What Parents Need To Consider

At some point, just about every child begs their parents for a pet of some kind, often backed with questionable promises to "take real good care of it".  At some point, and against their better judgment, most parents break down and get a pet for the kid.  Unfortunately, many times the pet turns out to be a poor fit for the child, and far too many animals end up in shelters or abandoned by the road through no fault of their own.

Selecting a pet for a child should never be taken lightly.  It is a major decision that affects not only your family, but the animal as well.  Doing the research necessary to determine whether a particular animal will make a good choice is not optional--it's a responsibility that should be taken seriously.  Don't rush into any decisions,  and don't let pet store employees talk you into buying a pet you feel is inappropriate.  Also, check with local animal shelters to see if the kind of pet you are looking for is available for adoption before buying one from a pet store to help alleviate the problem of abandoned pets.

There are lots of factors that parents should take into consideration in the search for a good pet for their children.  The most important, of course is safety.  No one should allow a child to handle an animal that could pose a threat to the child's health, nor should any pet be given to a child that can't safely handle it.  Look for a pet that enjoys being touched, doesn't tend to bite or scratch, and can safely handle being handled somewhat roughly by an overzealous child.

Another important aspect for parents to consider is the difficulty of taking care of the pet.  Dogs, for example, require far more care than most children could ever provide.  While many dogs make great family pets, it is clearly going to be up to the parents to provide most of the care for a dog.  If the goal of getting the child a pet is to teach them responsibility by actually having them take care of it, there are much better choices than a dog.  Look for an animal that does well in an enclosure, doesn't require a tightly controlled temperature, and doesn't have complex dietary needs.

Probably the most overlooked aspect of picking a pet for a child is how the animal will actually handle interacting with kids in the first place.  Look for pets that will be awake and active during the time of day that the kids can actually enjoy it.  Make sure that the animal actually likes being touched and held.  Try to pick a species that is easy to tame.

Hamsters have become fairly ubiquitous as pets for children, yet they are not well-suited to the job at all!  Hamsters are naturally nocturnal animals, which means they will be asleep during the day when children want to play with them.  If a child wakes a hamster up to play with it, the hamster is very likely to bite the kid.  Meanwhile, it may well keep the child awake during the wee hours of the night, running around on its exercise wheel.  Not exactly the best choice for the little ones, huh?

There are some really good pets out there for kids, though.  While not perfect by any means, a gerbil is still a better choice for children than a hamster would be.  They are delicate animals, and primarily nocturnal, but they do spend some time being active during the day, they soil their bedding materials much less quickly than hamsters, and they are far less apt to bite.  Being so small and fragile, though, they are really only suitable for older children.

Probably the all-around best children's pet is the guinea pig.  Aside from being ridiculously cute, guinea pigs are extremely affectionate and docile.  Unlike hamsters and gerbils, guinea pigs don't have long, fragile tails to worry about damaging, and their stocky bodies are much less fragile.  They love being played with, and they will squeak and grunt in amusing ways to communicate their enjoyment of attention.  This provides children with great positive feedback, much like when a dog wags its tail or a cat purrs.

Some children, though, just don't want a cute, fluffy pet.  Boys in particular are likely to ask for somewhat stranger fare for a pet.  Requests for animals like scorpions and tarantulas should be absolutely out of the question.  While not usually deadly as most people mistakenly believe, tarantulas and scorpions are both still very dangerous to children.

If a child asks for any variety of reptile, you should probably pass.  Few reptiles enjoy being kept as pets, and many require a lot of specialized care.  Box turtles, for example, require a very complex diet to remain healthy, as do green iguanas.  Iguanas also require specialized UV lighting to compensate for being kept indoors. 

Reptiles almost always carry salmonella bacteria on their skin.  Even a docile, friendly reptile can cause a child to get very sick just from being handled.  If you do end up getting some kind of reptile as a pet, make absolutely certain that anyone who handles the animal washes their hands immediately afterward.

Despite all their drawbacks, though, there are a few reptiles that actually make decent pets for children as long as the children don't want a constant playmate.  Among them are the corn snake, the ball python, and the leopard gecko.  Corn snakes can be very colorful and grow to impressive, but manageable lengths.  Ball pythons do not get nearly as long as corn snakes, but get much thicker bodies.  Both are fairly easy to care for, as their dietary needs can be fulfilled by feeding them a mouse or small rat once a week.

For those who don't feel comfortable feeding something cute and fuzzy to something scaly on a weekly basis, the leopard gecko is a little less morbid.  Its food of choice is crickets.  Watching a bug get eaten doesn't even register for most people, even if watching a mouse get eaten would make them queasy.