Just about every child will want to have a pet of their own at some point as they grow up, whether it’s because a friend wins a new goldfish at the fair, or a movie featuring talking guinea pigs comes to theaters. It’s important to consider, before buying your child a pet, that caring for a living thing is a big job, no matter how small the animal may be. All pets can feel pain, loneliness, boredom, and fear and will suffer if not cared for properly. It is a good idea to research the pet your child is interested in to make sure it is right for them before bringing a the new pet home. There are several popular first time pets that parents visiting us inquire about most often. I thought it might be helpful to provide an introduction and a brief overview of what to expect from these animals, beginning with hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs and rats.
There are many types of hamsters available as pets, such as Russian Dwarves, Roborovskis, and Chinese, but Syrians are the most popular species. This solitary animal is usually the first pet everyone wants to get for their children. Syrians are the biggest pet hamster and come in many colors and hair types. They are cheap, widely available, and adorable! However hamsters do not always make ideal pets for very young first time pet owners for two reasons. Hamsters are nocturnal, and will not be happy about being played with during the day. They may nip and squeal if they do not want to be touched. Hamsters will tame down after a week or two of daily handling and typically become great pets, but if you believe your child will become frightened of or disinterested in their hamster if it nips them, they may not be the best option. Hamsters have to grow accustomed to being handled, so it will be an effort for you and your child to work with your pet. Hamsters are better pets for older kids who can be patient in getting their pet used to them. Overall, they are very easy to care for and can make great pets for the right family.
Gerbils can be kept in groups and are quite humorous to watch, so they can be very entertaining for children. Clean and curious, gerbils can make better first pets for very young children than hamsters because they are more active during the day and do not bite as quickly. Gerbils may take dust baths and love to dig in deep bedding. I do not suggest allowing young children to handle them without adult supervision, because they are extremely fast and can pop right out of their hands if you’re not careful. Also, the tail of a gerbil is very delicate and will break off if it is grabbed or pulled. Older kids may handle their gerbils if they are careful and can keep up with the little buggers! They come in several colors including tan, black, brown, white, and spotted. It is best to purchase two male gerbils together because males get along with each other better than females. And certainly don’t get a male and female unless you are willing to deal with dozens of babies!
Guinea pigs are friendly, vocal little critters that usually do not bite, but can be a bit skittish, so they are best for calm children who can be patient and gentle. They should be kept in same sex pairs. This will actually encourage your guinea pigs to be less skittish and more outgoing. Because guinea pigs are larger then most rodents, they are easier for a child to hold in their lap. They can be messy, so their cage will need to be cleaned two or three times a week to prevent odors (more or less depending on how many you are keeping). They are good for most ages provided that very young children are supervised and are not allowed to roughhouse with their pets. Guinea pigs shed a lot , and are known to cause allergies, so have your children handle them at the pet store first to make sure they are not allergic.
Despite what you may have heard, the highly intelligent rat is an affectionate and interactive pet that rarely bites unless mistreated. I suggest them for children who are old enough to understand responsibility and will be willing to play with their animals and give them toys. Rats can be housed alone, but do better in same sex pairs and will keep each other company while your child is in school. They are not especially smelly, and may only need to have their cage cleaned once a week depending on how many you decide to keep. Male rats tend to be on the calmer, cuddlier side while females are active and exploratory, however intact males are a bit more pungent and may urine mark their owners and territories. Very young children should not keep pet rats because unlike guinea pigs, which will make loud squealing noises when frightened or in pain, a rat will bite if it is being tormented or poked at. If your child is old enough to be gentle and loving, a rat may be right for them. The oil rats produce from their skin can cause itchy contact rashes on some people, but this usually goes away after a few minutes, however it is a good idea to handle rats before purchase to make sure you or your children and not severely allergic.
In part 2 we’ll cover rabbits, chinchillas and ferrets!