choosing a pet

Menagerie of pets including parrot, great dane and goldfish.

Here are some things to consider when choosing a pet to ensure a good fit with your family. 

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. Consider having the kids do the research if they're old enough, and present it to you for consideration. 

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.

Choosing a Pet Type

Pets come in all sizes, shapes, and forms; there's bound to be one that suits your family's needs and your tolerance level. A few things to consider when choosing a pet:

  • Expense: Do you want a $1,000 purebred dog, or a $40 parakeet? Look beyond the purchase price. Consider how much the animal will cost each year in food, grooming, vet care, and other essentials. Where is this money coming from?
  • Allergies and phobias: If Bobby is allergic to cats, why let Cassidy get one? If Christina is terrified of dogs, would a lab be the right choice for Billy? 
  • Housing: Do you have an appropriate place for the pet? Room for it to roam? A dog requires either a fenced-in yard or a commitment to walking it a couple of times a day.
  • Lifespan: How long does the pet live? Rats only live a couple of years. While this might be ideal for a child with a short attention span, it could prove traumatic for a child who has bonded with the creature. Cockatoos, on the other hand, live up to 70 years. Do you want a pet that you have to provide for in your will? A friend of mine has carefully calibrated her daughter's pet choices so that they will all die off by the time the child enters college. She wants an empty nest.
  • Age of pet: Most kids want baby animals: puppies or kittens. Think this one through, however. A lot of people buy puppies when their kid is a toddler, thinking how cute it is for them to grow up together. But what you've done is give yourself two babies at once. Worse, young children are often too rough for baby animals - and vice versa. Puppies and kittens may scratch or bite. Save puppies and kittens for older kids.
  • Compatibility with other pets:  If you have other animals already in your home, consider how a new pet will affect them.
  • Maintenance: There are low-maintenance pets (fish, lizards) and high maintenance pets (parrots, ponies). What level are you interested in? What level do you think you will be interested in a year from now?

Choosing a Pet by Maintenance Tolerance Levels

One of the best methods for choosing a pet is picking one whose maintenance requirements best fits your temperament and lifestyle. Here's a quick list of common household pets listed from lowest to highest maintenance. 

Predictably, younger children are better suited for lower maintenance pets, while adults and older teens are usually better equipped to deal with the medium- and high-maintenance variety.

Low Maintenance Pets

Closeup of goldfish in clear bowl with blue stones.

Choosing a pet: Lowest maintenance options. 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. 

Pet Fish

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. For small kids, go for inexpensive, durable fish, such as goldfish. You don't want floaters to start off your pet career.

To start off, go for a solitary goldfish or betta 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 simply 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

Young girl holding up pet snake.

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 when choosing a pet at the pet store. 

You've got to have that backup person with pets. In other words, Dad is probably the go-to guy on this one.

Put the reptile in an aquarium with a locked top. You don't want Timmy taking it out without your supervision. 

When choosing a pet, avoid large snakes, such as pythons, that might ingest small children. Research reptiles and their living requirements before you choose. Some require live (shudder) food.

If you are determined, however, when choosing a pet, 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 dangerous to everyone. Don't forget to ask how large the reptile will be at adulthood when choosing a pet. 'Nuff said.

Even though reptiles are relatively sturdy, they are still living creatures. Never let young children handle them unsupervised. Make sure you choose 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 when choosing a pet: 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 are 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. 

Choosing a Pet: Low Maintenance Options

Rodents, such as rats, mice, gerbils, and hamsters, make sweet starter pets. They are small, furry, and cuddly. They happily stay in their cages when the kids aren't playing with them. 

Other advantages in choosing a pet rodent? They are quiet, not very messy, and relatively easy to care for. They usually are inexpensive to buy and maintain.

Pet Rats and Mice

First, mice are not baby rats. Two different species. Two distinct personalities.

Pet rat on a girl's shoulder.

Rats are especially 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 requires 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 years.

Choosing a pet: Other Rodents  to Consider

  • Hamsters: These guys need extra Vitamin C. They can bite, and they're more vocal than most rodents. They are best kept alone. They are nocturnal, and may be a bit sleepy during the day, and more active than you would like at night. They live for 2 or 3 years.
  • Gerbils: These are small but fun pets. Not as intelligent or cuddly as rats. They are happier in pairs, so get a couple. They live 2 to 3 years.
  • Guinea pigs: Guinea pigs make sweet, gentle pets. Get a guinea pig pair. They need a large cage and a special diet of hay, vegetables and Vitamin C. They can live 5 to 7 years.

Small Birds

Birds are usually not suitable pets for kids under the age of 8. Kids below this age simply aren't gentle enough to properly care for them.

Parakeet isolated.

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 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 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 perfect pets. They are sweet and cuddly.

Young girl playing with kitten.

They're low maintenance - you can go away for a weekend and 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 quickly get away from rough little hands. Be careful about introducing a new kitten into a house with another cat or dog, as well.

Choosing a Pet: Medium Maintenance Animals


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.

Young girls on grass lawn with puppy.

Plus, outdoor pets have shorter, unhealthier lives (thanks to cars and other hazards). And they are more likely to transmit disease or pests like fleas and bacteria to your family.

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 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. Consider pet insurance for them to keep costs down. 

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 those 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 will 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 remember 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.

Choosing a Pet: What to Know About High Maintenance Pets

In this 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 pets for children. 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.

Pets impact the whole family, not just the "owner" (or if you live in enlightened areas, the "guardian"). By considering these and other factors before you choosing a pet, you'll set up everyone in your home for a successful, rewarding experience.

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