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Best Small Animal Pets For Children

Find out which small animal pets top the list as the most kid-friendly.

By Marylou Zarbock
Posted: May 30, 2012, 4:10 p.m. EDT

girl with guinea pig - Pin Me!Some small animal pets are more kid-friendly than others. The success or failure of getting a “pocket pet” for a child depends on the choice made by you or your child of which small animal pet to get. Life span, interactions, grooming needs and more all combine to make each pet species unique. The top eight small animal pets according to the American Pet Products Association 2011-2012 survey are rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, mice/rats, gerbils, chinchillas and ferrets. Here’s a quick review of each species’ child-friendly pet potential.

girl holding rabbit
© Clay Jackson
Rabbits usually do not like to be held, but will tolerate it for a short time when they trust a person.

Rabbits 
Soft and furry rabbits are available in many breeds, with more than 40 rabbit breeds recognized by the American Rabbit Breeders Association. The large selection of rabbit breeds and availability make rabbits a popular children’s pet. Holland Lops, Dutch and Polish are some of the popular bunny breeds, and larger bunny breeds like the Flemish Giant tend to be more tolerant of handling. Although life spans vary, rabbits generally live for about 10 years, which means getting a pet rabbit is a significant commitment. If a child is 10 when a young bunny joins the family, he or she will likely be a high school graduate or beyond for the bunny’s senior years. Rabbits are social animals that generally do best when paired or grouped with other rabbits, but be sure that all rabbits are neutered or spayed to avoid unintended breeding. Rabbits generally do not like to be held or picked up; incorrect handling can result in a rabbit’s nails scratching a child, or a rabbit’s back or legs being injured or broken. Because rabbits groom themselves, shorthaired breeds usually don’t need owners to do much beyond a weekly brushing and spot-cleaning of fur. Rabbits do require regular nail trims, especially if they do not have access to appropriate digging opportunities, and they must have items to chew in addition to hay to keep their teeth trimmed. Rabbits with maloccluded teeth could need regular tooth trims done by a veterinarian. Longhaired rabbit breeds usually require daily brushing. Yes, rabbits can be litter-trained. Special note: Rabbits absolutely must eat hay, so a rabbit won’t be a good fit if anyone in the house is allergic to hay.
Read more about rabbits, click here>>
Lifetime Commitment: High
Needs A Companion: High
Likes To Be Held: Low
Grooming: Low for shorthaired breeds; high for longhaired breeds

Syrian hamster with tube toy
© Gina Cioli/BowTie Studio
Hamsters are active at night and can be cranky if disturbed when sleeping during the day.

Hamsters
The charming, busy hamster is a pet that’s fun to watch. Five species are usually available — the large Syrian and the four smaller dwarf species (Roborovski, Winter White, Campbell’s and Chinese). The life span of hamsters ranges from one to three years, with the Syrian living longest. The Syrian must always be kept in its own habitat, because adult Syrians usually fight, sometimes to the death. The dwarf breeds can do well in groups, but might occasionally get into fights that require housing them in separate habitats. Pair or group same-sex hamsters to avoid breeding. While hamsters don’t usually object to being held, they usually won’t sit and cuddle. Hamsters are the busy bees of the pet world and are usually on the go. It’s most fun to watch them play in their habitat or in a play area. One drawback to hamsters is their sleep schedule, which is the opposite of a child’s. Hamsters are awake and busy at night and sleep during the day. Hamsters are self-groomers that rarely need an owner to do anything except provide an occasional dust bath with the special dust sold by pet retailers. As rodents, hamsters have constantly growing teeth that are kept in check by them chewing appropriate food or toys. Special note: Chinese hamsters are illegal to own in some states.
Read more about hamsters, click here>>
Lifetime Commitment: Low
Needs A Companion: Low
Likes To Be Held: Low
Grooming: Low

girl holding guinea pig on shoulder
© Gina Cioli/BowTie Studio
Guinea pigs can be content sitting with someone, but keep them on a towel if held for more than a few minutes.

Guinea Pigs
The endearing guinea pig is a herd animal that enjoys interacting with its owner. Often, guinea pigs request food by wheeking, making a high-pitched, drawn-out squeak. The American Cavy Association recognizes 13 guinea pig breeds, so there’s some variety to choose from. Guinea pigs typically live for about five years. As a herd animal, they do best paired with another guinea pig, but some do well alone if an owner is attentive. If males are not neutered, same-sex pairs or groups are needed to avoid breeding. Guinea pigs will generally be content when held securely for a few minutes. Hold a guinea pig while seated with it resting on a towel or small animal bed. Although it’s fun to sit with a guinea pig, one drawback is that they urinate or defecate frequently, so be prepared for some accidents. Grooming needs for shorthaired breeds include occasional brushing and spot-cleaning of fur and regular nail trims. Longhaired breeds need more frequent brushing. Guinea pigs keep their growing teeth trim by chewing appropriate food or toys. Special note: Guinea pigs must eat hay, so a guinea pig won’t be a good fit if anyone in the house is allergic to hay.
Read more about guinea pigs, click here>>
Lifetime Commitment: Medium
Needs A Companion: High
Likes To Be Held: Medium
Grooming: Low for shorthaired breeds; high for longhaired breeds

rat balanced on girl's head
© Gina Cioli/BowTie Studio
Rats really enjoy hanging out with their owners.

Mice And Rats
Rats might top the list as a kid-friendly pet. With only a two to three year life span, the time commitment is low. Many rat owners wish rats lived longer. Mice have even less of a time commitment, living only one to two years. Both rats and mice are social animals and do better in same-sex pairs or groups; the exception is male adult mice, which will fight if housed together. Rats enjoy interacting with owners and like to hang out together, which is why they make a kid-friendly pet. Their size is about right for children -- not too small, but easy to pick up and carry. Mice are much smaller than rats and are more like hamsters regarding interaction. That means mice often enjoy doing their own thing and are more fun to watch than hold. Grooming for both rats and mice is minimal, because both pets groom themselves. Owners might need to brush or spot-clean the coat occasionally. Chew items must be provided to keep their growing teeth trimmed.
Read more about mice and rats, click here>> 
Lifetime Commitment: Low (1 to 2 years for mice; 2 to 3 years for rats)
Needs A Companion: Medium to High
Likes To Be Held: Low (mice); High (rats)
Grooming: Low

gerbil portrait
Gerbils are social animals that enjoy interacting with other gerbils and also people they trust.

Gerbils
The playful gerbil is busy, smart and likes to hang out with people. Although gerbils only live for about two to three years, they pack a lot of living into that time. Acrobatic and social, gerbils usually do best if housed as same-sex pairs/groups. Occasionally, gerbils might need separate housing if fighting occurs. With gentle handling, gerbils learn to trust their owner and enjoy interacting. A gerbil should never be lifted by its tail, because the tail skin might come off and never return. Gerbils are another self-grooming pet and do not require regular grooming from their owner. However, gerbil owners should offer a dust bath to the gerbils weekly and always provide items for the gerbils to chew to keep their ever-growing teeth trimmed. Gerbils are known for their chewing ability! Special note: Gerbils are illegal to own in several states, so be sure your area permits gerbil ownership before obtaining one.
Read more about gerbils, click here>>
Lifetime Commitment: Low
Needs A Companion: High
Likes To Be Held: Medium
Grooming: Low

chinchilla portrait
© Gina Cioli/BowTie Studio
Chinchillas need to be offered a dust bath for 10 to 20 minutes a few times a week.

Chinchillas
Touching a chinchilla’s super-soft fur is a sensation, but chinchillas rarely hold still for petting. Chinchillas live to be about 10 years old. They are on the large side of the small animal pets and require a larger cage. As herd animals, they do best with a companion chinchilla (same-sex to avoid breeding). Chinchillas, like hamsters and mice, are pets more to appreciate by watching instead of interacting with them. Handling can be difficult, and grabbing the fur wrong can cause it to come out in clumps. Grooming for a healthy chinchilla basically requires just offering it a dust bath a few times a week. Chinchillas also like to chew and have constantly growing teeth, so appropriate chew items must be provided to keep their teeth trimmed. Special note: Chinchillas must eat hay, so a chinchilla won’t be a good fit if anyone in the house is allergic to hay.
Read more about chinchillas, click here>>
Lifetime Commitment: High
Needs A Companion: High
Likes To Be Held: Low
Grooming: Low
 

ferret portrait
Ferrets need to have their teeth brushed regularly.
Ferrets
The ever-curious ferret is a furry ball of energy when awake and a limp ragdoll when asleep. Ferrets live for about five to seven years and are full of personality. Some are shy, while others are rough-and-tumble characters. Ferrets should be neutered or live in same-sex pairs/groups. A ferret can be kept as a single pet as long as the owner is attentive. All ferrets require a few hours of out-of-cage playtime or free-roam of a ferret-proofed room. Most ferrets won’t mind being held but typically prefer to be off exploring. Grooming needs are a bit higher than other small animal pets because, in addition to regular nails trims and occasional coat brushing or baths, ferrets need regular tooth brushing. Yes, ferrets can be litter-trrained. Special note: Young ferrets are known to go through a nippy phase, and the hammocks or sleep sacks ferrets need must be laundered at least weekly.
Read more about ferrets, click here>>
Lifetime Commitment: Medium
Needs A Companion: Medium
Likes To Be Held: Medium
Grooming: Medium to High

Is Your Child Ready For A Small Animal Pet?
In general, children less than 7 years old should always be supervised around a small animal pet that is outside its habitat. Responsibility for feeding the pet, cleaning its habitat and looking after its needs should not solely be a child’s responsibility. An adult must oversee the small animal pet’s care.

Other Pets For Children
If you're interested in other pet species besides small animals and want to find out the best pets for children, be sure to check out the articles about kid-friendly animals on our following sister sites.
Great Children-Friendly Dog Breeds, click here>>
Top Kid-Friendly Cats, click here>>
Best Pet Fish For Children, click here>>
Best Pet Reptiles For Children, click here>>
The Best Pet Birds For Kids, click here>>
Best Horse Breeds For Children, click here>>
7 Heritage Cattle Breeds To Raise With Your Children, click here>>

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Best Small Animal Pets For Children

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Reader Comments
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Jenny, N Hollywood, CA
Posted: 2/11/2014 7:36:16 PM
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Jenny, N Hollywood, CA
Posted: 2/11/2014 7:34:30 PM
I am so disappointed in you for listing a ferret as a good pet for a child. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ferrets do not require medium commitment. They are the equivalent of a dog in terms of how much they rely on their caretaker. They need to eat every 4 hours and require LOTS of attention. They are not solitary animals, and are happiest with at least one friend to get into mischief with. They are EXOTIC animals. They don't belong in a cage, they poop a LOT, they are obligate carnivores, needing careful feeding, and they require veterinary care frequently. They are prone to diseases such as adrenal and insulnoma. They are a family pet, not a child's pet. When you name a ferret as a good pet for a child, you are giving permission to parents to buy one, put it in a cage, and hope their child doesn't grow tired of it during its 8, yes 8, year lifespan. The chances for that are slim to none. Gerbils, yes, rats, yes, hamsters- nocturnal and smelly- not ideal, chinchillas & guinea pigs- similar to a ferret but not as intelligent. Until people recognize the care requirements of ferrets, they will continue to be unintentionally ill treated and eventually left in a shelter somewhere. Please rethink your recommendations.
Lauren, South Easton, MA
Posted: 11/22/2013 5:28:28 PM
I think this gives parents a great heads up on what their children are safe around and what they aren't safe around.
vallery, brooklyn, NY
Posted: 5/11/2013 4:07:50 PM
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