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.
Rats are easy to care for, needing fresh water, rat chow (sold in pet stores) and some toys, such as an exercise wheel. Because rats are so social, they do best with the companionship of another rat, but make sure to get rats of the same sex or two rats will quickly become six to eight. If you can get over the “creepiness” of the naked tail – which in many cases makes them more, not less attractive to kids – rats can make excellent pets for children.
Not Great for Kids: Iguanas and Box Turtles
Because reptiles naturally carry salmonella bacteria, which can cause illness in humans, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends reptiles not be kept in households with children under 5, pregnant women or people with compromised immune systems.
Despite their being commonly found in pet stores, there are few pets more inappropriate for children (and many adults) than green iguanas. Iguanas are beautiful animals, but the 6-inch long lizard seen in the pet store rapidly becomes the 6-foot long adult iguana. There is no aquarium large enough to house an adult animal. Iguanas have elaborate care requirements. They do not produce their own body heat, so they require a supplemental heat source as well as additional, full spectrum lighting to provide the vitamin D that is required to keep them healthy. And feeding adult iguanas is not just a matter of throwing in some iceberg lettuce once in a while; iguanas need daily feeding of a wide variety of high-quality greens and vegetables, as well as calcium supplementation.
Children like to be able to handle their pets, and iguanas are not very happy to oblige. Reptiles in general do not like to be handled; they are not social animals and are often stressed by human handling. And while iguanas can become tame over time, the effort required to make them so is much greater than with other reptiles and certainly much higher than with most fuzzy pets. Adult iguanas, particularly males, can be very aggressive during some parts of the year.
Meanwhile, box turtles are also routinely found for sale in pet stores and are a common children’s pet. Although box turtles are very docile and will tolerate handling, their care requirements are much more challenging than children, and most adults, realize or can accommodate (unless the turtle is kept outside year round in an area that falls within its natural habitat). Box turtles require a fairly large cage, sufficient heating, high quality food, calcium supplementation, full spectrum lighting and a hibernation period of four to six months.
Of all common children’s pets, box turtles have by far the longest life span, possibly living up to 100 years. Your child’s box turtle would still be hale and hearty when the first grandchildren arrive – a time commitment most people are unwilling to make to a pet.
Better Bet: Corn Snake or Leopard Gecko
Although reptiles are not recommended as pets in households with children under 5, some reptiles can make excellent and easy-to-care-for pets for older children. Even children with the strongest allergies to fuzzy pets can own a pet reptile because they are totally non-allergenic.
One of the easiest-to-care-for reptile pets is the corn snake. Corn snakes are native to the southeastern United States, but are very commonly bred in captivity and come in a dazzling variety of colors and patterns. The adult length of a corn snake is around 4 to 5 feet, and their circumference is about that of an average garden hose. This is in contrast to some snakes, such as Burmese pythons and Colombian boa constrictors, which start out as small baby snakes but soon reach gigantic and totally inappropriate sizes. Corn snakes can be easily housed in a 15- to 20-gallon aquarium with a secure wire top, but they do require a heat source, such as a heat lamp or under-tank heating pad on one side of the cage. Corn snakes need to be fed an appropriately sized mouse once a week (this may be off-putting to some families).
As far as handling is concerned, corn snakes are generally very docile and tolerate handling well. Parents should not allow unsupervised handling of any reptile by children under age 12, and all children should be taught to wash their hands afterward.
If the lack of legs and mouse feeding is undesirable, consider a leopard gecko. Leopard geckos are large (approximately 8 to 10 inches long as adults), ground-dwelling geckos that make excellent pets for older children. A pair of adult leopard geckos can be comfortably housed in a 15-gallon aquarium with a screen top. As with other reptiles, leopard geckos require a heat source on one side of the cage in order to digest their food properly. Leopard geckos cannot climb glass like other geckos, which makes them much less likely to escape. The primary diet of leopard geckos is crickets and mealworms, in addition to a calcium supplement.
Adult leopard geckos are very gentle and easily handled, but again, kids under age 12 should always be supervised when handling their pet. Everyone, including adults, who handles leopard geckos must wash their hands afterward. Although their care is significantly different from fuzzy pets, and they require some precautions, there are few other pets that can impress as much as a corn snake or leopard gecko at show and tell!
Not Great for Kids: Rabbits
Many rabbits are given as gifts on Easter, only to be turned in to an animal shelter weeks later. Although rabbits have many good qualities, they have several detractions as pets. Rabbits (with the exception of the very dwarf varieties) can get quite big, requiring large housing. As a prey species, rabbits are easily frightened by loud noises and sudden handling-conditions that are givens with kids. In these situations, rabbits can bite or inflict serious scratches. If the animal is allowed to run loose in the house, and rabbits do need time outside their cages for exercise, they can be very destructive chewers.
Better Bet: Guinea Pig
One of the best overall pets for children in nearly every department is the guinea pig. Guinea pigs are easily tamed, love to be handled, don’t require large housing, and are easily cared for. As with all pets, gentle handling is required, but guinea pigs rarely bite or scratch and can become very attached to their owners. When petted, guinea pigs make adorable “purring” type noises that delight adults and children alike.
Cages to house guinea pigs can be easily and inexpensively purchased at a local pet supply store, but make sure not to purchase a cage that has a wire mesh bottom (generally used for rabbits) as guinea pigs have small feet and can hurt themselves in this type of cage. Guinea pigs are easy to feed, requiring only pressed alfalfa pellets, alfalfa hay, fresh water and a variety of different fresh vegetables to supplement their diet.
Make It Good
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. Pet ownership leads to a wealth of educational opportunities, as children are often excited to read and learn about their new friend.
Although some children, especially older children, may be responsible enough to care for their pet, it is always the parent’s responsibility to ensure the animal is receiving the care it requires. Selecting the right small animal pet will increase the pleasure of pet ownership for children and parents alike.
Petra Spiess is a freelance writer who owned a business breeding snakes and lizards for five years before the production of her own hatchling.
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