Tips for Choosing Good Small Pets for Kids

Pets and children are an excellent combination. Owning and caring for the right pet is often one of the best, and most memorable, parts of childhood.

By Petra Spiess

“Mom, pleeeeeze, I promise to always take care of it and to always do all my chores, homework, all the dishes every night for eternity if you let me have it!”

What parent hasn’t heard some form of this plea when visiting a pet store? Pets are a special part of childhood; the right pet can capture a child’s imagination and create fond memories that last a lifetime. But how do you know if that pet – for which your child swears she will never, EVER hit her sister again – is appropriate?

There are many inexpensive small animals commonly seen for sale in pet stores that do not make good children’s pets. What makes a pet a “good” or “bad” pet for children?

1. Ease of care. Although older children may be responsible enough to care for a small pet on their own, younger children always require supervision to ensure the health and safety of the animal.

2. Acceptance of handling. Children love to handle their pets, but small animals differ significantly in their acceptance of this.

The following is a list of commonly seen pets that are not the best choice for children, followed by more suitable alternatives.

Not Great for Kids: Hamsters and Gerbils

Hamsters and gerbils are the perennial “children’s pet.” They are inexpensive and have a high cuteness factor. However, most hamster and gerbil species are primarily nocturnal animals, and are always awake at night. As a result, they prefer to sleep during the day and are very grumpy (particularly hamsters) when awakened by small, poking fingers. It is at these times that they are particularly inclined to bite.


Hamsters and gerbils can become tame over time with gentle handling, but as every parent of young children knows, most young children have a difficult time with the concept of “gentle” or “gradual.” In addition, hamsters and gerbils are quite small, and are difficult for children to handle gently. Both are master escape artists; they seem to be able to find the tiniest crack in their cage, or opportunity for escape, and make the most of it (arguably, this is a rodent-wide trait). Although they are easy to care for, their nocturnal habits and small size makes them less-than-ideal pets for young children.


Better Bet: Rat!

Although they have never recovered from the bad press of the plague (or the movie Willard), rats are excellent pets and superior to hamsters and gerbils in many ways. Many people mistakenly believe rats are dirty. In fact, they are fastidious cleaners and, as far as any rodent can be called so, hygienic.

Highly social and intelligent, rats often form strong bonds with their owner and love to be handled (although, like most small pets, they require a gentle touch). Rats are much larger than hamsters or gerbils, making them easier to hold, but they also require larger housing. Pet rats need a cage that is at least a foot deep, a foot high, and 2 feet in width. Wire cages are the best choice as they allow for better ventilation.

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