If you're a parent, and your child is old enough to talk, chances are you've heard the phrase "Can we get a [cat/dog/hamster/elephant]? Please, please, pretty please?" In general, this request inspires a sense of impending doom. No matter what kind of pet you have, it's going to be a lot of work. And, no matter how much your kid tries to convince you that they'll do everything, you'll have to shoulder a certain amount of responsibility. Pet ownership means adoption fees, vet bills, food, toys, grooming, cleanup -- and who knows what else. It's not something to take lightly.
But the right kid paired with the right pet can actually mean great things for everybody. Taking on the care of an animal can teach your child how to be responsible and aware of the needs of others. A pet is a live-in nature lesson. The bond with a pet can provide immeasurable fulfillment for everyone in your family, not just your child.
But how to pick the right pet? Not to worry, this is the place to start. Check out the following pages for our list of 10 great first pets.
Hermit crabs are interesting, low-maintenance pets. Their name comes from the shells they squeeze into, leaving only their front claws and eyes peeking out at the world. These small crustaceans require a daily diet of fresh food and water, plus a misting of water to keep them moist. Housing is pretty simple, too: A tank with gravel on the bottom will do nicely. Your child will need to be attentive to the hermit crab's behavior, since they do molt regularly and require progressively larger shells to wear as they grow. Hermit crabs are a great way to introduce your child to the world of responsible pet ownership.
Small lizards can make for very interesting pets. But not every kind of lizard will work well for the novice pet owner. Iguanas and Savannah monitors start out cute and small, but they grow into lizards several feet in length -- and they're also capable of inflicting nasty bites.
Instead, consider a leopard gecko or bearded dragon. These reptiles are good starter pets due to their docile nature, low-maintenance lifestyle and small size. Though delicate in their infancy, once they reach adulthood, they're resilient and hardy creatures.
There are a few types of small birds that can make for a good introduction to the world of pet care. Canaries, for example, don't require a lot of one-on-one time, and a pair of society finches will happily keep one another entertained.
All birds require regular cage cleaning and fresh food and water, along with a cage roomy enough for a bit of flying and some toys for amusement. Small birds don't like sudden movements or unexpected noises, so they're best cared for by older, calmer children.
Gerbil, Hamster or Mouse
These three tiny members of the rodent family are all considered classic pets for children. They are, by and large, good tempered. Their main requirements in life are food, water, a clean and comfy cage, and a wheel for exercise. Most small rodents can be adequately socialized with at least five minutes of handling per day. Plus, they're cute as buttons. The biggest thing to watch out for with all three animals is that they're excellent escape artists. They can easily squeeze through very small holes, run quickly, and (this is especially true with gerbils) gnaw through some types of cages. Therefore, a healthy sense of vigilance is important.
Often overlooked in favor of their smaller cousins, these gentle rodents actually make great pets for kids. They rarely bite, they love to play hide and seek, and they'll squeak with excitement when their humans put in an appearance.
Since they prefer to live in groups, consider adopting two female guinea pigs. (Two males will be prone to fighting, unless they come from the same litter, and a male/female pair will result in lots of tiny guinea pigs.)
Guinea pigs also provide good practice for responsible pet ownership. If you're thinking about getting a bigger pet somewhere down the road, for example, longer-haired varieties are good preview for dog or cat ownership, since they need to be groomed daily in order to prevent tangles.
We've covered mice and guinea pigs, but what about rats? Read about domesticated rats on the next page.
Interested in an intelligent, affectionate, self-cleaning pet that's suitable for your child? Get a rat.
No, really. While their sewer-dwelling, dumpster diving cousins have a bad reputation, domesticated (or "fancy") rats shouldn't be tarred with the same brush. Fancy rats easily learn tricks, love to play with their humans, and meticulously groom themselves. Like guinea pigs, they're very social, so getting a pair is probably your best option. Older kids can play with their pet rats unsupervised; younger kids should be attended, though that's more for the rats' safety than the child's (rats rarely bite). And they're decidedly low-maintenance: Aside from cage upkeep and daily feeding, rats just need regular play time outside of the cage.
A fish is another classic first pet, provided you pick the right one. Goldfish are the archetypal choice, but they're notoriously fragile and require a fairly elaborate tank-and-filter setup.
Betta fish, however, are happiest in smaller bowls, no filter necessary. Bettas are beautiful fish, often jewel-toned, with long flowing fins. The bowl will need regular cleaning and water changes; consider adding an aquatic snail to your bowl, which will help keep the algae at bay. (They're fun to watch, too.) Your child can have fun decorating the bowl with gravel, plants and other accessories. A word to the wise: This is one pet that's best purchased singly, because two bettas in the same bowl will fight to the death. But a healthy, well-tended betta can live for two or three years.
An Older Dog or Cat
Though you might be tempted by the overwhelming cuteness of puppies and kittens, young animals usually don't make great starter pets. They require a lot of patience and training in order to grow into well-adjusted pets, and kids generally don't have the experience to pull that off. Instead, adopt an adult dog or cat from an animal shelter. On the whole, older animals will be much more tolerant with kids, and pets that are already trained will make it easier for your child to learn what it takes to care for them. But even the gentlest of dogs and cats require a lot of work, so be sure to help your child understand what the animal needs.
Ant farms have come a long way since their initial popularity in the 1950s. The first ant farms consisted of two pieces of glass or plastic, between which was a layer of sand. Ants busily tunneled through the sand, visible on both sides, and provided the viewer with an interesting perspective on ant life and society.
Today, there's a lot more variety; you can still get the original style, but now there are also farms with nutrient gel instead of sand, and 3-D setups instead of flat. Ant farm maintenance includes removing old food and debris, regular feedings (usually other insects, plus a honey mixture), and fresh water. Younger kids will definitely need parental assistance, but many ant farmers consider that a small price to pay for an in-home nature show.
Don't freak out! Like rats, snakes are often misunderstood. Stay away from larger snake varieties -- and, of course, anything poisonous -- and you'll find that snakes can actually be pretty cool pets for kids. The most popular variety is the corn snake, which is nonvenomous and will only grow to about 4 or 5 feet (1.2 to 1.5 meters) in length. If you adopt a young corn snake, it'll become accustomed to you very quickly, happily curling up in your hands for warmth. Your pet snake will need an aquarium (make sure there are no weak spots, to prevent escape), fresh water and a heat source. And, of course, they have to eat -- which is where some people get tripped up. Snakes are carnivores, consuming a rodent about once a week. Most captive-bred snakes are fine with pre-killed prey, which can be easily procured at a pet store. If that aspect of snake ownership isn't a problem, then the snake can offer your child many happy years of reptilian fun.
Hamsters can be bitey little buggers. HowStuffWorks explains how to stop your adorable hamster from biting the hand that feeds it.
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