Choosing a family pet – what’s really involved in owning rodents, reptiles, and more!
I’ve got to admit… we are pet people! This past weekend, we bought two guinea pigs for the boys. We have all been enjoying them so much! And I realized that since we have owned such a variety of pets over the years that I should probably write a post on selecting a pet for your family. This post is not meant to replace your own research on a particular pet, but rather to give an overview of what’s involved with different types of pets… Because we have experienced several!
Here’s one fact right up front… All pets poop and stink. And eat. And cost money. Yes, it’s true! But they also add a lot of value to the family.
Here are our two favorite reasons for owning pets:
1. Pets are fun! Have you ever watched a Bearded Dragon hunt for crickets? I had no idea that reptiles could be so fascinating until I had all these little boys who love reptiles. We have had a blast with our pets, and we have also learned a lot. Yes, I’m that mom who makes her kids write reports about the pets! (They never complain!)
2. Pets allow kids to learn responsibility and to care for someone else. Yes, the novelty will wear off, but that’s where the “learning responsibility” part comes in. It takes work on mom and dad’s part, but enforcing the continued responsibility is really good practice for life.
So basically, the thing to figure out is whether or not the enjoyment of owning a particular pet is worth that pet’s expense and stink. Simple, huh?
Is my child ready for a pet?
We’ve found that it’s best not to make a quick decision, and don’t EVER decide in the pet store! All of our kids help with our pets, even the three year old. But I think that age 8 or so is when they really start remembering to care for their pet on their own. They are also old enough at that point to remember to wash hands, put the pet food away, etc. Pets for the under 8 crowd are definitely more of a parental responsibility. (This is certainly not a hard and fast rule, and will depend on the child!)
We got a 10 week old puppy when Aidan was 7, Gresham was 4, and Owen was 18 months. It was crazy, and it was pretty much like having two toddlers. But it was WORTH IT! We were firm in our decision to get a puppy because of all of our young kids. I have heard too many stories of older adopted dogs who never quite bond with the family and who end up becoming biters. We weren’t willing to take that risk. Yes, adopting is a great first option and many dogs do just fine with their new families, but we made the decision to purchase a puppy.
Puppy and Toddler heading off for some mischief… I had forgotten how cute they both were!
Because of our dog allergies, we were also limited by breed, and it was going to be difficult to find a hypoallergenic dog to adopt anyway. We ended up going with a cavachon – a mix of a Bichon Frise and a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Tucker (our cavachon) is seriously the best breed for families! He does not shed at all, and we haven’t had any trouble with allergies. He is now 4 years old now, almost 5. He is a great size – 18 lb. Big enough to handle whatever the boys can dish out, but our 8 and 11 year olds can handle him on a leash. He has lots of energy and loves to play fetch, but he also likes to snuggle. We allow him to get on our leather sofa, and he likes to make sure that he gets a spot next to me while I’m reading to the boys. They don’t always let him, but he will climb over them to sit next to mom! He is very loyal and very patient with the boys.
- Dogs need yearly or twice yearly vet visits. We usually spend about $100+ each time for the visit, shots, and heart worm medication.
- Because our dog is non-shedding, he needs to be groomed. We spend about $45 every 8 weeks having his hair cut. It is very possible to cut hair yourself! When the kids are older, I plan to learn how. (The clipper part is easy, but I need to learn how to deal with ear hair and how to deal with the anal glands.)
- Puppies chew things up. Ours especially likes underwear, stuffed toys, and plastic toys such as Safari brand animals. Yes, his chewing reduced greatly after age 2 or so, but he still occasionally ruins things!
- Dogs need to be house trained. Some pick it up more easily than others. Ours took a long time – almost 2 months. It really, really helps if you keep them on hard floor until they learn. They are much more likely to “go” on carpet! We barricaded our puppy in our kitchen until he figured out where he was supposed to go, but even after he was house trained he had accidents on rainy days because he didn’t like to go out and get his delicate paws wet. Thankfully, he has been over that for a long time!
We are allergic, so no cats!
Gresham LOVES reptiles. We have owned a Russian Tortoise, an anole that the boys caught in my parents’ yard, and we currently have a Bearded Dragon.
Here are the big things to know about reptiles:
- You might have to feed it live food, which means that you also need somewhere for the food to live.
- You will need to keep your pet’s habitat at the correct humidity and temperature for the species. You will also need a UV light (and probably a heat lamp).
- Your kids will need to be old enough that they can remember to wash their hands well after handling their reptile to prevent the spread of bacteria.
We owned a pet Russian tortoise for about a year, and he was a great pet. The only reason that we don’t still own him is that I lost him in the backyard! It was a sad day… Tortoises love to explore outside, but I would definitely recommend some type of enclosure in the yard, or just don’t leave them alone. They can move faster than you’d think!
- Russian tortoises are land animals. They do need a water dish that is large enough for them to get inside, which means that the water will get dirty quickly and you’ll need to change it daily. But, you don’t need to have an aquarium with a pump and a filter like you do for water turtles. Filling up the water dish with fresh water is a quick task.
- Russian tortoises actually have a lot of personality! We loved watching our munch on dandelions in the yard.
- Tortoises are easy to handle for children who are old enough to not drop them. Ours never bit anyone.
- Tortoises are cheap to feed. We fed ours tortoise food (which he never touched), kale, and dandelions out of the yard.
- Habitat. You’ll need a large glass aquarium or something similar. We used an Exo Terra Terrarium, size Medium Low, for our Russian Tortoise. These are great because they have doors that open. Another option is to use a large Rubbermaid container with some type of substrate for the bottom. This is probably an even better idea because it’s WAY cheaper, and tortoises are sometimes bothered by seeing their reflection in the glass.
- Substate. You’ll need some type of material (substrate) for the bottom of the cage, and you’ll definitely want to read up on the different types. We used coconut substrate, but some tortoise owners have concerns with coconut. There seems to be conflicting information on the internet about which substrate is the best, so just do your research!
- Environment. You will need to keep your terrarium at the proper temperature and humidity, and you will also need a UV light and a heat lamp. Check into all of this before purchasing!
After I lost the tortoise, the boys had a pet anole that they caught in my parents’ yard. This “free” pet ate a ridiculous amount of crickets! We eventually replaced it with a bearded dragon whom the boys named Luke. Gresham had been wanting one, and we told him that if he got the bearded dragon, they had to let the anole go back to his natural home in the wild. We got our bearded dragon for $20 on Craigslist. Way better than the pet store price of $60, and he was probably more healthy too since he was raised in a home by a reptile expert. We have had him for 7 months, and he is still going strong!
- Bearded dragons are surprisingly cute! He tilts his head from side to side and jumps off the sticks in his cage.
- It’s fun to watch him hunt for crickets. After 7 months, the boys have not lost interest in feeding time!
- The cage needs to be cleaned often (at least once a week), but it’s not hard to do. We actually just put paper towels in the bottom of our cage. You can also get reptile carpet. We may switch to sand soon – sand should not be used with babies, but can be used with adults.
- Bearded dragons eat a LOT of crickets. Ours also eats squash and kale, but we are spending about $10/week on crickets, which I am not very happy about. We could do mail order and get them for less, but then we would have to keep them alive longer, and we struggle with keeping them alive past a week. We feed the crickets potato chunks (raw) and little pieces of iceberg lettuce. So at least the crickets are cheap to feed! Also, the crickets STINK.
- If you don’t want to feed them crickets, you can get roaches. I said NO to roaches. Little crickets that escape their cricket home are one thing… Roaches are another…
- As they get older, they will eat more veggies and less crickets, so that’s a plus.
- Luke, our bearded dragon, is pretty poky, so none of the boys want to handle him.
- Adult bearded dragons need a 40 gallon size aquarium. These are expensive, so we have not moved Luke up to one yet! We are watching Craigslist… There are plenty of people getting rid of them (probably after discovering how expensive/smelly the crickets are – ha ha) so we’ll find one eventually.
Hamster or Gerbil
My brother and I owned a number of small rodents growing up. Hamsters and gerbils are fun to own, and they don’t require a large habitat or eat a ton of food. We have not allowed the boys to get a hamster or gerbil because I KNOW that they will get lost in the house! They are just not old enough to handle them well. The older two boys are, but not the little ones. Also, hamsters do bite.
I owned a pet guinea pig when I was 8 years old, and I faithfully did all of his care the entire time he was alive. Guinea pigs make great pets for kids, especially if you have young kids. They are more sturdy than hamsters, although obviously you will still need to supervise kids while handling them. Guinea pigs need more cage space than a smaller rodent. We purchased the Kaytee brand Extra Large Rabbit Cage (Amazon affiliate link) for our two guinea pigs. It is 42 inches by 18 inches and has plenty of room for them to grow.
- Guinea pigs are fairly inexpensive to keep. They eat Timothy hay, pellet food, and fresh veggies. The bedding and cages seemed expensive at the pet store, so we went to a local feed store. We scored a large cage for $70, and the best bargain was the bedding! I bought a large bag of pine shavings for $5. The man at the store suggested it – it’s what they use for horse stalls (small wood chips, though – they had two sizes) and they also use it for all their rabbits, etc. This $5 bag will probably last us 4-5 months! The pet store recommended paper bedding because it has less smell, but it was $14 for a very small bag. I can live with the smell for that much savings!
- Guinea pigs are easy to handle and hold. They don’t bite.
- Guinea pigs are adorable and have a lot of personality.
- They don’t (and should not) run on a wheel, so no squeaky wheel noise all night long!
- The cage will need to be cleaned at least once a week. A child age 8+ can probably do this on their own, but of course you will need to make sure that it gets done.
- They eat constantly and will need to be fed once a day or more.
- They are social animals, and it might be good to get two.
Whew! That was a lot of pets! What pets do your kids own? What pet would you recommend?