The best pets for children are those that don't require a lot of nurturing or special care. They don't require grooming, walking, or even petting. (Yay!) Just the basics kids can usually handle themselves: Food, water, and shelter.
That's because kids under age 6 aren't generally capable of understanding a pet's needs and caring for it properly. When it comes to younger child, realize that a new pet is truly your new baby.
Good family pets for the under-6 set include fish, reptiles and snakes, tortoises and turtles, rats and mice, and cats. (Although the last two together probably would't be such a good idea.)
Here are 6 easy pets that can help ensure your child's first pet experience is a successful one for all involved.
Most types of fish (freshwater) are inexpensive to buy, and fish tank maintenance is minimal after the initial investment of a tank and aquarium supplies.
However, some fish are hardier than others. The best fish for toddlers are inexpensive, durable fish, such as goldfish. You don't want floaters to start off your child's animal career.
There are 18 different goldfish types, each with different physical characteristics. The common goldfish is a great fish for beginners as it's very hardy and takes minimal care. The lifespan of goldfish when well cared for is well over five years.
Begin with a solitary goldfish or beta in a simple bowl. If that's a hit, you can move on to a fish aquarium. Lighted aquariums can even function as a nightlight in a child's room.
Maintenance will be simply feeding once or twice a day, and cleaning the fishbowl or aquarium once a week. And if you keep the bowl or aquarium away from direct sunlight, algae will grow more slowly and you can clean it less often.
Little boys - and some little girls - love lizards and snakes. A lot of moms don't. That said, lizards and snakes make good pets for kids with allergies, as they are of course without fur or feathers. If your child is going to have a snake or lizard, be sure there's an adult in the house who's willing to handle it. You've got to have that back up person with these critters.
Put the reptile in an aquarium with a locked top. You don't want your daughter taking it out without your supervision. Avoid large predatory snakes, such as pythons. They're hard wired to put the squeeze on anything the same size or smaller than they are - including children.
Some reptiles, like iguanas, grow to 5 feet in length, at which point they can can become hazardous to other animals.
Others, such as pythons, can grow to a scary 13 feet in length, and then can become hazardous to everyone. Don't forget to ask how large the reptile will be at adulthood before you bring it home.
Although reptiles are generally sturdy creatures, they are still living creatures. And sturdy or not, young children shouldn't be allowed to handle them without a parent supervising the interaction. (Read 9 Tips for Preventing Zoonotic Diseases.)
When shopping for lizards, choose one that is relatively tame and doesn't try to bite.
Good lizard choices include:
When it comes to snakes, good choices include:
Tropical or desert reptiles will also need a heat source. And this will not be cheap. The bearded dragon, for example, requires a 10-gallon terrarium with a screen top for the first year. And a 40-gallon terrarium as he grows (very, very fast) up to 18 inches in length.
Many reptiles are omnivores, which means they not only eat fruit and vegetables, but steak and mice as well. This is not a simple matter of dropping in some pellets daily.
Reptiles don't need a lot of exercise (though if you released one near me, I would get a lot of exercise), and they don't need a lot of attention. Figure on about 15 to 30 minutes a day to feed them, and about an hour a week to clean the tank.
Tortoises and turtles are other good reptile choices. Make sure you provide the right environment for your species.
Turtles and tortoises can be affectionate, and are quite long-lived: 30 to 40 years for the box turtle alone. This is one animal it will likely pay to consider having pet insurance for.
Good starter types include the red-eared slide, the box turtle, and Russian tortoises.
Even though they look sturdy, be sure the kids are careful not to drop them.
It could injure their shells, or their internal organs. Tortoises, in particular, shouldn't be handled often.
Rats and mice are two different species with two different personalities. Rats are especially intelligent and friendly, despite their nasty looking tails.
Mice are cute and fun to watch in the cages, but are too squirmy and nippy for much holding and loving. If you want a love bucket - get a rat. Hold them at the store and if the rat is a nipper, request another one. Also, the younger you get them, the easier they are to tame and bond with.
Male or female? Good question. Male rat urine can be a bit smelly. And males like to mark their territory with a drop or three of urine - a drawback if you let him out.
On the other hand, males are a lot calmer and more loving. If you change the litter at least once a week, smell should not be an issue.
You'll need a special place for a rat cage, because the shavings or litter can be messy. And the cages take up a lot of room: Each rat needs a minimum of two cubic feet of living space. So if you have a rat couple, that means you'll need a cage of 2 feet by 2 feet.
Rats also need to be let out to run around at least a few minutes each day. You or your child will need to supervise this outing, as they like to nibble through electrical cords and other wires. And of course you don't want them getting lost in your closets or walls, either. Rats live 2 to 4 years; mice 1 to 3.
Birds aren't good pets for kids under the age of 8. Younger children generally aren't gentle enough with them to properly care for them.
And young children dart around, and alarm birds. Small birds, however, make excellent pets for kids aged 8 and older.
If you buy a bird that has been hand-raised, it should bond readily with its new owner and be quite tame - as long as you handle it regularly and gently.
Small birds are easy pets because they are generally confined to the cage and cannot wreak too much havoc. You'll need to change the papers in the cage daily, and replenish its food and water.
You'll need to do a more thorough cleaning about one a week. Cockatiels and parakeets are particularly good choices for kids. Smaller birds, such as finches and canaries, are mainly for watching, not petting.
Cats and kittens are sweet and cuddly. They're definitely low maintenance: You can go away for a weekend and just leave food and water out for them. They're not messy - in fact, they're fastidious - and will look at you in dismay if you neglect to clean their litter boxes regularly.
Of course, they have their drawbacks. They shed. A lot of people are allergic to them.
And, if you don't provide them with alternate places to scratch, such as a cardboard or carpeted scratching post, they can literally shred furniture and floor coverings in a matter of days. Cats live about 15 to 20 years.
Don't get kittens for small children: Cats between age 1 and 3 years have all the playful kitten attributes, but are a bit hardier and can easily elude rough little hands.
Finally, be careful introducing a new cat into a home with another cat or dogs.