Puppies and kittens aren't the only way to go when your child is eager to have a pet to call their own. These four low-maintenance options will give kids all the benefits of pet ownership without all the hassle.
It's no secret—kids love animals, and nearly every kid wants a pet. But keeping pets is also a lot of work, and many parents have the not-unreasonable worry that most of that work is going to be passed off to them. As wonderful as keeping chickens may be, any parent who sets up a chicken coop in the backyard is going to end up sinking a lot of time into caring for the birds. And of course, there’s the classic example of the parent who somehow always gets stuck walking the dog their child swore they were going to take out twice every day.
Pet ownership is good for kids
Pet ownership has a myriad of benefits for kids of all ages. Most obviously, caring for a pet teaches children about responsibility and the importance of caring for others. Kids with pets learn firsthand lessons about empathy and respect, in addition to more challenging lessons about time management and the importance of following through on their obligations. Pet ownership and the unconditional love animals show toward their owners can also be a huge boost to a child's emotional health and self-esteem.
Fortunately, not every pet is as needy as a puppy or a flock of hens, and there are plenty of animal options out there for families that want to reap the benefits of pet ownership without taking on as much responsibility.
4 small animals that make excellent first pets for kids
Reptiles, in general, aren’t a bad option for low-maintenance pets, and bearded dragons are one of the best starter reptiles out there.
Besides being adorable (not to mention having an evocative name that’s sure to get young Tolkien fans hooked) caring for beardies is significantly less complicated than for some of their flashier lizard brethren.
Of course, that doesn’t mean beardie owners can just buy a tank, set it, and forget it. Beardies need to be fed frequently—vegetables every day, and insects every other day. Their tanks should be cleaned on a weekly basis.
But these responsibilities are easily regimented—feeding time should always be in the morning, for example—which is great for kids who crave structure and routine. Beardies are also one of the few reptiles who give as good as they get in terms of demonstrable affection; they’re active during the day and love being handled by their owners as long as it’s done safely and hygienically.
Best of all, unlike dogs, beardies are more than happy to pass most of the time alone in their tanks, allowing their humans to focus on their math homework.
Even in a society obsessed with keeping fluffy mammals as pets, rodents tend to get short shrift as gross or scary. As with all pets, hamsters do carry some germs that can make humans sick, but with proper precautions, they very rarely do.
In fact, hamsters are actually a particularly clean pet, since they take care of all their grooming needs themselves—that's the face-washing ritual that makes them the adorable stars of so many internet videos. They also love to exercise, either in their cages or in a hamster ball, which is a great way for them to play with the kids.
Unlike dogs, hamsters also eat from a “store” of food. Although they should be fed daily, they aren’t going to freak out if dinnertime isn’t at the same time every day.
Fish are, of course, the classic pet for people who think they’re bad with pets. And there’s a reason for that! Many types of fish are easy to care for.
Saltwater fish, while beautiful, are actually difficult to maintain and don’t make great starter pets. There are also conservation concerns raised by things like the Finding Nemo effect.
Bettas are a great option for kids. As freshwater fish, they can live in small five-gallon tanks (with a lid) and are active, curious, and visually striking. While bettas, especially males, should generally not be housed together—lest they demonstrate their namesakes as “fighting fish”—their aggressive natures also make them fascinating to watch and observe.
While ideally a betta will be fed a little bit once or twice a day, they can be left without food for a few days (a week at most), making them much more vacation-friendly than dogs.
Like reptiles, keeping birds can be more complicated than it looks. Fortunately, parakeets (also called budgies) are a great starter bird.
Parakeets are very friendly and love human interaction—they can even be trained to step on and off your hand on command. They’re also fastidious groomers who love to take baths multiple times a week.
Parakeets do need to be fed daily, which means you’ll need a pet-sitter for even a brief trip, but that daily feeding will also create a regular schedule for the child pet owner. Best of all, parakeets, while vocal, make relatively quiet, raspy vocalizations, which aren’t nearly as disruptive as the booming barks of their canine counterparts.
Despite what children’s books and TV shows love to tell us, dogs aren’t the only pets in the world, and certainly not the only ones that kids can care for, learn from, and, most importantly, love.