Don't have space for a big pet? Don't worry. There are still plenty of friendly, palm-sized options your child will love. Here are the best small pets for kids.

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When you're looking to add a pet to your family, there are many options 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. For kids over 5, small pets are a great option, as caring for the pet will teach your child responsibility, says Jennifer Graham, DVM, DABVP, assistant professor at Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.

To decide which small animal might work for your family, you should do as much research as you would when choosing a larger animal. That's because some of the most popular small pets, such as hamsters and guinea pigs, might look similar, but they're different in terms of their needs and how they interact with people.

When deciding on the best small pet for your kid, 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.

An image of a child holding a hamster.
Credit: Getty Images.

Hamsters

This classic small pet is easy to care for and can even be trained to use litter. That said, hamsters can be rather nippy, and small breeds (females in particular) can be quite aggressive, warns Katherine Quesenberry, DVM, MPH, DABVP, 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 home care.

A hamster should be kept in a roomy cage, with tunnels and nesting areas for sleeping—but make sure you can clean the cage easily. Hamsters will also typically live for about three years, so consider how much your child will want to interact with it. If you think they'll 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 their 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," says Dr. Graham. "You can be there as your child goes through the experience."

Guinea Pigs

While guinea pigs are in the same rodent family as hamsters, 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're 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 they 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 appetite can make guinea pigs messier than other small mammals, so you might have to clean their cage more frequently as well.

Gerbils

"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.

Rats

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're 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.

Rabbits

You can consider these popular small pets for kids as long as there's adult supervision. Like guinea pigs, rabbits are good for younger kids because they usually have a 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. They can also be litter-trained, and they're easy to care for. Dr. Quesenberry notes that a proper diet is important to ensure the animal's health and happiness: grass hay, rabbit pellets, and vegetables.

Chinchillas

Chinchillas are a more exotic option for kids who want to watch their pet rather than directly interact with it. Although they're gentle, chinchillas can be very agile and quick, and they 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.

Hedgehogs

These spiny mammals may not make cuddly pets, but they're 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.