Even if you've vetoed your kid's pleas for a pet in the past, this is good time to revisit the idea. "It's ideal to bring home your family's furry friend when your child is 5 or 6; at this age kids fully comprehend that pets are living creatures and not moving stuffed animals," says Carolyn Ievers-Landis, Ph.D., associate professor of pediatrics at Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital, in Cleveland. "A pet fosters a child's desire to be a caregiver, which usually emerges around this age."
What's more, animals are great friends for kindergartners and first-graders. In a study of 5-year-olds at Purdue University, more than 40 percent said they turn to their pet when they feel sad, angry, or have a secret to share. "We also found that 5- and 6-year-old pet owners expressed more empathy to their peers than those who don't have an animal around the house," says researcher Gail F. Melson, Ph.D., professor of child development and family studies. Ready to add a new member to your brood? Use our expert guide to decide which popular pet best fits your kid's personality and your family's lifestyle.
Guinea Pigs: For Cuddly Kids
Unlikely to bite and awake for most of the day, these rodents are ideal for social kids who have a lot of time to spend with their pet. "Guinea pigs are affectionate and love to be held," says Gail Buchwald, senior vice president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Adoption Center in New York City. "They often make a cute whistle when they see their child-friend. It's immediate gratification for a first-time pet keeper."
But if your house is empty most of the day, consider a different pet or buy two female guinea pigs so they'll be able to keep each other company, says Buchwald. You'll need a minimum of 4 square feet of cage space per pig and you should take them out as much as possible for exercise and stimulation.
Hamsters: For Curious Kids
Running on wheels and navigating mazes, hamsters are clever and entertaining. Since hamsters are nocturnal, they sleep while kids are in school -- and are ready to play after dinner. But they have a delicate body and need to be handheld carefully. If they are mishandled they might harmlessly nip kids (and adults!). Some experts even feel they're more appropriate for slightly older kids.
"Have your child spend the first few days talking to her hamster before she tries to touch it; a parent should always be around to supervise," says Adam Goldfarb, director of the Pets at Risk program for The Humane Society of the United States in Washington, D.C.
Cats: For Independent Kids
Felines might want to play one day and then ignore your kid the next. That's why they're a good choice for kids who don't mind having companionship only when their pet is in the mood. Even though kittens are cute, they're more work than a full-grown cat. You can save yourself time by adopting a cat from a shelter, suggests Goldfarb.
Another thing to keep in mind: It's more common for kids to be allergic to cats than to any other kind of pet. Before you adopt a cat, try pet-sitting a friend's for the weekend, and be on the lookout for allergy symptoms, like red eyes, itchy skin, or sniffling.
Dogs: For Active Kids
Fido requires more care from you and your child than any pet; every breed needs daily exercise and playtime. If your family enjoys walks in the park and running around in the backyard, then a dog might be a good fit, says Colleen Pelar, author of Living With Kids and Dogs ... Without Losing Your Mind. In fact, a recent British study found that kids who have a dog spend an extra hour a week doing physical activity.
But don't expect that your 5- or 6-year-old will be able to walk the dog on his own. "Even puppies or small dogs can be strong enough to drag a child if they get excited by a cat or spooked by a loud noise," says Pelar. "Instead, your child can help you hold the leash while you walk together."
Originally published in the April 2011 issue of Parents magazine.