Choosing the right pet to add to your family can be hard enough, but when you add in that you want to adopt a pet small enough (and brave enough!) for your child to interact with and handle, the decision can be even more daunting.
That said, not every small pet makes the best companion for kids, and some are much better suited to older children than younger kids.
In this guide on choosing the best small pets for kids, we will examine each option in detail so that you can narrow your choices and find the perfect fit for your family’s needs and capabilities.
We’ll also let you know which small pets are the worst for most children, so you can stay clear of choosing the wrong pet for your child.
What to Consider When Choosing a Pet for Your Child
There’s more to consider when choosing a small pet for your child than which pet is the cutest! It’s important to consider several key factors if you want to help your child become a responsible and confident pet owner.
Here are some of the most important things to think about when you’re choosing a small pet for your child.
Your child’s age
A child’s capacity for empathy and responsibility increases exponentially each and every year. While a younger child may be ready for a low-maintenance pet, a pet with greater care needs might not be the best choice at this point in your child’s life.
For example, a 4-year-old may be ready for the responsibility of a betta fish, with their parent’s help and careful supervision. However, a rabbit or a rat might be beyond their grasp when it comes to pet ownership.
Your child’s previous pet experience
One of the most obvious factors you’ll need to consider is whether or not your child has owned a pet before. This could be previous small pets owned by the family, as well as cats and dogs.
If your child grew up with the family dog or cat, they might have more of the tools necessary to care for their own small pet.
Your child’s personality and expectations
When you’re thinking about what pet would be best for your child, it’s essential to factor your child’s personality into the equation. Are they usually relaxed and reserved or active and impatient?
A child who has a more reserved and quiet demeanor may be able to hold a small pet more easily than a child who’s almost always in motion.
Also key is your child’s expectations when it comes to owning a small pet. Are they set on touching and interacting with their pet, or would they be content with caregiving from a distance?
A child who doesn’t expect to hold their pet might be well-suited to a fish or even a hamster, while one who wants to cuddle their new friend might be disappointed or become disinterested in a pet they can’t safely touch.
The animal’s natural temperament
Just like you have to consider your child’s natural demeanor, you also have to think about the temperament of the animal. It’s essential to ensure that the pet’s natural temperament matches your child’s abilities and expectations.
For example, a mouse is a naturally skittish animal, which could be a bad match for a super-active child. The mouse could easily become scared and tend to hide when your child is around.
The animal’s size and fragility
Some small pets are just too small and fragile to be safely handled by most children.
Mice, hamsters, and gerbils are good examples. Some older children, especially those who have had or handled pets in the past, may be able to safely care for a tiny creature.
But younger children who don’t yet know their own strength might not be ready for that responsibility. And choosing a pet that’s too small and fragile can result in injury to the small animal, leading to a bad experience and memory for your child.
The pet’s lifespan
All small pets have relatively short lifespans, but some are even shorter than others. Consider what age your child will be when the pet will likely pass away, and how you’ll explain the pet’s death to your child at that time.
It’s also important to keep in mind that small pets can pass away unexpectedly, especially if they’re adopted when they’re slightly older. Is your child ready to experience the death of a pet? Are you prepared to address that situation with them when it arises?
Additionally, consider whether the pet might still be alive when the child becomes an active teenager or adult and whether your child might lose interest in their pet at that point. Will you take on the responsibility of the pet if they’re no longer able or interested?
The pet’s sleeping schedule
Many small pets are nocturnal, which can be difficult for a child. The child might wish to interact with the pet in the afternoon, after school, but the pet might be fast asleep.
And it’s not a good idea to try and interact with a small pet during their natural sleeping time–especially when you first adopt the pet.
Consider whether the pet you’re adopting is nocturnal, diurnal, or metaturnal. A diurnal or metaturnal pet might be a better choice for a child, since they’re more active during the day.
The pet’s housing requirements
While you may expect a small pet’s housing requirements to be, well, small, many small pets actually require quite a bit of space.
A rabbit, for example, needs room to hop around, in addition to its hutch, which also requires a large dedicated space. A rat or pair of rats requires much less space.
The pet’s care requirements
If you want to teach your child responsibility through pet ownership, it’s important to let them take care of at least some of the pet’s care requirements. Consider whether the small pet you’re adopting has needs that your child can address with your supervision or even on their own.
For example, a hamster is relatively independent and only requires some daily interaction, fresh food and water each day, and a thorough cage cleaning about once every three weeks.
Guinea pigs, on the other hand, need a lot of human connection and interaction, and their enclosure may require more frequent cleaning.
Your family’s lifestyle
In addition to your child’s needs, it’s important to consider your family’s needs and lifestyle. Where will the new small pet be housed?
Are there often many people in the house that could easily scare or overwhelm the pet? How often does your family travel, and who will take care of the pet at those times?
It’s also crucial to consider who will take care of the pet if your child becomes disinterested or doesn’t sufficiently address the pet’s needs. Do you have an older child who might want the responsibility?
Will you take on the pet’s needs yourself? It’s not ideal to rehome a small pet, since their lifespans are short and they’re significantly affected by changes in their environment.
What Are the Best Small Pets for Kids?
Consensus: The best small pets for kids include guinea pigs, fish, rats, birds, rabbits, and some reptiles.
With all of the above considerations in mind, you might be wondering: what are the best pets for kids, specifically?
We’ve researched which pets are considered the best for kids by real pet owners, as well as by small pet experts, to provide you with this guide to some of the best small pets for kids.
Are fish good pets for kids?
Consensus: A fish is a good first pet for kids and allows them to take on a smaller amount of responsibility.
Age range: 3+
A fish might not be the cuddliest or even the most entertaining small pet, but they’re a great first pet for a younger child. A child as young as three can enjoy the responsibility of sprinkling fish food on the surface of the water and watching their fish gobble it up.
If you buy a fish as a pet for your child, it’s important to know that you’ll need to carefully oversee (or just do yourself) the regular tank cleanings. A young child can’t be entrusted with removing the fish from the water and carefully placing them in a temporary container.
Additionally, children are likely to leave a tank uncleaned for long periods of time, which is unhealthy for the fish and can lead to death. It’s also essential to keep track of when your child is feeding the fish and step in if they’re not receiving enough nutrition.
Are guinea pigs good pets for kids?
Consensus: Guinea pigs are social and resilient pets, making them great for many children and families.
Age range: 8+
Guinea pigs can be wonderful pets for kids for many reasons. First, guinea pigs are one of the larger small pets, which means they’re not as fragile or as easy to lose track of.
It’s still possible to injure a guinea pig with careless handling, of course, but a child is less likely to let a guinea pig escape or to cause major harm to the animal by squeezing it too hard.
Are birds good pets for kids?
Consensus: Some birds, like parakeets, canaries, and finches, can make excellent pets for older children who know their boundaries.
Age range: 8+
With help from their parents, younger children can become loving and attentive bird owners. At the age of 8, children can be capable of gently handling a bird and respecting its boundaries. Owning a bird can also help children develop self-control and respect for animals.
A parakeet (or budgie) is a good choice for younger children. They’re fairly low-maintenance but still quite interactive with their owners. They don’t take up a great deal of space, and they don’t require a lot of complex care.
It’s important to remember that parakeets can live into their teens, so they require a longer commitment than many small pets.
Canaries and finches can also make great bird companions for a child, but they prefer to be observed, rather than handled. You’ll also need more space for these pets since they often require companions to be happy and healthy.
They can also be very fragile and become startled by other family pets, like dogs. Like parakeets, canaries and finches live between 10-15 years, so they’re a significant time investment.
Keep in mind that, as a parent, you’ll need to perform the daily cage cleanings for a pet bird. However, children can grow into this responsibility and can feel involved by feeding and watering the bird or birds.
Are rats good pets for kids?
Consensus: Rats are some of the best small pets for older children who can handle a little more responsibility.
Age range: 10+
The idea of owning pet rats might be offputting to some adults who have interacted with (unwillingly) wild rats. However, pet rats differ from their wild counterparts and are intelligent, potentially loving pets.
Once a child has developed a slightly longer attention span and has the wherewithal to dedicate themselves to another creature’s wellbeing, rats can make an excellent companion.
Once they become comfortable with their owner, rats often enjoy handling and can grow meaningful attachments to their humans. This can be a wonderful experience for a child, offering an opportunity to give and receive unconditional love and empathy.
It’s typically recommended that you adopt a pair of rats from the same litter, rather than a single rat.
Are rabbits good pets for kids?
Consensus: Rabbits make entertaining and interactive pets for older children who can handle them gently.
Age range: 11+
Rabbits may be cute, fuzzy, and cuddly, but they don’t make great pets for younger children.
This is because rabbits are very easily startled and don’t enjoy rough handling. Although they’re larger than pets like hamsters and mice, rabbits are deceptively fragile.
For older children, however, rabbits can be loving and affectionate friends. Rabbits also usually live to be about 12 years old, which means your child will have plenty of time to bond with their companion.
However, keep in mind that you may be left with the responsibility of the rabbit when your child grows up and into their adult life.
Are reptiles good pets for kids?
Consensus: Bearded dragons, corn snakes, and greek tortoises can make excellent pets for older children who want a unique pet.
Age range: 12+
An older child who wants a more unique pet, and doesn’t necessarily want to handle their pet a great deal, might enjoy a reptile. Experts recommend bearded dragons, corn snakes, and greek tortoises as the best reptile pets for children.
As with fish and birds, adult supervision is important with reptiles, especially when it comes to cleaning the habitat. An older child can take on this responsibility after they learn how, and they can become very involved in the layout of the animal’s enclosure with accessories, hides, and toys.
Another factor to consider with reptiles is whether they eat meat or vegetables. A corn snake, for example, requires frozen rodents as food, which might be unsuitable for many children. Bearded dragons require insects in their diet, which may also be disturbing to many kids (and adults).
A greek tortoise, on the other hand, eats only vegetables, so it can be a great pet for older kids and teens.
What Are the Worst Small Pets for Kids?
Consensus: Some popular small pets that are not ideal for kids include hamsters, mice, gerbils, ferrets, and chinchillas.
Not seeing the pet you have in mind on the list above? It might be among one of these pets, which are not ideal for children.
Of course, every child is different, and an older, more responsible child or a teenager may be able to handle one of these pets safely and responsibly.
But keep in mind that they may require more of your attention as the parent, and that getting one of these pets for a child may be risky.
Are hamsters good pets for kids?
Consensus: No. Hamsters are not good pets for children because they’re tiny and fragile, as well as nocturnal.
Hamsters are one of the most common small pets purchased as pets for children. However, this is a trend that many adult hamster owners hope to change.
Hamsters may be irresistibly cute and fuzzy, but they’re extremely fragile and can’t withstand rough handling or a lot of interaction with an active child.
Additionally, hamsters are fully nocturnal, which means they may not be around for interaction with your child and can even keep a child up at night running on their exercise wheel.
Hamsters also have very short lifespans, which can be difficult for both the child and the parents to handle.
Are mice good pets for kids?
Consensus: No. Mice are not good pets for kids because they’re skittish and super fast-moving.
Like hamsters, mice may be tiny and adorable, making them a popular choice for kids. But mice are not good pets for children because they’re fragile and quick-moving.
Mice also tend to nip and bite when they’re not yet comfortable with their owners, and they can easily become injured when dropped or escape.
Are gerbils good pets for kids?
Consensus: No. Gerbils aren’t good pets for kids because they can nip and have particular care requirements.
Gerbils are not good pets for kids for similar reasons as mice and hamsters. They take a while to become tame, and children might not have the patience required to build their relationship with their gerbils before handling their pet.
Additionally, gerbils require a larger enclosure, as well as at least one companion, and they need a deep tank for digging and burrowing. Cleaning a gerbilarium, as their enclosures are called, can be more involved and require the help of a parent.
Gerbils also require a lot of toys and chewing activities to stay happy, including an exercise wheel, multiple hides, a sand bath, and plenty of paper and cardboard to gnaw on.
They’re active during the day, as well as at night, so keeping them in a child’s bedroom might not be possible.
Are ferrets good pets for kids?
Consensus: No. Ferrets may be friendly and interactive, but they’re not good pets for kids because they can be easily irritated.
Ferrets are a type of weasel, and they have the temperament to show it. Although they may appear similar to other small rodent pets, ferrets can be mean and bite quite hard when they’re not handled correctly, and children are prone to making mistakes.
Additionally, ferrets require a large cage and a litter box, and their habitats are known to get quite smelly when not cleaned each day. Ferrets need a lot of interaction and training to stay happy and healthy, and a child might not have the attention span required to keep up with them over the years.
Are chinchillas good pets for kids?
Consensus: No. Chinchillas are fragile and don’t make good pets for kids.
Like the other small rodents on this list, chinchillas are fast, fragile, and have particular needs.
Like hamsters, gerbils, and mice, chinchillas need particular bedding that has to be changed regularly, as well as time spent outside their enclosures and a weekly dust bath.
Is a Small Pet Right for Your Child?
You might think that a small human is well-suited to owning a small pet. However, it’s also worth considering the adoption of a dog or cat as your child’s first pet.
They are more self-sufficient than small pets and even require less cleanup and maintenance once they’re potty trained. If your child is old enough to take care of daily walks or cleaning the litter box, plus providing fresh food and water, an adult dog or cat (rather than a puppy or kitten) is well worth considering.
With that said, many children can benefit a great deal from owning a small pet. Small pets can teach children responsibility, as well as empathy and self-control. If your child is ready for small pet ownership, consider adopting one of the small pets we’ve listed as the best pets for kids, above.