Thinking of getting a pet?  Or maybe your kids are begging for one, but you’re worried about the mess, the expense, and possible safety issues. What if the new pet bites?

I’ve got to admit… we are pet people!  We’ve owned a LOT of pets over the years… And I realized that since we have owned such a variety of pets, it might be helpful for me to write a post on things to consider when thinking about getting a pet.

Here’s one fact right up front… All pets poop and stink.  And eat.  And cost money.  Yes, they do. But they also add a lot of value to the family.

Pets are very beneficial to kids for several reasons.

1. Pets enrich our lives. They allow kids to learn about animals through experience.  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.

3. Pets offer comfort and companionship.  There’s nothing like a cuddly dog on a bad day! A pet will love you, no matter what.

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 to not make a quick decision, and don’t EVER decide in the pet store!  All of our kids help with our pets.  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!)

SMALL MAMMALS

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.

Guinea Pigs

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.

Pros:

  • 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 and they also use it for all their rabbits, etc.  The bags of pine shavings last us a few months. I haven’t ever kept track of exactly how long, but it’s probably 4 months or so.
  • Guinea pigs are easy to handle and hold.  They don’t bite, although their nails can be sharp and may scratch. We’ve never had serious injuries or broken skin.
  • Guinea pigs are adorable and have a lot of personality. Ours will squeak at us if we forget to feed them!  They will also squeak to ask for food if they smell us cutting up carrots or lettuce.
  • They don’t (and should not) run on a wheel, so no squeaky wheel noise all night long!

Considerations:

  • 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.
  • You’ll need to trim your guinea pig’s nails, which is not the easiest job… my husband and I work together. One hold the piggy while the other clips the nails with a dog nail clipper (it’s what we had).

DOGS

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.

How to Choose the Best Family Pet

 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.

Doggy Considerations:

  • 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.
  • 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!

Cats

We are allergic, so no cats!

REPTILES

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.

Russian Tortoise

How to Choose the Best Family Pet

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!

Pros:

  • 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.

Considerations:

  • 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.
  • Substrate.  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!

Bearded Dragon

How to Choose the Best Family Pet

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 5 years, and he is still going strong!

Pros:

  • 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 5 years, 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 use sand in the bottom of our cage. Gresham has a little scoop (similar to a kitty litter scoop) that allows him to scoop out the poop. He has to wash off the logs and climbing structure that we have in the cage, but he does not have to do that every week.

Considerations:

  • Bearded dragons eat a LOT of crickets.  Ours also eats squash and kale, but when Luke was young, we spent about $10/week on crickets.  We could have gotten mail order crickets 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. Now that Luke is an adult, he mostly eats carrot slices, kale, zucchini and squash slices, and mustard greens.
  • 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, but definitely check craigslist or Facebook buy/sell/trade groups. There are always people who are ready go pass along their pet stuff!

Whew!  That was a lot of pets!  What pets do your kids own?  What pet would you recommend?

7 Comments

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  1. sarahelisabeth Apr 9, 2015

    We have two cats. Before they arrived, we spent ages working out the pros and cons and particularly, how much they would cost to keep. We forgot the pleasure that they have brought to the whole family from Grandma down to our youngest.
    Allergies are an issue. We had to check that our mildly asthmatic child wasn't allergic to cats before we had them and this hasn't been a problem. We do have to warn visitors and have had to keep the cats out of the way.
    The litter box hasn't been a problem since they were kittens as the cats go outside.
    I would love to keep a tortoise one day!

    Reply
    1. Holly Apr 13, 2015

      We have two guinea pigs for our two boys. We've been surprised by how much personality guinea pigs have - all the squeaks, whistles, purring, etc. I've never heard a small pet "talk" before! We've also been surprised by how much they eat, though. They seem to eat a ton of hay and vegetables, and they produce an equivalent amount of mess. Still, the mess is contained in their cage, which is easy enough to clean. All said, we've been quite pleased by their company.

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      1. Sarah Apr 13, 2015

        Our guinea pigs also eat a TON! They are always eating! We also were pleasantly surprised by all the cute noises. And our two chase each other around the cage. It will be interesting to see if they keep up this energy level as they get older.

        Reply
      2. Sarah Apr 13, 2015

        Yes, the amount of fun that animals add to the house is what has made all of the mess and expense worth it for us! My boys were able to visit some kittens a few weeks ago - they were so adorable to play with! The tortoise was definitely one of my favorite pets, although I love the guinea pigs also!

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      3. Melissa Michele Phillips Oct 30, 2015

        I just discovered your website and I just want to say I love it! I have two little boys and I am considering getting them rats as a pet as my oldest is in kindergarten and his teacher brings her rats to class and he thinks they are cute. I also heard they are a good pet for kids. We currently have a small dog and betta fish. But the dog is more my pet, focused on me. I am going to read more of your site but I think it rocks. Just wanted to tell you that I love how crisp your site looks! Thanks. I also needed to find a ninja mask for my oldest as he wants to go as zane from ninjago so totally awesome pictures on that post!

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        1. Baxter Abel Dec 19, 2016

          I had no idea that you need a UV light and a heat lamp when you own reptiles. I also didn't realize that reptiles can spread harmful bacteria if you don't wash your hands after handling them. There are definitely specific feeding guidelines for different types of reptiles as well that I would look into, I've heard praying mantis's can eat through some types of reptiles' stomachs.

          Reply
          1. Pam Dec 8, 2017

            I just wanted to check in and see how things are going with your pets? Specifically the bearded dragon and guinea pigs? We started our small pet journey about a month ago. My son got a bearded dragon and my daughter got some guinea pigs. Unfortunately, our guinea pig journey was heartbreaking as two died within the first week. We replaced them and the new ones come home from the pet and were sick a few days later. We returned them (as per the store's policy) so they could cover the vet bill/treatment. They said we could have first dibs when they were better but in the mean time, my daughters poor broken heart couldn't take it and she decided not to repurchase them. They seem difficult to keep alive AND we have 75 pound lab-mix who couldn't care less about the dragon but desperately wanted to "play" with the piggies. I'm heartbroken that we gave up on the pigs and wondering if we made the right decision. We've already sold their cage but they are just getting released from the vet and my designated is regretting her decision. My husband thinks they are too much work though and didn't want to repurchase them either. He wants to travel (and so do I) more as a family and it seems finding someone to watch the pigs was proving harder than finding someone to watch the dragon. My question is - did the guinea pigs survive and would you recommend them over a bearded dragon. Also, has the dragon bonded with the family and does he like to be held/snuggled? Thank you for your insight.

            Reply
            1. Sarah Dec 9, 2017

              Our guinea pigs are almost 3 years old, and they are doing great! They have been fantastic pets. Very easy for the kids to take care of themselves, although we often have to remind them. Personally, I like them much better than the bearded dragon. My son doesn't like to hold him much, so he mostly sits in his cage. The guinea pigs get played with a lot - since they are less spiky!

              Reply
          2. Yoshiko Flora Feb 18, 2019

            I find it awesome that one way to let kids teach them how to be a mom or dad can be done by letting them own their own pets. Reading that inspired me to buy two Irish Black Bulls for my twins' fourth birthday next month. That way, they can also have someone who can protect them while growing old together in the future.

            Reply
            1. Yoshiko Flora Mar 1, 2019

              Thanks for the advice that you had to take your dog to the veterinarian once or twice a year to give them shots and heartworm medication. In my opinion, pet owners should choose a pet hospital where their pets are comfortable going in and out from. Doing this will ensure that they will be healthy and increase their lifespans too.

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              1. K Mitton Mar 1, 2019

                Have been a big fan of your blog for awhile now... and this post was great! As a zoologist/animal care person, we have had lots of creatures...so may I add pet rats to your list? Pet rats are more social than hamsters and more active during the day. You can also train them to do tricks and use a litter box. Pets are for sure worth the investment!!

                Reply
                1. Karen Good Mar 6, 2019

                  As someone who works in a nature center with LOTS of creatures, I could also suggest ball pythons for those extremely allergic to fur, as, well, they don't have any. They're super animals who love to be held in your nice warm arms, and will cuddle, strangely enough, with you especially when you're wearing fleece. In our Animal class we allow kids to hold them and they put up with way more handling than the fuzzy creatures do. Of course, you do have to feed them mice/rats, but if you get them small you can get them used to eating a warmed up formerly frozen mouse. Luckily, too, they don't eat every day like lots of creatures do. Our full sized ones (about 5 feet stretched out) eat one rat once a month. Check into them if you have an animal lover who is allergic to everything else!

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