Pets can be a wonderful experience for children, teaching them responsibility and how to care for and respect other living things. Small animals are especially popular for young kids since they are usually contained in a cage where they can be safely observed and interacted with. Before making your decision about what type of small animal is best for your family, it's important to do some research and know just what you're getting into. To help you decide, we've put together a quick guide to some of the different types of pets available today.
Probably the first small animal that enters every parent's mind when thinking of a first pet. Hamsters can be a great option for older children that know how to handle them properly. However, they are known to bite so this may not be your first choice for a young child. Hamsters have a life span of 1-3 years. They are not social with other hamsters and prefer to be kept solitary. Another thing you will want to consider is where the pet will be housed because hamsters are nocturnal and will likely make noise at night as they are active in their cage.
Gerbils are a lot of fun. They are very social and like to be kept in same sex pairs. Keeping two females together is best. The drawback to having a gerbil is that they are not fans of being held much so this is more of a pet that your child will spend time watching instead of cuddling. A gerbil's life span is 2-3 years, and they are active both during the day and at night.
Guinea pigs are one of the most popular small animals for families. They typically very quiet but will talk to their owners from time to time to get their attention. They're social animals, and do well with a buddy, so choose a same sex mate for your guinea pig if you have room for a large cage (two males are best, since females tend to fight). Guinea pigs can have long or short hair. Those with long hair need more grooming upkeep, so you'll want to take that into consideration. Guinea pigs will play with a variety of toys--wood blocks, rattles, and paper toys will all help keep your little friend entertained. Be sure to give your GP a cozy bed or hut to hang out in when he needs to chill out. Most guinea pigs respond well to gentle handling and enjoy a good back rub. Typical life spans are around 5-7 years, so be sure your family is ready for a moderately long-term commitment.
Photo by: Jared Belson
If your mind immediately thinks stinky and gross when you hear the word "rat," don't let the stereotypes fool you. Rats are one of the most social and easily handled small animals. They are larger, so they will require more space, and they need a lot of attention. They do best in pairs and spend a lot of their time interacting with their owners. This animal is more suitable for an older child who will understand how to gently interact with and hold their pet. A rat's life span is 2-3 years; they are nocturnal but will spend time interacting with you during the day, as well.
Ferrets are often known for their peculiar smell. As a member of the skunk family, they can be a bit stinky if their scent glands are not promptly removed. Aside from their smell, ferrets are very active animals and are always on the go. They are somewhat similar to cats. They love being played with and also do best in pairs. Be aware that ferrets are also known to “steal” their owner's shiny things and hide them, so you will want to keep your jewelry and other valuables put away if the ferret is roaming around the house. One neat thing about ferrets is that they will adjust their sleeping habits to coincide with yours so that they can spend their time with you. Their life span is 5-7 years. Ferrets are best for a child that is able to dedicate a lot of time to their pet.
Rabbits are high-maintenance animals. You might compare them to a cat in regards to the amount of work they require. A rabbit needs a very large cages or an area that is “bunny proofed” that they are able to spend a lot of time in to stretch their legs and hop around. They have personalities unique to themselves and are often very friendly. They do best in pairs or with a family that will spend a lot of time with them. Rabbits are highly susceptible to heat stroke so care must be taken if the rabbit is allowed to be outside during warmer months. Their life span is around 10 years, so be sure a rabbit is the right pet for your family before making the commitment.
Whatever animal you decide to welcome into your home, please remember that an animal is a big commitment that will last for many years to come. Before heading out to your local pet store to buy your new pet try searching the local humane society and rescue shelters first. Many small animals are available for adoption and would love to make their forever home with you!