Choosing the right small pet for children is a big decision. Every animal is different – some need lots of attention, some are easy for small hands to handle, and some are more inclined to bite.
Getting a pet for children can teach them responsibility and increase their respect for animals. But the animal’s welfare should always be the priority, which is why it’s important to find a pet that’s going to suit your lifestyle and your child’s age.
Your child’s enthusiasm for getting a pet may not last. Even if it does, young children will still need your help understanding how best to handle and look after their pet.
Think about the space you have, the cost of equipment (cages, bedding, food etc) and any pet vaccinations, worming or other treatments a small pet may need.
While we can’t stress enough the importance of teaching your children to handle and care for their pets properly, whatever their size, there’s less risk of a small animal causing a significant injury to a child.
When children are small, a cat or dog can be quite hard for a small child to handle and without a perfect temperament they can even be dangerous to a child.
Little animals can also be easier for the child to care for themselves by cleaning their cage and topping up food and water, teaching them responsibility and building a bond.
A child can learn a huge amount about science and nature by keeping pets. They’ll see how animals act in their environment and learn about their behaviour and habits.
Guinea pigs make great family pets. On the plus side, they’re very sociable, love to be handled and often live longer (five to seven years) than most rodents.
They prefer to live in pairs or groups, so you’ll need more space. You may want to bring them inside for winter, and they need vitamin C to stay healthy. They also need worming once every three months and their living space will need regular cleaning.
Guinea pigs aren’t as high maintenance as a dog or cat, but you’d still need to weigh up the pros and cons of buying and insuring guinea pigs for your children.
Hamsters are a popular family pet – they’re fairly low maintenance, compared to rabbits. However, smaller breeds can be aggressive and may nip children. Hamsters need a roomy cage with plenty of tunnels. They tend to sleep during the day and are awake at night – so not great in a child’s bedroom. They can be grumpy if woken up and only live for around three years.
Hamsters also need to be handled very gently, which young children may struggle with, so you may want to consider a larger breed as they’re often happier being handled. Even though they’re small and low maintenance, do your research to find out all you can about buying and insuring hamsters.
Gerbils are a great choice for young children. They’re easy to care for, not nocturnal and tend to bite less than hamsters. They’re fast though, which can make handling tricky for very young children.
They live for around two years and dislike very humid environments. Because they’re sociable animals, you should always get more than one. Plus, they love to burrow so need a deeper cage than a hamster would.
Rats are very sociable creatures that like to live in pairs or groups. Rats make great pets but need lots of attention. You’ll need to handle them every day, play with them, let them run around outside the cage (they generally won’t wander too far) and keep them mentally stimulated. They’re very active creatures who like to nibble things (get a metal cage so they can’t chew their way out of it). Rats live for between two to three years and can be litter trained.
Chinchillas are shy, delicate creatures. They’re very quick and can bite, so might not be easy for younger children to handle. Male chinchillas are often easier to handle than females. They have a longer lifespan than other small pets – 12 to 15 years. Because of their nature, chinchillas aren’t recommended for children, although they may be suitable for older teenagers.
Ferrets are another small pet better suited to older children (they’re not always happy being held in younger hands). They need a lot of attention, and some can get very stressed in noisy environments. If they’re handled too roughly they may bite. Ferrets like to spend lots of time outside their cages, but they also love to explore. Ferrets also need a lot of space.
According to advice from Blue Cross, two ferrets need a cage that’s at least three metres long by two metres high and wide. If you have one ferret, it’ll need lots of interaction every day as they’re very social and intelligent. All ferrets require a weekly clean and may need a specialised diet. Find out more about buying and insuring ferrets before you get one, so you can fully understand the commitment.
Fish are a good first pet for young children. Obviously, you can’t interact with a fish like you can with a fluffy animal, but they help teach children about responsibility and looking after animals. Some fish can live much longer than other small pets, depending on the breed and the care they receive.
Be careful when choosing your fish – start with low maintenance, hardy breeds and consider that most fish will need a bigger tank than you’d expect. Let the tank stabilise before adding your fish and get expert advice on the best plants, type of fish, tank hygiene and cleaning.
Dogs are one of the most popular choices of pets for children, but they need a lot of attention – almost as much as your actual children, in fact. They also need plenty of space, daily exercise and vaccinations. You’ll need to create a daily routine – and stick to it. Before you decide to get a dog, do your research on owning a dog, vaccinations and dog insurance.
Another popular choice for a family pet, cats require less attention than dogs in terms of walking and routine. Things you need to think about include whether you live near a main road, paying for a cattery when you go on holiday, the cost of vaccinations and cat insurance.
There are specialist insurers who can provide cover for almost any furred, feathered or scaled friend – at a price.
Vet bills for small animals aren’t necessarily cheaper than for larger ones. In fact, small animals can need more specialist care, equipment and medicine than your average cat or dog.
But because lots of small animals cost relatively little to buy, that can come as a shock to owners.
You need to think carefully about whether pet insurance is worth it for you, or whether you’d prefer to ‘self-insure’ your small pet by putting away a bit of money each month.
Either way, be prepared for vet bills and don’t expect them to cost less for small animals.