Small Pets for Children (Dr. Ruthberg)

Small Pets for Small Children

“Exotic” pets are becoming more common these days. They are great for people who are allergic to dogs or cats and can even make great companions for kids.  Pets can teach children how to be responsible and aware of the needs of others and a pet is a live-in nature lesson. One piece of advice is to take a look at your lifestyle and figure out how much free time you generally have, how much you’re willing to clean up, how much space you have in and outside of your house, how often you travel, and how much you’re willing to spend on your pet’s care, feeding, and maintenance. Although pets are a great way to teach children about responsibility, more often than not YOU might be the one helping out with daily care. Here is a quick rundown of some of the more popular non-traditional pets that may suit your child:



In my experience, people often compare guinea pigs to hamsters when considering a small pet. Guinea pigs usually make better pets for children as hamsters are very small and more easily hurt or lost. Guinea pigs are highly sociable so it is often best to get two together, and usually two females are better as males can fight and putting a male and female together may lead to a whole other discussion you might not be ready to have with your kid. Did you know they can be very talkative? It is important that guinea pigs get an adequate supply of vitamin C every day so make sure they get their fruit and veggies.


These don’t often come to mind when considering pets but anyone who has owned rats can tell you they are one of the most affectionate and intelligent of all the pocket pets. You may be wary due to the reputation of their dumpster-diving cousins, but domesticated or “fancy rats” are very clean and meticulously groom themselves.  Rats are very smart and can be taught simple tricks, such as stay and sit and will often learn their names. They can also be litter box trained. Rats will often develop a connection with their owner, wanting daily attention. They genuinely enjoy interacting with people and should be handled daily.


These pets are popular as a “starter pet” for kids. They are very hardy and can live for 25 years! Get two because they like company. They’re not great pets for kids who are more hands-on and want something to play with. Remember to clean the tank regularly. It’s also easy to over feed them which can lead to a premature trip to the toilet for Nemo.


If you take your child to a pet store there is a good chance you may end up with one of these. Children generally love rabbits and they can make good pets for kids but it is important they learn how to properly handle a bunny as they can get injured when picking them up the wrong way. They need exercise outside of their cage and they can actually be litter trained!  Make sure you read up on their dietary needs as bunnies require lots of good quality timothy hay to live a happy healthy life.


If your kid is into the more exotic side of pets, a leopard gecko may be for you. Relatively small, with placid personalities and no teeth, a gecko makes a more unusual but just as enjoyable pet for any age. They are clean animals, surprisingly low maintenance can live for a long time but they require unique care because they need a heated vivarium to properly regulate their body temperature. Their tails can fall off if pulled, so discourage any rough handling particularly from smaller children.


These guys might look like something out of Jurassic Park but they are actually great starter reptiles for kids as they are laid back, gentle, and curious critters. They are omnivores so be sure to feed them a wide variety of insects and 20% of their diet should be fruits and vegetables like green beans, orange-fleshed squash, carrots, escarole, parsley, mustard, dandelion and collard greens, raspberries, mango, and cantaloupe. Beardies need daily access to a UVB source, either being regularly exposed to direct sunlight, or to UVB-producing fluorescent tube.

Remember, especially with small children, always supervise playtime with pets.  It is important to practice good hygiene so make sure kids wash their hands regularly when handling any animals. Remember to schedule an examination with your veterinarian very soon after you acquire your exotic pet to be sure it’s healthy and to get important instructions about care and feeding. The vast majority of illnesses in exotic pets is due to improper housing and nutrition. Schedule yearly wellness exams with your veterinarian as you would with a dog or cat. A child will need to be reminded numerous times that an animal is a living thing that needs food, water, and exercise, along with social interaction. All animals have the potential to bite but in general the more you properly handle a pet, the more socialized it will become…with the exception of goldfish of course.

-Dr. Ruthberg



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