Choosing the right pet for your family

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.

  • Guinea Pig

    guineaOne 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 or attention.

    Life span: 5-7 years

    Kid Care rating: pawprintpawprintpawprintpawprintpawprint

  • Rat

    ratIf 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 important.

    Life span: 2-3 years

    Kid-care rating:pawprintpawprintpawprintpawprintpawprint

  • Rabbit

    rabbitRabbits 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

    Kid-care rating:pawprintpawprintpawprintpawprint

  • Ferret

    ferretFerrets 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.

    Life span: 5-7 years

    Kid-care rating:pawprintpawprinthalf paw

  • Hamster

    hamsterOften 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 biting.

    Life span: 2-3 years

    Kid-care rating:pawprintpawprinthalf paw

  • Gerbil

    gerbilGerbil 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

    Kid-care rating:pawprintpawprintpawprint

  • Leopard Gecko

    geckoIf 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

    Kid-care rating:pawprintpawprintpawprintpawprint

  • Turtle

    turtleAlthough 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 surpass that.

    Kid-care rating:pawprintpawprint

  • Snake

    snakeWhen 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

    Kid-care rating:pawprintpawprintpawprint

Allison Martin is a freelance writer living in Oak Park and a play programs facilitator at the Brookfield Zoo.

Things to consider before adopting

  • Do your homework. “Make it a
    requirement for your child to research the animal and to do a
    report on what they learned,” Ness says. “If they do, they’ll not
    only be more knowledgeable, but they’ll also feel more
    responsibility because they had to work to get the animal in the
    first place.”
  • Speak to a veterinarian who
    specializes in exotic pets. This is critical if you already have
    another animal in the house; the vet can warn you of any potential
    conflicts between species.
  • Take your time before
    deciding to bring home a new pet. This will help you avoid a
    potentially disastrous impulse buy.
  • Check your child for any
    animal allergies. This is especially important if you are
    considering a mammal or bird. Even if your child is fine around
    dogs or cats, that doesn’t mean he’s allergy-free.
  • The pet is your responsibility,
    . “I don’t believe a pet should be solely a child’s
    responsibility, even a teenager’s,” Ness says. Keep the pet in a
    common area of the home, rather than in the child’s bedroom, so you
    can keep an eye out for signs of illness or distress.
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