Firstly, I want to mention that I strongly discourage giving pets as gifts, unless the recipient has made it very clear for a long time that they want that pet, and has shown that they are both knowledgeable and capable of properly caring for them. Getting a pet is not like getting a toy or a video game. That pet is a living creature, totally dependent on the owner for it’s health and well-being. A pet is a commitment.
A major issue with getting pets for the sake of the children, is that the parent must be prepared to supervise pet care and, if necessary, take over all care for the animal if the child is unable or unwilling to properly look after it. Let’s face it – children are minors, and they are dependent on adults for food, shelter, love, and money. They can also be flighty and have quickly changing interests. They might desperately beg for a hedgehog, and then a few weeks later, you find they haven’t been feeding it, giving it fresh water, or cleaning the cage. Will the child be able to interact with the pet appropriately, so that neither gets injured? Will the child have the initiative to research proper care and handling for their pet? Will the child understand that the pet will suffer if they aren’t fed and given fresh water every day? Will the child be able to monitor supplies and remind the adult to buy more when needed? Will the child be able to recognize when something isn’t right with the pet’s health, and take the appropriate course of action? Will they be able to take the pet to the veterinarian for medical treatment? No one wants to see the online help forum posts that start with “my pet is sick/injured/dying and my parents won’t take it to the vet.”
We’ve all seen those sad Kijiji ads that appear around now, a month or so after Christmas, that start off with “Rehoming pet and all supplies. The kids aren’t taking care of it.” No one wants to see those ads. Though, if you are looking to get a pet, now is a good time to find one, with all supplies, online. Another good time for getting a rehomed pet with all supplies is right before moving day on July 1st.
I have also had the pleasure of caring for several children’s pets, where the child was a little expert on the animal, giving me specific, detailed instructions on care down to the exact temperature at which to keep the cage. One even left a little mommy’s “I love you” note in her pet’s lunch box.
I am often asked by my mommy friends what is the best pet for a child. Maybe the parents have never had pets themselves, so they don’t know what having a pet entails. They want a low-maintenance, cuddly, “easy” pet, that won’t be too expensive.
I generally recommend getting a cat. Here’s my take on several small pets I’ve encountered.
I recommend a cat because, well, I’m a cat sitter and I think that when done properly, cats make great family pets. They are big enough that you can’t forget about them, they let you know when they need food, they are assertive about getting attention, they are trainable, and they are affectionate. They are awake when the household is awake. Their care is relatively easy and straightforward. They are a common pet, and it is easy to get supplies, information, and to find appropriate veterinarian care for them.
Some cats are not appropriate for children. I have several cat clients who cannot be touched, or they will scratch or bite. Children can be injured especially if they try to have a staring contest with the cat, or try to handle the cat when the cat wants to be left alone. A cat can become overly stimulated during play time, and a child must know when to stop to let the cat calm down or the cat might start biting or scratching. It is very important to remember to wash your hands well after handling any cat waste. Is the child going to be able to clean up cat vomit and litter box accidents? Will the child be able to brush the cat well enough so that the fur doesn’t mat? Approximate lifespan 12-15 years or longer.
Hamsters make an economical option, both financially and in terms of space. A child could even fund the entire hamster’s care, including saving for a possible exotic veterinarian visit, by carefully saving their allowance, gift monies, and by doing small odd jobs. Even a very large DIY hamster cage (Ikea Detolf!!!) takes up fairly little space, and is inexpensive. When I was a struggling young college graduate, barely supporting myself with four jobs, I was still able to afford keeping a hamster and taking him to the veterinarian as needed.
Hamsters, like a lot of pocket pets, might not be appropriate for all households. They are diurnal, which means that they are primarily active at night, but wake periodically during the day to eat and exercise. You can acclimate the hamster to being awake when you are awake, but you also have to be tolerant of hearing the hamster run miles and miles on their wheel at night (the silent wheels help a lot, but still make some noise). They are small and fragile, and can be easily hurt by children who aren’t aware of their own strength or don’t know how gently to play with them. Small children might stick their fingers into the hamster cage, and the hamster, startled awake or smelling food on the children’s hands, might bite. Children – and yes, adults – might be holding a hamster, get bitten, and fling the hamster in the air, which may cause a serious if not fatal injury to the hamster. They have poor eyesight, and can bite hard if the hands holding them smell like food. They are genius escape artists, and might escape their cage. Yes, their cage needs to be cleaned, they often pee on their wheel, and hamsters produce quite pungent urine, so the cage will have an odor. While they look like fun, I advise against buying tube-based cages, as they are cumbersome to clean and do not allow for sufficient open floor space for the hamster to run around. Hamsters live about 2 years or longer.
Rabbits are generally thought of as a good children’s pet. They can be cuddly, and can be fairly small, or quite large. They can be trained to use a litter box. However, in an urban environment like most of Montreal, house rabbits are quite costly and high maintenance. They need a large enclosure, roughly 12 square feet, or be allowed to free-roam like a cat or dog. They can cause a lot of property damage by chewing cables and furniture, and need annual veterinarian check ups. They need their claws trimmed and regular brushing. Daily, or even multiple times throughout the day, their litter box area needs to be scooped and tidied. Hay and fur everywhere. Fresh vegetables. If not properly socialized, they can bite. They can make noise by thumping their back paws when angry, which might make neighbours angry. Most rabbits are not lap pets, and they prefer to sit beside you rather than on you, and don’t like being chased and picked up, which a child might not understand. They must be monitored carefully for intake and outtake, as even a 12-hour stop to their constant eating and pooping cycle can mean a fatal blockage that requires an emergency veterinarian visit. New pet owners might be shocked to learn that pet rabbits can live 8-12 years.
I love guinea pigs, and think they make good children’s pets. Like rabbits, their upkeep in an urban environment can be expensive, as they need about a cup of a variety of fresh vegetables every day, in addition to hay and pellets and maybe vitamin C supplements. Recommended cage size starts at about 8 square feet. They are eating machines, and constantly demand food. Oh, and they only sleep for about 4 hours per day, so they are often active, making noise, and doing something. They can be high maintenance, and it is strongly recommended to get more than one guinea pig, as they are social and herd animals. They are a demanding, very interactive pet. In general, they are not precise about using a litter box, and their enclosures must be tidied every day or twice per day. Hay everywhere. They are not a quiet pet, which you’d have to love in order to love them. They make a variety of noises, particularly when they hear the fridge or any bag opening that might possibly be food for them. They should be handle carefully so that their backs are not too strained. They can be affectionate, enjoying head rubs, but are very much a prey animal, so will often run away squealing in fear even when they know you well and like you. Depending on the cage set up, they might need periodic baths to clean poop off of feet and bodily fluids out of fur. They can live roughly 5-7 years or longer.
Children might enjoy having a tiny pet like a mouse. They are social, and it is advisable to get more than one. They can be affectionate, and their care is inexpensive, and they eat little. They are good at not falling out of tiny hands due to their prehensile tails. One downside is their short lifespan, which is only 1-2 years. They are perhaps the shortest lived pet I am aware of.
I don’t think a hedgehog makes a good child’s pet, simply because they are nocturnal. Unlike hamsters, who will awaken during the day to eat, drink, and exercise before going back to bed until the evening, hedgehogs are only active at night, or in the very early hours of the morning. So expect to hear the wheel turning at night. When I board hedgehogs, I usually only see them awake around 4am.
Otherwise, hedgehogs make good pets, and the child could certainly interact with a parent’s hedgehog, but if the pet were meant to be primarily in the child’s care, I wouldn’t recommend hedgehogs. They can be expensive to set up, even when adopted from a shelter. They are not rodents, instead possessing quite a full mouth of little sharp teeth and they might bite. They make some sounds which might seem scary if you aren’t used to them, like huffing. Some also do a unique ritual called “anointing” after encountering a new smell, in which they spread foamy saliva all over their quills. They can be tamed, but may not be overly affectionate. Often when you are holding them, you have to move them from hand to hand to keep them off-balance enough not to bite you. You can pet their backs if you pet them in the direction of the quills, and their bells are warm and furry. They are insectivores, and can be fed high quality cat food, with various worms for treats. They like to hide and to be warm, so it’s common to put a small piece of fleece in their cage for them to nestle into, and to warm the cage with a heat lamp or heating pad. Their wheel needs to be cleaned daily, and sometimes their feet also need to be cleaned, as they poop as they run. Average lifespan 4-6 years, maybe longer.