6 Best Small Pets to Consider for Your Child

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

When you're looking to add a pet to your family, it's easy to forget cats and dogs aren't the only options. But compact pets can be just as cuddly, and they can be easier to care for, less demanding of attention, and potentially more affordable. For kids over 5, small pets can be a great option, as looking after them teaches children responsibility, says Jennifer Graham, DVM, an associate professor of zoological companion animal medicine at Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, in North Grafton, Massachusetts.

To decide whether a small pet might work for your kids, you should do as much research as you would if you were choosing a larger animal. Some of the most popular pets, such as hamsters and guinea pigs, may look similar, but they're very different in terms of their needs and how they interact with people.

As you think about which small pet might suit your family, consider these six options—some traditional and some more unusual. No matter which one you welcome into your home, remember that they all have unique needs and characteristics.

An image of a child holding a hamster.
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 (and females in particular) can be quite aggressive, says Katherine Quesenberry, DVM, chief medical officer at New York City's Schwarzman Animal Medical Center. This makes some hamsters harder to handle than others. Dr. Graham recommends bringing home a larger breed, such as a Syrian hamster, which may be better at adapting to your family's care.

A hamster should be kept in a roomy cage, with tunnels and nesting areas for sleeping (just make sure you can clean the cage easily). They typically live for about three years, so think about how much your child will want to interact with one.

If they lose interest in caring for it, those years can seem long. They can also seem too short if the pet dies, giving your child their first exposure to death. Unless they have experienced the loss of a loved one, the experience will undoubtedly be upsetting, though it can also provide the opportunity for a 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. But if you're looking to add just one new pet to your family, you may want to consider your other options; being the social creatures they are, guinea pigs do best in pairs or small groups.

These cuddly creatures are ideal for a kid who is just learning to take care of a pet because they are less likely to get frustrated with a young caretaker. Guinea pigs also have a longer lifespan—around five to seven years—than hamsters do, and they require more time and effort. Their huge appetite means they eat a lot of hay and vegetables, which can make them messier than other small mammals; you might have to clean their cages more frequently.

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 interest. Gerbils are more sensitive to their environment than other small animals, and too much 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 small 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."

Rats make great companions 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 will be a lot of adult supervision ensuring that they are handled safely and receive the care they need. Like guinea pigs, rabbits have an agreeable nature which can be good for younger kids but they can be very fragile.

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, which is ideal given their social needs.

A rabbit can live from eight to 12 years. They can also be litter-trained, but they are not the easiest small pet to care for. Rabbits require a lot of space and a lot of attention. Dr. Quesenberry notes that a proper diet is important to ensure their health and happiness: grass hay, fresh vegetables, and rabbit pellets.

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 safely, 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. You'll need to buy chinchilla dust (specially formulated to mimic the dust in their natural habitat) and place it in a sturdy bowl or deep dish. Alternatively, you can 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. The downside is that you might find yourself spending more money on 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."

Hedgehogs are omnivores, so they also require a different diet containing vegetables and special food with protein. Sometimes cat food can fulfill the requirement, but you should consult your veterinarian. If you're considering getting a hedgehog as a pet, make sure to check local laws—it's illegal to own these small mammals in certain states.

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