With the novelty of summer vacation beginning to wear off and
summer boredom starting to kick in, kids are looking for something
new to pass their school-less days.
That's when begging for a new pet begins.
What animal do you choose when a dog or cat seems like too much
commitment and a goldfish seems rather boring? Pet stores, shelters
and breeders offer a wide range of small animals. Matching the
right pet to your family, however, can get tricky.
To help you make the right choice for your home, we have
collected some choices for exotic pets, along with a 5-paw scale
that rates the animal's appropriateness for a child's pet. Bear in
mind that these ratings and descriptions are only guidelines;
animal traits vary among individuals and depend greatly on the
family who owns them. Always do ample research up front and be sure
to pick the right fit for your family's lifestyle.
One of the more sociable small
animals, guinea pigs make great family pets. At two pounds, guinea
pigs are small enough to fit on a child's lap, but not too small
that they can get easily squished. Children will have no trouble
feeding a guinea pig, and older children can be in charge of
cleaning the cage. Guinea pigs keep the same waking hours we do,
and they love interacting with their humans and other pigs. One
thing to keep in mind is that guinea pigs need fresh produce every
day, so you'll have to make sure your fridge is well stocked. They
can be quite verbal and will loudly squeak when they want a snack
Life span: 5-7 years
Kid Care rating:
If your family is looking for an animal that will
be both active and affectionate, "rats are one of the best of the
small rodents across the board," says Dr. Robert Ness, veterinarian
and owner of Ness Exotic Wellness Center in Lisle. "They're calm, a
good size and intelligent. I recommend them hands down over a
hamster or gerbil." Children can care for the animal, play with it
and construct toys from cereal boxes and household items to keep
the rat from getting bored. Some pet owners find them to be
somewhat smellier than other animals, so cage maintenance is
Life span: 2-3 years
Rabbits typically enjoy being petted
and held, and will even seek out attention from their owners. Their
diet is relatively straightforward, making meals an easy task for
kids. Many rabbits can be litter trained, in which case you can
give your pet frequent out-of-cage time. Because of their physical
fragility, timidity and specific preferences on when they want to
be touched and held, rabbits do best in a home with children who
are patient and at least 6 years old. A safe backyard space where
the rabbit can play is also helpful.
Life span: 7-10 years depending on breed
Ferrets are cute, active, mischievous
little animals. You can play with ferrets in much the same way
you'd play with a dog or cat. However, they have been seriously
inbred in the pet trade and often develop medical issues. Even if
your ferret is litter trained, it will still urinate or defecate
outside its litter box because of its short digestive tract, which
makes relieving itself a rather urgent task. "It is very hard to
ferret-proof a home," Ness says. And, though playful, ferrets can
get nippy when they're wound up, and their sharp teeth can lead to
a painful bite. Ness does not recommend ferrets for children under
7 or 8 years old.
Often the first animal parents
consider giving to their children, hamsters are small, cute, furry
and active. Their cages are small and diets manageable, thus making
them a rather simple pet to care for. However, hamsters are
nocturnal and will not be active during many of the hours your
child would want to interact with it. Also, although hamsters may
enjoy being held and petted, they have a high tendency toward
Gerbil If a hamster sounds great
except for its nocturnal lifestyle, consider bringing a gerbil into
your home. Gerbils are small, active animals that keep similar
waking hours to humans. Because of their desert-dwelling heritage,
they urinate less than other rodents and thus tend to be a cleaner
pet. Children can easily care for these animals and will enjoy
watching them play and run in their habitat. Gerbils tend to bite
less than hamsters, says Ness, but they are not very interested in
being cuddled. "Gerbils are more of a watching pet. Their biggest
advantage is their entertainment value."
Life span: 2-4 years
If your child is a reptile fan, the
docile leopard gecko is one of the best pets to consider. "There
are hundreds of gecko species, but leopard geckos are known for
their easy-going dispositions," says Jennifer Maresso, senior
keeper at Brookfield Zoo. Children can easily clean the cage, but
parents or older siblings will have to pitch in to disinfect it
every one to two months. Bear in mind that you'll have to house-and
sometimes feed-live crickets and mealworms.
Life span: 10-20 years
Although turtles can be charming
animals, Maresso cautions against adopting one for your child.
"Turtles have very specific housing and dietary needs, so they're
not a very good starter pet," she says. Many turtles, especially
tortoise species, can have a very long life span, making the animal
a significant time investment. Additionally, turtles are typically
high carriers of salmonella, which can be transferred to their
human caretakers. If your child is set on a turtle, Maresso
recommends a box turtle, which has a good disposition and requires
less work than an aquatic species.
Life span: Box turtles can easily live 40-50 years and many far
When it comes to snakes, Maresso says
the zoo recommends corn snakes. They grow up to 5 or 6 feet long
and are not venomous. They also come in a variety of color
patterns. Cage maintenance is rather easy and children can care for
their snake by misting it with a spray bottle, especially when the
snake is close to shedding. Snakes are carnivores, so you and your
child must be prepared to feed it mice. But Maresso recommends you
feed it dead, rather than live, prey.
Life span: 110 years is average for a corn snake
Allison Martin is a freelance writer living in Oak Park and a
play programs facilitator at the Brookfield Zoo.
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