Just because it’s at the pet store and doesn’t break the bank doesn’t mean you should take it home for your kids. From the fuzzy to the fishy, the scaly to the furry, there is a wide array of creatures that are available and which are marketed to be great “first pets” for children. These pets can often be found in big-box pet chains, peeping disconsolately out from their glass prisons. Don’t be so easily taken in. Not all of these pets are ideal as starter pets for kids. However, for every bad pet idea there’s a terrific one, and if you’re aiming to saddle your child with the responsibility of another life, there are in fact good ones to choose from. Let’s take a look at some of the worst and best starter pets for kids, which are often sold innocently side-by-side in pet stores.
Worst Starter Pet #1: The Hamster
It’s hard to know just how many hamsters have entered into pet store doors and exited out in the hands of delighted children. Did you have a hamster growing up? You probably did, and if you didn’t, your sibling or one of your friends probably did. Hamsters are one of the most adorable starter pets available, and their low price and wide variety in colors and sizes makes them an easy pick for parents.
However, hamsters aren’t really a starter pet. Their bodies are extremely fragile and while their excrement is easy to clean up, it’s rather abundant. They are also prone to being nippy and badly behaved. Handling a hamster is much more difficult than it looks given their speed, small size, and tendency to bite.
If a hamster is too quick for a child or too uncomfortable, it may bite the child in an attempt to escape. The child is then likely to drop the hamster, which could prove fatal for your tiny friend. Hamsters are often deft escape artists as well, and a lost hamster is almost as common as a dropped hamster. Oh yes, and, did we mention hamsters are nocturnal?
Try Instead… Best Starter Pet #1: The Tarantula
Not all tarantulas are created equal. If there’s a species available at your local pet store, that species is probably your best bet, since it will normally be something like a Chilean Rose Hair, which is a great starter spider for kids. Across the board, tarantulas require very little maintenance, but offer a great deal of interest. Different tarantulas will have different web-building techniques, and most have excellent feeding responses when provided with crickets, dubia roaches, or larger varieties of food.
For a child, you will want to find a tarantula that has been handled regularly and is comfortable with being handled. The chances of being bitten by a tarantula that is known to have a gentle temperament are significantly lower than the chances of being bitten by just about any hamster. The tarantula will also require a great deal less maintenance on their enclosure. You may need a heat lamp and a hygrometer, but even a fully-grown tarantula may only need a sparse set-up in just a 10-gallon aquarium.
And yes, with the right tarantula, your child can be allowed to hold it. They may not be as cute as a hamster, but they’re pretty fuzzy too, and they offer parents an excellent way to teach kids how spiders really aren’t the scariest thing in the house.
Worst Starter Pet #2: The Goldfish
Don’t take it home even if your child won it at a fair. Goldfish are probably the number-one best-seller of a starter pet across the nation, having been touted by media for decades as being “the kid’s pet.” Unfortunately, that is often paired with “the kid’s way to learn about death easily.” But a goldfish that is properly cared for can live up to 10 years- long after your child has moved out and stopped caring about it.
Goldfish also grow to be larger than 12-inches. 12. Inches. That’s a foot. For a fully-grown goldfish, nothing less than a 75-gallon tank will do. That adorable goldfish that was only an inch long when you first got it from the pet store? If you treat it right, it will happily grow. And grow. And grow.
These fish are also excessively dirty, creating a great deal of waste for their size. If you want your child to have to clean out their fish tank and do water changes twice a week, be my guest. Every fish benefits from having a filter and a proper set-up for their aquarium, so don’t think you’re getting off easy with just a glass bowl, either.
Try Instead… Best Starter Pet #2: The Betta
The betta. We could sing the praises of the betta on a mountaintop and it still wouldn’t do it justice. Instead of growing past 12-inches like the goldfish, most bettas stay around a comfortable 3-inches. They are known as the “Siamese Fighting Fish” for their high levels of aggression towards each other, but they do extraordinarily well by themselves or in schools of fish that don’t include another betta.
The betta is hardy. And we mean hardy. It’s happy in just about whatever set-up you put it in and it creates very little waste in comparison to the goldfish. Bettas come in a variety of types that boast different kinds of fins and colors, but they’re all pretty extraordinary to look at.
A betta fish can live up to 5 years and only requires a tank that is at least 5-gallons. And contrary to popular belief, they can in fact be housed with other schooling varieties, such as tetras or danios.
Worst Starter Pet #3: The Green Iguana
Remember the problem with the goldfish? You thought it would stay tiny and cute forever. Well, the same problem has happened with the green iguana, which is one of the most common reptiles in the trade. You bought your green iguana when it was young and when it fit nicely into your 10-gallon terrarium. But that green iguana has a potential lifespan of up to 20 years, and more than that- it can grow to be over 5-feet long. And you thought the goldfish got big.
They’re not particularly nice, either. If your child is interested in handling their iguana, they risk invoking the wrath of an aggressive reptile. Males tend to be even more aggressive, and some experts say that most green iguanas never truly become tame at all.
There literally isn’t a tank that you can buy at your local pet store that will house this iguana when it is fully grown, and ideally when you buy a pet for your child, you keep it happy and healthy until the end of its life. Are you prepared to dedicate your back-yard to your 20-lbs green iguana long after your child leaves the house?
Try Instead… Best Starter Pet #3: The Bearded Dragon
Bearded dragons are so beloved by the reptile trade that people have given them a nickname: “The Beardie.” They’re one of the most docile reptiles on the market and it’s not uncommon to see them riding on people’s shoulders and being handled. They need a hot and desert-like environment, so their terrariums can be very simple and dedicated to letting the bearded dragon do what it loves best- basking in the sun.
That terrarium can start out as a 20-gallon for a smaller bearded dragon, but they do get up to around 2-feet long. While that’s still smaller than the green iguana (by far), it does mean you’ll need to upgrade at some point so your beardie can be comfortable as it stretches out. With a larger tank, however, you have the option of getting a second bearded dragon as a companion to the first.
There are different kinds of bearded dragons, ranging from the standard color you get in the pet store to more exotic types like the “trans het hypo.” There are nine to choose from, and these specifications mostly have to do with the color of their skin. No matter the color, the bearded dragon is a laid-back and extremely amiable reptile companion for your child.
It’s hard to do exactly what is right by our children. With a little luck and research, however, we can at least prevent a pet catastrophe from happening. Many “starter pets” sold in pet stores are really not applicable to children at all, but are sold as being ideal for anyone. Do some digging and have your child really consider what characteristics and traits they want in their first pet. Research and care goes a long way when keeping your kid happy and a pet healthy.