard geckos may bite.
A gecko’s habitat should have multiple hiding areas with non-toxic plants, branches, logs and cork. Geckos require external heating, such as a lamp or hot rock. They also need proper humidity (no less than 50%) to promote shedding. To help leopard geckos shed, a shedding box with sphagnum moss can be added to the tank.
A well-balanced leopard gecko diet consists of insects, including crickets, small mealworms and waxworms.
Known for being alert, hardy and tame, this type of lizard makes for a great pet. They get their name from the beard-like appearance of the spiny skin under their throats. The average adult reaches 12 to 18 inches long (half of which is the tail) and lives between three and 10 years with proper care. Full of personality, bearded dragons are fun to watch and will interact with humans (though it’s always a good idea to supervise children when handling lizards).
Bearded dragons require different size and shape habitats depending on their size and growth rate, sometimes a 75-gallon tank or larger. Check with a veterinarian that specializes in reptiles to determine your lizard’s specific housing needs. Bearded dragons like hiding areas—they spend part of the day in hiding—as well as branches for basking in the light (they require 10 to 12 hours of UVB light every day).
Bearded dragons need the right level of humidity (no less than 50%) to shed their skin regularly. To aid in the shedding process, they may need to be soaked in a bath here and there. Their diet includes crickets, mealworms, superworms, vegetables and fruit.
These tiny nocturnal scavengers are relatively low maintenance and non-aggressive. They can live for 10 or more years with proper care and grow to six inches long, depending on the species. They are very social and do well in groups, but they can also be housed individually.
Despite their small stature, hermit crabs require more exact care compared to other larger pets so they may be best suited for older children. Hermit crabs typically molt, or shed their skin, once or twice a year by burying themselves in their sand. The process can take between four and eight weeks. And as hermit crabs grow, they need to transition to larger shells (around 10 to 15% larger than the current shell). The crabs prefer to choose the right shell, so they must be provided with an assortment of appropriate shells. Once weekly, hermit crabs should be bathed with fresh, de-chlorinated water then allowed to dry before returning to the habitat.
Adult hermit crabs should live in a 10-gallon terrarium or larger. Provide these social creatures with climbing décor and ample hiding areas. Though their name suggests otherwise, hermit crabs love to explore and stay active (primarily at night).
Hermit crabs are omnivores that require high-quality hermit crab food. They also enjoy vegetables and non-citrus fruits, such as mango, banana peels, coconut and papaya as treats.
Underwater Wonders: Fish
Bettas, also known as Siamese fighting fish, are small, brightly colored fish that are fairly simple to care for. Male Bettas have gorgeous flowing fins and tails and can live with certain other fish, including Danios and Mollies, but not with other male Bettas. Female Bettas can usually share a tank with other female Bettas, as well as some other fish, such as Danios and Mollies.
Bettas can live in quarter-gallon tanks, although the more space you provide a Betta, the happier it will be. Personalizing a Betta tank can be a lot of fun and can reflect your interests. Provide décor such as pretty rocks or driftwood and other decorations to give your fish a place to hide and feel secure. Complete a partial water change every couple of weeks and provide food specifically made for Bettas, as well as flakes or pellets made for other fish companions.
Feathered Friends: Birds
Parakeets are colorful birds that come in vivid shades of blue, green and yellow. Parakeets, also called budgies, are playful pets that enjoy human interaction and can learn to mimic people. They can live anywhere from 10 to 20 years with proper care.
Parakeets need to live in an appropriately sized habitat with perches and foraging toys, which provide mental stimulation. They can live alone, though they need daily human interaction, or they can be housed in pairs that have been raised together. They eat a specialized commercial mix of high-quality bird food, as well as vegetables and fruit and small amounts of fortified seeds. They require baths, nail trimming and optional wing trimming (by an avian veterinarian).
Pets are a great way for kids of any age to learn responsibility, companionship and social skills. Parental involvement and open discussion will help children learn to be patient with pets and treat them with respect and kindness.
Find small animal habitats and supplies on Petco.com here