Most experts agree that kids under age 6 are generally not capable of understanding an animal's needs and caring for it properly.
If you get a pet for a young child, realize that it is truly your pet. Don't go into the situation with false expectations. That's not fair to the kid or the animal.
For best results start out younger children with easy pets such as fish, reptiles and snakes, rats, mice and other rodents, small birds, or cats.
Here's a quick look at the expenses, maintenance requirements, and lifespan of these easy pets to help you make the best choice for your child's first pet.
These are pets that don't require a lot of nurturing or special care.
They don't require grooming or walking.. 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.
Most freshwater fish are inexpensive to buy and maintain after the initial investment of a tank or bowl and accessories.
Be aware, however, that 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 child's pet career.
To start, 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 simply feeding once or twice a day and cleaning the bowl once a week.
If you keep the aquarium away from direct sunlight, algae will grow more slowly, and it won't need to be cleaned as often.
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 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.
Avoid large snakes such as pythons that might ingest small children.
Research reptiles and their living requirements. 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 dangerous to everyone. Don't forget to ask how large the reptile will be at adulthood. '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 pets, 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 are 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, 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? They are quiet, not very messy, and relatively easy pets 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 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.
Birds are usually not suitable pets for kids under the age of 8. Kids below this age 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 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. They're definitely 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 regularly clean their litter boxes.
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 literally 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 about introducing a new kitten into a house with another cat or dogs as well.
Before you agree to a pet, have a serious talk with your child. Discuss the costs and responsibilities the pet entails.