During my career working in pet stores, I was often asked “What is the best pet for kids?” Of course, this is a very subjective question, since every child is different and likewise, has different interests and things they desire in their ideal “pet” animal. Nevertheless, some general criteria come to mind:
This is certainly true for younger children, and especially when you take into account that Mom or Dad may end up caring for the animal in question once the novelty has worn off. Overall, you don’t want a pet costs an arm and a leg, is going to ravage your flesh, get big enough to eat you out of house and home, or flop over dead unexpectedly for no reason. You want something nice, easy, cheap, compact, and tough: the perfect pet, as it were. Honestly, that order is not as easy to fill as one may think. No animal is completely perfect, and they all present their own unique little challenges. However, there’s always a few that stand out, so let’s look at some furry friends and compare notes, shall we?
Bunnies are always cute, but they all grow up quickly into adult rabbits. While still retaining a “cute” factor at adulthood, most rabbit breeds are large enough to rival a cat. Their anatomy prefers to keep their backs horizontal with the ground and those huge flat feet on a stable surface. If not held properly, rabbits will kick and scratch wildly. Additionally, if not spayed or neutered, adult rabbits can present behavioral problems. All of these issues combined can make a rabbit a poor choice for a child’s pet in my personal opinion. There are dwarf breeds available, but they are rare and expensive.
Guinea pigs are often suggested as a smaller alternative to rabbits. They are typically less prone to biting and scratching, although they are more skittish initially. Some quiet interaction can soon calm them down. Because of their small, delicate feet, they must have a flat bottom cage, opposed to a wire bottom one.
The ever-popular hamster is a perennial favorite. However, there are a few things to keep in mind about these little tailless rodents. First of all, they are nocturnal. What this amounts to is a boring ball of fluff that does not like to be disturbed during the day, and may keep you up at night when it runs on its exercise wheel. Secondly, hamsters are chiefly solitary, preferring to be housed alone. In fact, female hamsters are the worst, and have been known to completely cannibalize their mates if kept together too long after breeding. If you want a small furry pet that will let you handle it at any given time and may even tolerate a cage mate or two, perhaps a hamster is not for you. Instead, take a look at these last two options.
If hamsters are the pudgy couch potatoes, then gerbils are the active exercise nuts. Gerbils are often ostracized because of their resemblance to rats. However, a gerbil’s long tail is covered in fur and ends with a furry tuft, unlike the hairless pink tail of mice and rats. Gerbils are generally more tolerant of being in groups, and unlike hamsters, they are active during all hours of the day. They are more inclined to spend hours running through those silly plastic tubes, racing in those clear little balls and keep a child’s attention than most other small furry animals I’ve mentioned. Their only drawback is that they are always on the go, and rarely sit still!
The last furry critter on my list is surprising, but honestly, it fits the criteria better than all the others. Regrettably, it already has a lot of bad history and ill-deserved reputation with us humans that few people are open-minded to even consider it as a pet. I am talking about the rat. I know, EEK! right? Seriously though, in all my experience working in the pet industry, rats are by far the cleanest, nicest, and least troublesome small mammals I could suggest to anyone. They do not grow large like rabbits. They are not skittish like guinea pigs. They are not aggressive like many hamsters seem to be. They are not as “hyperactive” as gerbils. They do not seem to present as many health issues as some of the others do. And of course, they’re the smartest ones out of the bunch. There is even a fancy breed called a “dumbo” rat that has droopy ears!
In terms of overall cost, ease of husbandry, size, temperament and health, I can’t think of any small furry critters that could beat out a rat. If more people could get past that hairless pink tail, they would find out what they’ve been missing!