When I was a child, I wanted nothing more in the world than a dog. Before every big gift-worthy occasion or holiday, I ceaselessly begged my parents. Birthdays, Christmastime, good report cards, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day… you name it! I made highly sophisticated presentations complete with graphs and charts, outlining the case and expertly arguing my side like a junior attorney. And I never let up on the dream.
In response and over time, my parents bought every form of “alternative” pet in an effort to appease me. I had fish, hamsters, a rabbit, a turtle, birds… Eventually, they buckled a little and allowed me to get a cat. Thus, Arthur Rubenstein entered my life. Arthur was a salty old one-eyed cat who picked a fight with the wrong possum in his youth, and like a stubborn old sailor, refused to slow down and bow to his disability. He was a cool cat. While jumping onto roof tops, crawling under the deck, and causing general mischief throughout the neighborhood, he taught me that our disadvantages only hold us back as much as we allow them to. Still though, he was never a replacement for the constant companionship that I yearned for in the form of a dog.
Now that my baby is getting older, I wonder if I’ll take the same route that my parents did on the pet front. Will I subject my child to an ever-changing menagerie of small critters in an effort to dissuade her from wanting a dog? And with so many options to choose from, which small pet is “the best?”
The following is my ranking of small pets, based on both research and the extensive personal experience I picked up as a young Elmyra (Tiny Toons reference for my generation). I’ve broken it down into the following categories: Affordability for Mama, Convenience Level, and Entertainment/Relatability. Because we want our kids to be happy but let’s face it: as single moms, our time, money, and energy is already stretched to the limit. Otherwise, we would just get them the damn dog!
Let’s start with the ultimate lazy parent’s pet of choice: The Goldfish. This is an ideal starter pet for small children since goldfish are super cheap to buy and require a very basic level of upkeep. With a little supervision, kids can handle the responsibility of feeding once a day and keeping the tank clean. We went through countless goldfish when I was a kid and they never lasted more than a week, so I was surprised to learn recently that goldfish can live to be ten years old and grow up to a foot long. In fact, the picture above is a goldfish!
The problem is that we buy a goldfish and then put it in a fish bowl, which is no longer considered a suitable environment for goldfish. Bowls don’t provide enough space for goldfish to reach their potential adult size, nor do they provide a filter or the necessary setup to ensure appropriate oxygen levels for the fish. Buying a larger tank for your goldfish will also protect your pet from stress related illness due to lack of space. In my research, I’ve learned that goldfish actually have advanced cognitive abilities, a memory span of at least three months, the ability to recognize and favor different humans, and can even learn tricks. We severely underestimated our goldfish when we were growing up!
(Here’s a link from Cracked.com…click if you have a strong stomach to learn about the fascinating yet totally brutal realities of working as a fish tender at your local pet store. The article reiterates the importance of choosing an appropriately outfitted tank for your little buddy.)
Affordability: 4 Stars (Out of a potential 5 Stars)
Convenience: 5 Stars
Entertainment: ½ Star (with a potential for 2 if trained, but I have yet to see this!)
When I was about eight years old, we had a tortoise for part of a summer. Our neighbor Stan found it in his yard and we built a pen for it in our backyard with a little wading pool and awning for shade. When my sister went away to Girl Scout camp, I accidentally killed the tortoise by *allegedly* leaving it out in the sun without its awning, a crime for which I am still bitterly blamed to this day. What I’ve recently learned though, is that pet turtles and tortoises actually require specific ecological setups tailored to their breed, and are quite difficult for the novice to keep alive and happy. With this revelation, I feel exonerated.
If you are truly committed and have a passion for turtles or tortoises, then they can be beautiful and fascinating pets for adults. However, they are not suitable for children to keep as pets, for a number of reasons. One reason is that, as with a lot of reptile species, turtles and tortoises can carry salmonella. Your child could get very sick and even wind up in the hospital if they handle a turtle or tortoise without thoroughly washing their hands afterwards, and the salmonella can transfer easily to surfaces as well. For this reason, the selling of turtles with shells less than four inches long has been banned in the United States since 1975.
Another reason to think twice about getting a turtle for your child is that it’s a major long-term commitment. Some turtles can grow to over a foot long and live for decades, even longer than their human owners. If you get a pet turtle for your child, realize that you will likely have that turtle after your child has grown and left your house. According to the Humane Society, rescue organizations are inundated with turtles for this reason, and setting your turtle loose in the wild to “free” it will either kill the turtle or threaten the native biodiversity of the land. Unfortunately, there aren’t many good options for re-homing a turtle or tortoise.
Yet another reason to think twice about a pet turtle is the cost factor. They are marketed as inexpensive, low-maintenance pets when they in fact require specialized equipment (startup cost of $600 or more!), regular veterinary care, and a steady diet of fresh produce (weekly supermarket trips for mama).
Affordability: 0 Stars
Convenience: 0 Stars
Entertainment: 1 Star
…So Which Reptiles Make Good Pets?
Reptiles in general do not make the best pets for young children, although there are a few exceptions and there are definitely some pros to owning reptiles over other classes of animals. For example, you don’t have to worry about allergies with reptiles. They can also foster a child’s interest in the natural world since they are basically like cool, exotic little dinosaurs. Check out this article from The Spruce Pets which gives an overview of good options for budding young herpetologists.
When I was about eleven years old, both my cousin and I had parakeets. Neither of us had much luck with them. I was never able to get my bird to talk despite all my efforts and when I went to visit my cousin, we let her bird out of the cage only for it to fly frantically in circles around the room, smash into a Beastie Boys poster, and slide to the floor.
Despite these experiences, birds actually make great pets for kids for a few reasons. But the key to picking out a bird for your child is to get the right type. This article from The Spruce Pets recommends either finches, budgies (parakeets), or cockatiels.
These birds are generally easy to care for, inexpensive to keep and feed, make beautiful music, and can learn to talk and do tricks under the proper conditions. The fact is, birds are highly intelligent creatures. According to the Audubon Society, they have natural problem solving abilities and cognitive skills. They can count, use tools, and mimic their owners. They are also extremely social creatures and can be as loving and affectionate as a cat or dog.
In the wild, birds are extremely communicative with each other. They talk to each other to stay in touch with their flock as they migrate over long distances, hunt through dense forests, and warn each other against predators. Since talking is so paramount to their survival in the wild, it’s natural that they want to communicate with us as well. So how do you get your pet bird to start talking? This article from Pet MD gives some great tips to get you started.
Affordability: 5 Stars
Convenience: 4 Stars
Entertainment: 3-5 Stars (depending on your commitment in training)
No doubt rabbits are adorable animals, but there are some important things to consider before taking one into your home. Although they’re seen as easy alternatives to cats and dogs, the reality is that they require the same amount of time and attention. For this reason, bunnies are often surrendered to shelters when their owners are surprised by how high maintenance they turn out to be. The Humane Society advises that if you’re interested in getting a bunny, it’s better to adopt from a local rescue center rather than purchasing from a pet store, where the suppliers often breed them in cruel conditions.
It is also advised that rabbits be kept indoors where they are safe from prey, given large hutches with plenty of room to bounce around, and be allowed at least four hours a day of “free range” time in a room that has been thoroughly rabbit-proofed. Rabbits have teeth that never stop growing, so they like to chew on everything they can — cables, furniture, your important paperwork, and so forth.
Furthermore, it’s recommended that a family waits until their children are older to adopt a rabbit. Rabbits are prey animals and therefore are quite skittish. They startle easily with loud noises and jerky movements and they do not like being picked up. A small child grabbing a rabbit is interpreted by that rabbit as an attack from a predator. The animal will bite and kick, causing risk of injury to both the child and the rabbit. Older children need to be taught the appropriate way to approach the rabbit.
According to The House Rabbit Society, if you decide to get a rabbit for your child, you need to accept the fact that the rabbit will be primarily your responsibility. Rabbits are susceptible to stress related illness so they need adherence to a strict routine when it comes to feeding, cleaning and exercise.
Affordability: 2 Stars (initial fee includes large hutch and spaying/neutering)
Convenience: 3 Stars
Entertainment: 3 Stars
I am biased toward hamsters as the ideal rodent for children. I absolutely loved my three hamsters growing up and I’m not sure whether people realize what excellent pets they make.
They are inexpensive, easy to take care of, highly intelligent and endlessly entertaining. Plus with an average lifespan of two years, they aren’t a huge decade-long commitment like some other small pets.
One thing to consider carefully with hamsters is the type of cage you choose. There are many different varieties on the market and some of them may look cool but have poor ventilation and are difficult to clean. I went through a phase with my second hamster where I decided to put together an insanely elaborate cage. This thing had it ALL – wheels, tubes, obstacle courses, lookout points, multiple chill lounges…it was a hamster’s dream. However, it was a bear to change the shavings. It’s best to go with a large and simple wire cage with a plastic base.
Another word of advice from my extensive hamster experience: They are excellent escape artists. As intelligent as they are, these little Houdini’s will eventually find a way to bust out of any enclosure you put them in. Their relatives in the wild are programmed to scurry and forage over large distances to find food, so hamsters will go for a jailbreak instinctually. In fact, this is why we provide them with hamster wheels in their cages – in an attempt to scratch that instinctual itch to run, run, run. This article from Petcha.com goes over some helpful tips to “minimize the chances of a hamster escape.”
Affordability: 5 Stars
Convenience: 4 Stars
Entertainment: 5 Stars