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Choosing Pets for Young Children

Updated on January 11, 2016

What are the Options?

So, you have decided that your child is ready to take care of a pet. This is great! Having to take care of a pet is one of the best ways a child can learn about responsibility as well as many other important life skills. But, with so many different kinds of animals out there it can be hard finding which animal will best fit you and your child.

When most people think a getting a pet for their child they think of a puppy. And why not? It's a romantic idea for the child a puppy to grow up together. However, not all children are able to take care of a puppy. This is a fact. Think about it, they might be excited about taking their new puppy on walks for a few weeks but in the middle of winter who is going to be out there with the dog in the snow? That's what I thought.

There are more options than just dogs. Cats are just as popular as dogs, and often require just as much work. But, if your child isn't ready to take care of a dog or cat or if those animals don't tickle your fancy there are other options. If you want to stay with the mammals there are plenty of small mammals to choose from: ferrets, hamsters, mice, rats, and rabbits are some of the most popular choices. Birds make great pets as well, and they come in many different sizes and colors. Fish tanks can be easy to maintain and have very rewarding benefits. If reptiles are more of your thing there are many options available: snakes, skinks, geckos, turtles, and lizards. If invertebrates are more of your thing then you have a few to choose from: hermit crabs, tarantulas, and even cock roaches.

Mammals

Dogs and cats are two of the most popular pets in the world. Chances are when you think of a pet you think of either a dog or cat. However, both of these animals require a lot of work that not all children are able to do on their own. Dogs need to be taken out several times each day, they need food and water every day, they need to play, and they need to go on walks. Some dogs even need to be groomed (brushed) daily or at least on a weekly basis. Cats need a clean litter box, food and water daily, and play time. Cats should also be brushed and have their nails trimmed every so often.

Hamsters, rats, mice, ferrets, guinea pigs, and rabbits are all calm and docile animals. They all need their own enclosure, complete with clean substrate. They will all need food and water daily. You will need to change the substrate when it gets soiled and provide them with toys to keep them entertained. Most will also need chew blocks to keep their teeth from growing out of control.

Dogs and cats require a lot of care and attention and might be better for older children, or more mature children. Kids that often lose interest in things easily might not be the best candidate for dogs or cats. Puppies require a lot of work, and most kids just aren't able to take care of them. Older dogs aren't always very tolerant of young children. If you are going to get a dog it is best to make sure that the animal's temperament will mesh with the entire family. An active breed with a not so active family is never a good combination, and vice versa.

The small mammals need less care but do have some down falls. Many people just don't like small mammals. Small mammals can smell and are often nocturnal. Having a hamster cage in a child's room might wake them up at night when the hamsters run on their wheel. Guinea pigs can be very vocal and could get loud at night and wake up a child. Some children get a little too excited when they handle pets and might pet or hold them too hard. Small mammals are known to bite. I can tell you from experience that a hamster bite is not a fun experience. If a child is bit they might lose interest in taking care of the animal.

Overall I would say that an older child, around 8 and up, would do well with small mammals. I would save the dogs and cat until they are a little older. I don't mean to say that you should not have an animal in your home with a young child. This article is just meant to give advice on the best types of pets for children to look after on their own. A family pet is a much different dynamic than a pet that has a sole care giver.

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Birds

Birds can make excellent pets. However, they are can require just as much care as a dog or cat, which many people don't take into account. They need their newspapers changed daily, they need food and water daily, they require attention from their care givers, and they need toys. Some birds need time out side of their cage for exercise.

Large parrots have long life spans when properly cared for. They are also very loud and can bite rather hard. These guys would not be a good idea for young kids, fingers in cages with large birds don't mix. Not to mention these big birds can be just as expensive as dogs and cats. However, smaller birds can be great for kids. Finches, doves, and parakeets are all smaller birds that are great options for kids. If a child does get bit chances are they will not be hurt as these birds aren't big enough or strong enough to do any damage.

A word of cation, I do not think I can stress enough that birds can be loud. Even little parakeets can scream loud enough to make your ears ring. If you want a quieter bird for your child you might want to stick with the finches and doves. Though, kids might not have as munch interest in these types of birds because they can't talk and look like birds that they can find outside.

If you have never kept fish before it might be a good idea to do some research at your local pet store and on line before you buy anything. Thankfully most pet stores, especially the national chains like PetSmart and Pet Co, offer starter kits for fish tanks. These kits usually have a tank, a light, and a net. Some will have the filtration pump and one filter cartridge needed for the tank. They will usually have a sample of fish food and lots of coupons for other necessities.

In short you will need, in addition of all listed above: chemicals to treat the water, a gravel wash tube and hose, and a clean bucket (for water changes). Decorations are also a good thing to have in a tank.

Of course, if you have never kept fish before it might be a good idea to look into the beta kits that pet sores usually have. These kits typically include everything but the water and fish. And, as with anything if you have questions about anything just ask the staff in your local pet store.

Fish and Fish Tanks

Fish tanks are great for teaching a child many things. Depending on how old your child is they might be able to start learning about the nitrogen cycle by taking care of a fish tank. Allowing your child to test the water quality of their tank gives them a bit of real life laboratory experience. Who knows maybe it will even get your child excited about science.

I guess now is the time to mention that freshwater fish tanks are great for children. A saltwater tanks requires more care and has more complicated water chemistry needs. For a beginner it is better to stick with freshwater. Freshwater fish are more than just gold fish and betas. Tetras, mollies, plecos, danios, and bars are all great fish for first time fish keepers.

When I talk about fish tanks I don't mean a little bowl or a five gallon tank. Though a five gallon is a more than adequate sized tank for a young child, say five or so, to take care of. Provided, of course, that the fish are small enough for the tank. Neon tetras are small schooling fish that would be fine in such a tank. Ideally, if your child wants to take care of slightly larger fish a twenty gallon tank should be used. If your child is dead set on goldfish just keep in mind that they are considered 'dirty fish' and need powerful filtration. So, if you have a goldfish in a twenty gallon tank you might want to consider putting filtration meant for a thirty gallon on the system.

Fish will require feeding daily and water changes. When the water is changed it will need to be replaced with treated water or the fish could die from the impurities in the water. For a child that doesn't want a hands on kind of pet these aquatic little guys would be perfect.

Reptiles and Invertebrates

Invertebrates make great pets. However, just because they are small and lack a spine does not mean that they will be cheap and low maintenance. Hermit crabs are the most popular invertebrate pet. These little guys grow. When a hermit crab grows they get too big for their shell, this means that they will need a constant supply a new shells for them to change into. Hermit crabs need food and water available to them at all times. They also need a heat source and a humid environment. They will need their substrate changed every so often as well. One important thing to keep in mind is that these little crabs can climb, making a lid absolutely necessary for them.

Reptiles can make great pets. Bearded dragons and turtles are very popular children's pets. I will warn that bearded dragons can grow rather large, and might eventually require a large enclosure eventually. But, if you are prepared to take care of them they make excellent pets. As reptiles rely on their environment to maintain their body temperature they will need access to a heat source. They will need a place to hide, veggies with calcium supplements are always good, and fresh water daily is needed. Many reptiles also enjoy live bugs as meals, and for some strange reason this appeals to young boys. (Gee, I wonder why…)

I will also caution that turtles are not always the best of pets. Sure they look cute and are fun to watch, but turtles smell and bite. They are also very messy and will need water changes, or in the case of a box turtle they will need their substrate changes frequently. Turtles also grow, often times much larger than what the guy at the pet store tells you they will. I can't tell you how many people try to get rid of their beloved pet when it gets too large. Turtles also require just as much, if not more, care than other reptiles. A heat light, fresh water, food with calcium supplements, and clean substrate are all absolute necessities.

People often find that they only have three options; a zoo/aquarium, return it to the pet store, or set it free. First off setting a turtle free is never a good idea, especially if it is not native, as chances are pretty high that it will not survive. Not all zoos and aquariums are able to accommodate pets that grow too large. It might seem mean of them to tell your eight year old that they can't take their yellow belly slider that has grown too large for its home, but if they took every pet they have been offered they would be over run with turtles and really big fish. Some pet stores will take unwanted pets, but some will not. In all honesty it is best to encourage your child to pick a pet that is not a turtle. I'm not saying turtles don't make good pets, because they can. There are just a lot of people that get turtles and realize that they require more care than they expected.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Small birds, like parakeets, make great petsOften, dogs and cats can get alongPuppies are cute, but require a lot of work and attentionWhen given the right care, hermit crabs can be entertaining little petsWhile many children may love Nemo, saltwater fish require a lot of care.A five gallon tank is the perfect size for a couple of small fish, and a great size for first time fish keepers
Small birds, like parakeets, make great pets
Small birds, like parakeets, make great pets
Often, dogs and cats can get along
Often, dogs and cats can get along
Puppies are cute, but require a lot of work and attention
Puppies are cute, but require a lot of work and attention
When given the right care, hermit crabs can be entertaining little pets
When given the right care, hermit crabs can be entertaining little pets
While many children may love Nemo, saltwater fish require a lot of care.
While many children may love Nemo, saltwater fish require a lot of care.
A five gallon tank is the perfect size for a couple of small fish, and a great size for first time fish keepers
A five gallon tank is the perfect size for a couple of small fish, and a great size for first time fish keepers

Final Thoughts

Pets and children go hand in hand. Children often like to feel like they are responsible for something, and pets are great for helping them learn the importance of responsibility. There are many different kinds of pets out there, and each type has a different set of needs. If you think that your child is ready to take on the responsibility of caring for another life then I would suggest doing some research so that you find the animal that will fit best into your home. After all, you know your child better than anyone and you will know what they are able to do and what they will need help with.

Dogs and cats make great pets, this is well known, but often they are too much for young children to handle. These guys also will need veterinary care that can be fairly pricey. Other small mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and invertebrates are all great options when choosing a pet. As long as you know what you are getting yourself there is no reason you should not get a pet for your child.

I wish you the best of luck!

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    • Edward J. Palumbo profile image

      Ed Palumbo 3 years ago from Tualatin, OR

      My children are grown now (daughter 27, son 22) and both have gravitated toward cats as pets. They grew up with dogs and cats, and when they wanted pets of their own as youngsters, we began with "nature studies", with reptiles and amphibians we brought home from the field, studied and fed in terrariums, then released to same environment from which we discovered them. They generated a respect and appreciation for nature, and they're good to their pets. Other than the litters that were born in our home, they were a part of the pet selection process. I agree with what you've written, and believe pets should be a part of a youngster's upbringing.

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