Getting a child their first pet brings a lot of rewards, but also a lot of responsibility. If you’ve been thinking of adding a pet to the family, here are a few things to consider.
My daughter has been asking to get a guinea pig for a while now, and the only reason I haven’t yet acquiesced is because we already have a dog, two cats, and bird — for now, our animal quota is filled. But I may give in (don’t tell her) because I love animals, had a lot of them as a kid myself, and I want my kids to have the same fulfilling relationships with their pets as I had with mine.
There’s a lot of data to back up why kids should have pets, from reduced allergies to increased empathy and learning responsibility; a recent study has even that found having a pet can increase social skills in children with autism. But getting a pet, especially for a child, is not a decision that should be made lightly.
A pet is a big responsibility. Even a tiny hamster has big needs. A child should never be solely responsible for a pet’s daily needs, so if the grown ups in the house aren’t ready to take on the extra work of an animal, then the timing isn’t right, no matter how much your kids are begging for one.
The right age for a first pet depends, generally around eight or nine is when my kids were able to take over responsibilities like feeding the cats or changing out the bird’s food and water by themselves. After I repeatedly remind them, of course.
And science or no, for me it’s easy to see the benefits: They’re learning to care about someone other than themselves at young age and to experience the joys unique to having an animal pal.
So, in my personal experience, what are the best pets?
Though most of us tend to go for a small, caged animal like a hamster or gerbil or mouse, these are actually not high on my list. They’re nocturnal for one, which means they’re not as fun during the day, and can sometimes be noisy at night. Their cages require regular cleaning, they can be escape artists and also can be prone to biting. So, stay with me here, the best animal in this category is: A rat.
Once you get past them being, well, rats, they’re actually very sweet and docile and can even learn tricks. Rats enjoy playtime outside of their cages, and they even like to swim! For a larger caged rodent, guinea pigs are also a good choice; but with the caveat that they need a lot of space, don’t like to live alone, can sometimes be shy, and have have particular dietary needs. Plus they make super cute little squeaking noises.
Leopard Geckos are considered to be a good first reptile, as they can live in a smallish tank, and don’t need special lighting. They also don’t mind being handled, aren’t aggressive, and are pretty hardy: They can live up to twenty years, so make sure you’re ready have a gecko friend around for while.
We have a budgie, also known as a parakeet, and I definitely recommend them as a great first pet. They’re lovely to look at for one, and sing lovely songs. The cage is easy enough to keep clean, and their food needs are pretty basic.
As a kid, I had a parakeet that was hand tamed and would sit on my shoulder while I watched TV or hang out on my bed as I did homework. Unfortunately the parakeet we have now does not like to be handled, so it really can vary based on the individual bird. Males tend to be more friendly, and it helps to get them young and handle them often. Parakeets also prefer to live in pairs, as they’re very social. If you only get one, be sure it gets plenty of social time and attention.
Finally, my personal favorite first pet for a kid is a cat. In particular, adopting a cat that is already established as being good with children. Though they seem like more work, cats are actually pretty self-sufficient. They need a full food bowl, water, and a litter box, and otherwise they’re content to do their own thing. And contrary to popular belief, most cats aren’t cold and standoffish at all, they just show their affection in quiet, low-key ways. Nothing beats a snuggling, purring cat.
My kids have grown up with cats in the home, and consider them to be their best buds.
Of course, young children especially should always be monitored around any pet, and taught how to handle them carefully and respectfully.
With the holidays coming up, many people may be considering a pet as a gift.
In the right circumstances, after thoughtfully considering if the entire house is ready for the commitment of a pet, this can be a great idea. Many shelters have a wide variety of pets available for adoption, not just dogs and cats, but rodents and reptiles and birds as well.
Consider giving a Petfinder pet adoption certificate as a gift instead of the animal itself, giving the recipient time to pick the perfect pet for them, and giving a second chance to a pet in need of a home.