As many adults know, caring for a pet is a rewarding and satisfying experience. And, adopting a pet that a child can also help take care of can be an enriching experience for your kid.
“It teaches empathy and responsibility. Being responsible for another animal … understanding that other things are relying on you to stay healthy and survive,” says Dr. Laurie Hess, DVM and owner of the Veterinary Center for Birds and Exotics in Bedford Hills, New York. She adds, “Many of these animals are very smart and will give that unconditional love back to you.”
Make Sure Your Kids are on Board With the Type of Pet and Work Involved
As with any pet, when you are looking for the best pets for kids, you want to have a very clear idea of the pet care requirements.
“You have to be educated,” says Dr. Hess. Particularly with exotic pets, you need to know what you are getting into and what to expect from them. Dr. Hess explains, “Often people get frustrated and very disappointed in these animals because [the experience] isn’t what they expected.”
When it comes to choosing the best pets for the kids in your family, it is important that everyone is on the same page. Everyone in the family needs to be willing to actively help with the care of the pet.
Dr. Elizabeth Mackey, veterinarian and owner of Mackey Exotic Animal Clinic in Watkinsville, Georgia, explains that it is important that your children are on board with the pet you decide to get. They need to be just as invested in the well-being and happiness of the pet as you are.
And most importantly, you need to be comfortable with whichever pet you decide to get. So if you are deathly afraid of snakes, they probably are not the best pets for your kids, even if the kids have their heart set on one.
What to Consider When Choosing Pets for Kids
So, how should you go about finding a good match? Both Dr. Mackey and Dr. Hess recommend booking a consultation appointment with a veterinarian who is experienced in the care of the species you are considering.
Consider bringing a list of animals you’re interested in so you can discuss each one and determine what the best pet for your family would be. Some factors to take into consideration include:
Life span of the pet. Kids can get very attached to their pets, so you will need to consider your child’s emotional attachment when choosing pets for kids. However, by a choosing a pet with a longer life span, you will also need to keep in mind that once your child leaves for college or work, you may have to become the sole provider for your family pet.
Space needs. Do you have adequate room (e.g., living space, yard space, etc.) for your chosen pet? You will also need to consider how a pet will grow and if you can accommodate them at their largest adult size.
Care requirements and needs. Talk with your veterinarian about the care requirements for each pet you are considering. Can your family share pet care tasks in a manageable way? Are you financially prepared to take good care of the pet?
Health care costs. All pets require veterinary care. You will need to make sure there is a veterinarian in your area that can help with your chosen pet. If you choose an exotic pet, you can start by looking at the Association of Exotic Mammal Veterinarians. You will also need to make sure that you are financially ready to take on a pet’s health care costs.
What does your child want when it comes to interactions with their pet? “Some of them want [a pet] that they can play with. And, most children want that hands-on interaction,” says Dr. Mackey. “There are some children who would rather have the cool, unique [pet] and not so much the hands-on.”
Is your potential new pet nocturnal or diurnal? This could influence where you want to your pet’s enclosure to reside.
Consider your child’s personality. Is your child calm enough to handle a more fragile creature? You have to consider the pet’s needs and your child’s ability to respect those needs.
What are you going to do if your child loses interest in the pet? It is never acceptable to let an animal suffer because a child cannot or will not take care of it anymore. Are you going to be able to take on all responsibility for the pet’s care (including their emotional needs) or will you find the pet a new, loving home?
You’ll also want to meet your pet in person so you can get a feel for each other. Dr. Mackey cautions that while some pet store employees are highly knowledgeable, others are not, so your veterinarian is the best resource when it comes to determining care requirements for your pet.
After you bring your pet home, you’ll want to book an appointment with your veterinarian immediately so they can assess your pet and then provide you with recommendations on how to best care for them.
Best Pets for Kids Ages 4-7
Parakeets (also called budgies) can be a good option when it comes to pets for kids. “They’re fairly low-maintenance, not super messy and don’t take up a lot of space,” says Dr. Hess. She explains that by the age of 7, children start to understand how to be gentle with pets and can actively engage in their bird’s care.
Parakeets are known to be very affectionate, and they respond well to regular, gentle handling. With training, a parakeet can learn dozens or more words, so your child can actively engage with them in a fun and unique way.
A parakeet is a great pet for kids who are able to respect the small bird’s size. They will not do well with children who handle them roughly or act unpredictably and startle them frequently.
However, if you are willing to work with your child to help them learn how to positively interact with their pet parakeet, Dr. Hess says that these birds can help teach children how to be calm and patient.
When it comes to the everyday care of a parakeet, the parents should take care of the daily cage cleanings, but children can help out with other tasks like washing and filling up the food and water dish and feeding vegetables as a treat.
It is important to remember that parakeets can live into their teens, so this pet would be a long-term commitment.
If you are comfortable with lizards in your home, then a fun and unique pet to consider is the crested gecko.
“Little kids love the gecko because he just sits there in your hand,” says Dr. Mackey. “They’re a cool, cool lizard. They’re the softest animal you will ever touch. Feet stick to the glass on the container. But, they’re nocturnal. You can see them during the daytime, but the evening/early morning is the best time to see them.”
While these little guys can be handled and have some quirky characteristics, you will need to work with your child to be gentle with them. A young crested gecko will need time to adapt to their living situations before you can start conditioning them to be handled, which can take three to four weeks.
Once you do start handling them, you must teach your child to be very gentle, because crested geckos will “drop” (lose) their tails if startled or made to feel threatened.
The care of the crested gecko can be split up between family members. Children can help with mixing a crested gecko’s powdered food with water and how to measure it out. Dr. Mackey says that a child can also help with setting up their terrarium.
Keep in mind that you will need to teach your children to wash their hands after handling their gecko because reptiles tend to carry Salmonella bacteria more frequently than some other species of pets.
Best Pets for Kids Ages 8-11
They may not be your immediate thought when it comes to pets, but rats can be great pets for kids. “Rats are phenomenal animals,” says Dr. Hess. “Rats are generally very loving and bonded to their owners. They’re gentle. They’re a little tougher.” Dr. Hess explains that once kids have a longer attention span, rats can be an ideal pet.
A pet rat can help an older child to “understand that there’s some kind of schedule to their day,” says Dr. Hess. They can add structure and responsibilities that can help children grow to be more thoughtful. For instance, they might have a morning task to feed the rat before going to school.
Pet rats are also affectionate pets that, when socialized, love interactions with their humans. They can show excitement when they sense (sight, smell and sound) their human’s presence, and some will even cuddle. But they also like to have a cage mate, so you should be prepared to have more than one.
When it comes to caring for pet rats, there are many activities that kids can get involved with. Besides helping feed their pet rats pellets and small veggies, kids can replenish water, clean the water bottle and spot-clean the cage.
Kids can help with the mental and physical enrichment of pet rats by setting up mazes for them to explore. They can also create foraging toys and places to hide using toilet paper tubes, which the rats can also chew on.
Rats are very intelligent and can be trained, so your child can actively bond with their pet rat and try to teach them a whole host of tricks.
Dr. Mackey does caution that rats tend to eat everything you give them and can easily become overweight, so you will have to work with your child to ensure you find the right balance between food and exercise.
However, rats tend to only live for about three years, so you will have to be prepared to have a tough conversation with your child if you choose to have a pet rat while they are still very young.
Canaries and Finches
Canaries and finches are ideal pets for kids because they don’t have to be handled a lot. However, they usually prefer the company of others, so you will need to be prepared to have multiple birds. These birds are flock animals and tend to do better when they’re in a group, says Dr. Mackey.
Canaries “can be a little skittish. But if they’re kept happy, they’ll sing, and it’s beautiful,” says Dr. Hess. “Many people appreciate small birds for their beauty.” She explains, “Finches are fun to watch. They’re very active.” But finches will not sing, like the canary, so if you are looking for a quiet bird, finches may be a good option.
Canaries and finches can be great options for kids who would like to observe more than interact with their pets. While, with patience, canaries can be taught to perch on a finger, most finches prefer not to be handled, so your child will have limited opportunities to physically interact with their finches.
Canaries are not the hardiest of pets, either; they “have to be kept safe and away from other pets. They’re fragile,” says Dr. Hess.
Kids can help out with cage cleaning and providing fresh food and water for the bird. Your child can also be responsible for removing the bird cage cover in the mornings, changing the paper at the bottom of the cage and vacuuming around the cage.
Canaries and finches have a long life span—10-15 years in captivity—so you and your child will need to be prepared to provide care for them well into their teen years.
Everyone has heard about guinea pigs as pets, and some even consider them to be good class pets. Guinea pigs are popular pets for kids because of their size and manageable care requirements. “They’re pretty calm. They’re adorable,” says Dr. Hess. “They’re not high maintenance. They’re fairly hardy.”
Guinea pigs generally enjoy being around humans and will actively engage and interact with you. They are willing to sit calmly in a child’s lap and will even vocalize their excitement when their favorite human is around.
There are also a wide variety of guinea pig breeds to choose from, so your family can find one that fits what you are all looking for in a pet.
If your child can handle additional responsibility, you can consider getting a long-haired guinea pig; they can help with brushing the guinea pig and making sure the hair doesn’t get matted, says Dr. Hess. Children can also actively participate in keeping the cage tidy and providing the guinea pig with fresh hay, salad and pellets.
“Guinea pigs are really social animals. They do better when there’s more than one,” says Dr. Mackey. But if you get another guinea pig, that’s twice the cage space and twice the expense.
Guinea pigs tend to live 5-7 years, so they are an option if you are looking for a moderate commitment in terms of life span.
Best Pets for Kids Ages 12-15
“They’ve very, very loving,” says Dr. Hess. “They live a long time. They can be very bonded to their owners. They can be gentle.”
Both Dr. Mackey and Dr. Hess point out that rabbits can startle easily and can be very fragile; they can bite and jump and injure themselves, so they should only be handled by a child with a calm demeanor.
Despite their reputation as low-maintenance starter pets, rabbits are actually better suited for older children that understand how to be responsible with the care of their pet. They are very social creatures that crave attention from their owners and will require a significant time and care commitment.
If your family is ready to take on the care of a rabbit, then you will find that they make great companions. They are curious and playful and will provide your child with a loving pet that enjoys their company.
Since these pets are best for older children, your child can be actively involved in their care. They can ensure the litter box is cleaned, provide the rabbit with fresh hay, replace paper-based bedding and clean their cages. They can also help you pick out vegetables for your rabbit.
Rabbits also need to spend time out of their cages, so you can use this as an opportunity to bond with your child as you both watch the rabbit explore his surroundings safely.
Keep in mind that rabbits could potentially be attacked or harmed by other animals and will probably need to be kept in their own separate space.
Domestic rabbits tend to live 8-12 years, so they will be long-term commitments for your family.
Cats and Dogs
Cats and dogs, while common, are major commitments when it comes to time, money and responsibility.
When children are taught how to properly interact with cats and dogs, they can play a very active role in the care of these pets. “They understand responsibilities and consequences. They have to participate in the care. That’s part of the deal,” says Dr. Hess. “Picking up dog poop isn’t so much fun. It’s something that you have to do.”
Children can take responsibility for a variety of care tasks for a pet dog or cat. Younger kids can give fresh food and water and wash towels and bedding, and tweens and teens can take dogs out on walks, change the cat litter, and even help out with teeth brushing.
Dogs and cats can live to be well over 10 years old (some for 20 years or even more), so they are long-term commitments.
If you have older children who are looking for a more unique pet, consider a bearded dragon. According to Dr. Mackey, bearded dragons are the “world’s greatest lizards… because they’re fairly hardy [and] because they don’t bite often. I won’t say that they won’t, but they don’t, typically.”
Bearded dragons are reptiles that enjoy being handled and held, so if your child is looking for a reptile that they can actively engage with, they are a great option.
In terms of responsibilities, your older child can take an active role in the care of their bearded dragon, from feeding and cleaning to socialization and enrichment.
One thing to keep in mind is that the housing requirements for a bearded dragon’s well-being are a bit more intricate. They require special UV lighting and temperature controls, and sometimes live feedings.
But luckily, your older child can help with changing the bulbs before they burn out, measuring the temperature of the cage (which needs to be kept at specific levels) and feeding insects to your bearded dragon.
Be aware that bearded dragons tend to be more expensive to care for than other pets, due in part to the insect diet and special lighting, says Dr. Mackey.
Bearded dragons tend to live 5-8 years but can live to be up to 10 years old when provided with optimal care.
Both vets praised corn snakes as being easy to handle and a good option for a family prepared to care for a pet snake. “Corn snakes can be very gentle,” says Dr. Hess.
The corn snake can grow to be 2.5-5 feet, so you will need to adjust their terrarium size as they grow. They are great starter reptiles for older children because they do not mind being handled. They do require rodents as food, but they should be freshly deceased or frozen, because live mice can injure your pet snake.
They’re also relatively low-maintenance pets when it comes to daily chores. However, because they have special care requirements, they are best suited for older children.
With all reptiles, you’ll want to check the humidity and temperature of the cage and keep the space clean—all activities your older child can assist with. Your child can also take an active role in the layout of the cage and the accessories it contains.
Corn snakes have a life span of 5-10 years, so they are also long-term commitments.
Dr. Hess prefers Greek tortoises to other types of turtles, tortoises and terrapins because they’re small and eat vegetables.
Greek tortoises will grow to be about 5-8 inches, and they should be kept in a large naturalistic enclosure made of plywood (this helps them to learn their boundaries, whereas glass and plastic will have them constantly trying to escape).
When it comes to the care of your tortoise, you will want to work with your veterinarian to meet their individual needs and discuss their nutritional requirements.
Your kids can help out with checking the temperature, humidity, light and heat inside the enclosure. Kids can also cut vegetables, administer vitamins and replenish water dishes.
“Some of the reptiles are great for kids on the spectrum because they’re slow-moving and they’re quiet and they’re not overstimulating. And, there are plenty of detail-oriented children who can participate in care by keeping track of daily feedings,” says Dr. Hess.
Greek tortoises do not particularly care for being held, so they are a great pet for kids that like to watch and observe their pets go about their business. However, this does not mean they will not interact with you. They are known to be very responsive and interactive. They will approach their caretakers for food and will be friendly and interactive.
Greek tortoises have an extremely long life span—in many cases living for over 20 years—So they will be lifelong commitments.
By: Teresa Traverse
Featured Image: iStock.com/akrp