When you're looking to add a pet to your family, there are many options to choose from other than cats and dogs. Plenty of cuddly and furry pets are more compact, easier to care for, affordable, and don't require as much attention. Small pets are good options for children older than 5 because they can be a great way to teach responsibility, says Dr. Jennifer Graham, assistant professor at Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. To decide which small animal might work as a family pet, you should do as much research as you would when choosing a larger pet. Some of the most popular small pets, such as hamsters and guinea pigs, might look similar but are very different in terms of their needs and how they interact with kids. But if you're looking for small pets that require less interaction and are just fun to watch, a gerbil or even a chinchilla might be right for your family. When deciding on a small pet for your family, consider these six options -- some traditional and some unusual -- and before you welcome the right pet into your home, keep in mind that each one has unique needs and characteristics.
This classic small pet is easy to care for and can even be trained to use litter, but hamsters can be rather nippy, and small breeds (females in particular) can be quite aggressive, warns Dr. Katherine Quesenberry, an exotic-pets expert at New York City's Animal Medical Center. This makes some hamsters difficult to handle; Dr. Graham recommends getting a larger breed such as the Syrian hamster, which is more likely to adapt to being handled. A hamster should also be kept in a cage that is roomy, with tunnels and nesting areas for sleeping, but make sure you can clean the cage easily. A hamster will typically live for about three years, so consider how much your child will want to interact with it: If you think she will lose interest in caring for the hamster, these years might seem long, but they could also seem too short if the pet dies, giving your child her first exposure to death. Unless your child has experienced the loss of a family member or friend, the experience will undoubtedly be upsetting, though it can also provide the opportunity for an important life lesson. "It can be sad but also a way to introduce the idea that everything dies," Dr. Graham says. "You can be there as your child goes through the experience."
Guinea pigs may be in the same rodent family as hamsters, but their demeanor couldn't be more different. These rodents are gentle and have a sweet disposition, which makes them less likely to bite. Plus, they can be sociable, which means they won't mind being handled -- as long as they are held properly -- and they won't mind if young kids want to interact with them. These cuddly creatures are ideal for a kid who is just learning to take care of a pet because a guinea pig is less likely to get frustrated with its young caretaker. Consider getting another guinea pig as a companion, however, so the pet won't get lonely. Guinea pigs have a longer life span -- around five to seven years -- than hamsters do, and they require more time and effort because of their bigger appetite for lots of hay and vegetables. This bigger appetite can make guinea pigs messier than other small mammals, so you might have to clean their cage more frequently as well.
"Gerbils are easy to take care of but not very hands-on," Dr. Quesenberry says. "They're fine for kids who don't want to be that involved." Unlike hamsters and guinea pigs, gerbils have a relatively short lifespan -- about two years. It's easy to feed gerbils because they have a standard diet similar to that of rats and hamsters: rodent pellets and food blocks, along with some supplemental seed mixes. Gerbils are not usually aggressive, so they can also be held, but they are very fast, so it won't be easy to hold them for long. This quickness means a lot of activity in the cage, which could pique your child's curiosity. Gerbils are more sensitive to their environment than other small animals, however, and humidity can give them respiratory and fur problems. If you are concerned that your environment might be too humid for a gerbil, consult a veterinarian.
A rat might not be the first pet on your list, but "they make some of the best pets for small children," says Dr. Graham. "Rats can be calm, laid-back, not as nippy as other small mammals, and they can be handled a lot." They make ideal pets if you want your child to develop a strong bond with a pet, because they are interactive and able to learn tricks, such as retrieving objects and navigating mazes or obstacle courses. Since rats enjoy interacting with people and things, providing a number of toys and accessories, from ropes to paper-towel rolls, will keep them happy and occupied. Rats are also easy to care for and require a standard rodent diet of food blocks. However, like gerbils, rats have a short lifespan ranging from two to three years.
These popular pets are good for young children as long as there is also adult supervision. Like guinea pigs, rabbits are good for younger kids because they usually have a very gentle and sociable nature. While larger breeds can be especially gentle, Dr. Quesenberry advises that all rabbits should be spayed or neutered to prevent any aggression (and to prevent uterine cancer in females). This is especially important if you want to keep more than one rabbit in the same space. A rabbit can live from 8 to 12 years, can be litter-trained, and is easy to care for. Dr. Quesenberry notes that a proper diet is very important to ensure the animal's health and happiness: grass hay, rabbit pellets, and vegetables.
Chinchillas are a more exotic option for kids who want to watch what their pet does rather than have direct interaction with it. Although they're gentle, chinchillas can be very agile and quick and may not be appropriate for young children who aren't able to handle them, Dr. Quesenberry says. They need a diet of chinchilla pellets and hay, with vegetables as a treat. Unlike their small-pet counterparts, chinchillas should be provided with a dust bath instead of a water bath. Buy chinchilla dust (specially formulated to mimic the dust in their native habitat) and place it in a sturdy bowl or deep dish, or purchase a dust house. A chinchilla needs a dust bath two to three times a week, given outside of its cage; the cage should be multilevel so it can climb up and down. With a lifespan of around 12 to 15 years, chinchillas tend to live much longer than guinea pigs and other rodents.
These spiny mammals may not make cuddly pets, but they are cute, friendly, and relatively long-lived, with a lifespan of five to seven years. And if hedgehogs are handled while still young, they will grow to be social with your child. A downside is that you might find yourself spending more money caring for them. "Hedgehogs require more care and are prone to more health problems than other small pets," says Dr. Quesenberry. "They have a higher incidence of disease and sometimes develop oral cancer and get mites, so your vet bills may be a bit higher for a hedgehog." Hedgehogs also require a different diet containing vegetables and special food with protein because they are omnivores. Sometimes cat food can fulfill the requirement, but you should consult your veterinarian. When considering getting a hedgehog as a pet, make sure to check your local state laws -- it's illegal to own these small mammals in certain states.
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