The key to choosing the best pet for kids is finding one whose maintenance requirements fit your child's age and maturity level.
There are low-maintenance pets (fish, lizards) and high-maintenance pets (parrots, exotic animals).
Predictably, younger children are usually better suited for lower maintenance pets, while school-age kids and teenagers are better equipped to deal with the medium- to high-maintenance variety.
Here's a quick look at common pets for kids from lowest- to highest-maintenance, to help you choose the best pet for kids in your home.
The best pet for kids is rarely an impulse buy.
No pet should be an impulse buy. Don't give in to whining and pleading as you're passing by a pet store.
A pet will cost you a lot of time and money, and it will be with your family for its entire life.
To make pet ownership a positive experience, do some research before you bring a pet home.
You want to know precisely what you are getting into with the type of animal you're considering, after all.
Consider having the kids do the research if they're old enough, and present it to you for consideration.
The best pet for kids just may be the one the kids spend the most time researching.
After all, if the kids have to research the pet and wait for the pet, they are more likely to appreciate the pet and help care for it once you bring it home.
Low maintenance animals are definitely a best pet for kids - especially if they're under age 6.
These are pets that don't require a lot of nurturing or special care. They don't require grooming, walking, or even petting.
Just the basics: food, water, and shelter. These are good starter pets. They also offer the least payback in terms of returning love and affection.
Fish are a best pet for kids: Most freshwater fish are inexpensive to buy and maintain after the initial investment of a tank or bowl and accessories.
Some fish are hardier than others, however.
For small kids, go for inexpensive, durable fish, such as goldfish. You don't want floaters to start off your child's pet career.
To start off, go for a solitary goldfish or beta in a simple bowl. If that's a hit, you can move on to an aquarium.
Lighted aquariums can even function as nightlights in a child's bedroom.
Maintenance will be only feeding once or twice a day and cleaning the bowl once a week. And if you keep the aquarium away from direct sunlight, algae will grow more slowly.
Reptiles and snakes can be a best pet for kids, depending on a child's interest level. Little boys (and some little girls) love lizards and snakes. Most moms don't.
If your kid is going to have a lizard or snake, be sure there's an adult in the house who's willing to handle it. You've got to have that backup person with pets.
In other words, Dad's probably the go-to guy on this one.
Put the reptile in an aquarium with a locked top. You don't want Timmy (or Tiffany) taking it out without your supervision. Avoid large snakes, such as pythons that might ingest small children.
Research reptiles and their living requirements to find the best pet for kids in your home. Some require live (shudder) food.
If you are determined, however, at least get a snake that has been trained to accept frozen mice instead of the live, running-around variety. Then, all you have to do is heat (to room temperature) and serve.
Some reptiles, like iguanas, grow to five feet in length and can be hazardous to other pets. Some (such as pythons) can grow to 13 feet long and can be hazardous to everyone. Don't forget to ask how large the reptile will be in adulthood. 'Nuff said.
Even though reptiles are relatively sturdy, they are still living creatures. Never let young children handle them unsupervised.
The best pet for kids in this category is a reptile that is tame and does not try to bite. Good lizard choices are a bearded dragon or a gecko. Good snake choices include a corn snake, rat snake, or a king snake.
While reptiles and snakes are easy, they do have needs you'll want to consider before bringing one home: a tank, lights, water, and food.
Lizards need places to hide, things to perch on. Tropical or desert reptiles will also need a heat source. This will not be cheap.
The bearded dragon, for example, requires a 10-gallon terrarium with a screen top the first year, and a 40-gallon terrarium as he grows (very, very fast) up to 18 inches.
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 each day.
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 15-30 minutes a day to feed them, and about an hour a week to clean the tank.
Tortoises and turtles are other good reptile choices. Turtles are amphibians; tortoises are land creatures.
Make sure you provide the right environment for your species.
Turtles can be quite affectionate and quite long-lived: 30 to 40 years for the box turtle.
Even though they look sturdy, take care not to drop them because that could injure their shells or internal organs. Tortoises, in particular, should not be handled often.
Rodents, such as rats, mice, gerbils, and hamsters, are a best pet for kids ages 6 and under. They make excellent starter pets. They are small, furry, and cuddly. They happily stay in their cages when the kids aren't playing with them.
Other advantages? They are quiet, not very messy, and relatively easy to care for. They usually are inexpensive to buy and maintain.
First, you should know that mice are not baby rats. Two different species. Two distinct personalities. Rats are exceptionally intelligent and friendly, despite their nasty looking tails.
Mice are cute and fun to watch in the cages, but they are a bit squirmy and nippy for holding and loving. If you want a love bucket, get a rat.
Hold them at the store, and if the rat or mouse 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, plus males will mark territory with a drop of urine - a drawback if you let him out a lot.
On the other hand, males are a lot calmer and more loving. If you change the litter at least once a week, the smell should not be an issue.
You'll need a special place for the rat cage. Shavings can be messy. And the cages take up a lot of room.
Each rat needs a minimum of two cubic feet. So if you had a rat couple, that would mean a cage 2 feet by 2 feet by 2 feet.
Rats need to be let out to run around at least a few minutes each day. You (or the kid) will need to supervise this outing, as they like to nibble through telephone cords and electrical wires.
And of course, you don't want them getting lost in your walls or closets, either. Rats live two to four years; mice one to three.
Birds are usually not a best pet for kids under the age of 8.
Kids below this age simply aren't gentle enough to properly care for them. Young kids dart about and alarm birds.
Small birds, however, make excellent pets for older children. If you buy a hand-raised bird, it should bond readily with its new owner and be quite tame as long as it is handled regularly and gently.
Small birds are easy pets because they are generally confined to the cage and cannot wreak too much havoc.
You only need to change the papers in the cage each day and replenish its food and water. You'll need to do a more thorough cleaning about once a week.
Cockatiels and parakeets are particularly good choices. The smaller birds, such as finches and canaries, are mainly for watching, not petting.
In my prejudiced mind, cats are the best pet for kids. They are sweet and cuddly. They're low maintenance - you can go away for a weekend and just leave out food and water for them.
They're not messy - indeed, they are 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 alternate places to scratch, such as a cardboard or carpeted scratching post, they can shred furniture and floor coverings.
They are relatively long-lived (about 15-20 years), and if you keep them indoors, they are usually healthy animals. Don't get kittens for small children.
Cats between 1 and 3 have all the kitten attributes, but are a bit hardier and can easily get away from rough little hands. Be careful introducing a new kitten into a house with another cat or dogs, as well.
I have a bias here. I don't approve of entirely outdoor pets. They get neglected, especially during the winter months. I feel if you have a pet, it needs to come inside and be part of the family - at least occasionally.
Dogs go through a golden age at about the middle of their lifespan when they are housebroken and calm. They no longer chew on your shoes, and they usually come when called.
This golden age only lasts a few years. At the beginning and at the end of their lives, dogs can be a lot of work.
Puppies need house-training, and they need to learn the rules of the house. Otherwise, they might just chew up everything. They are rowdy and rambunctious.
With a puppy, you pretty much need someone at home full-time for the first few months. Fortunately, they are adorable, too, so there's a payoff.
Old dogs revert to puppyhood in many ways. They can't hold their bladder as well. Accidents occur. Multiple trips to the vet may be required for health problems.
Fortunately, by this time, they're one of the family, so you bite the bullet and clean up after them just like you would for Uncle Harry.
For the biggest payoff, get a long-lived dog, so that those golden years will be worth the effort on both ends.
Small breeds tend to live longer than large breeds. On the negative side, small breeds are often noisier and more frenetic than larger dogs.
If you are a control freak who wants to make the very best choice for your home, you may want to consider buying a purebred.
You can get great dogs at your local animal shelter. And you'll be doing society and nature a favor.
But if you have specific requirements, look through the books, and there will be a breed that meets these requirements.
My friend, Kim, for example, wanted to get a dog for her daughter. Her husband did not want a dog. Repeat. No dog.
Ok, she asked, but why don't you want a dog? Because he said, it would tie us down. It will chew up the house. It will terrorize the cats. It will mess in the house. It will shed. I'm allergic. It will bark. We'll have to walk it.
Kim and her daughter plunged headfirst into every dog book they could get their hands on and emerged with a couple of breeds that fit his specifications.
Five years later, proud daddy loves to walk the little Shih Tzu around the neighborhood.
You can buy a calm dog, a hyper dog; a watchdog; a lap dog. You can buy a dog that doesn't shed and a dog that doesn't bark.
Whatever you want is out there. But realize that large dogs usually need lots of exercise. And any dog needs a good 20-minute walk at least twice a day.
And unlike cats, you can't just run off for the weekend and leave them. Dogs are pack animals. They need people around. They also need to be walked and fed and watered. Frequently.
Think about how much spare time and energy you have before you say yes to a dog.
In the high maintenance category, you can put large birds, such as parrots and cockatoos, and any exotic animal. These pets usually require more attention, more expensive cages or habitats, and specialized vet care. And just try to find a pet-sitter for them when you go on vacation.
These are not usually the best pet for kids. Often, they see children as something below them in the pecking order. And that is not good.
Now, if you would like an exotic pet for yourself, that's one thing. But don't get one just for the kid.
Parrots and cockatoos make cool conversation pieces. They are fun and comical and easy to train to do tricks. They are very social birds that bond readily with people.
But they are also loud; they screech. They are messy and destructive.
If you ignore or neglect them, they become self-destructive and pick their feathers out. And they live 70 to 80 years. Just think of signing on for a 2-year-old who will never grow up. Ever.
Finally, before you ever give the nod to any pet, have a serious talk with your child.
Discuss the costs and responsibilities the pet entails. Discuss who's going to do what and when. Discuss consequences. Draw up a contract spelling out:
When a child neglects a pet (instead of a litter box) have a consequence ready. There have to be consequences.
Do not make giving up the pet a consequence of not caring for it. You are only teaching her that animals are dispensable. Do you want her to get rid of you later on when she loses interest?
Pets once acquired, are part of the family unless someone develops an allergy or other medical condition or the animal starts biting. Pets are a serious commitment for the whole family.