It’s a familiar trope because it’s true: The kid wants a dog or cat, but the parents want to test whether their child is ready for the responsibility and won’t forget to give the pet food or water after a couple of weeks.
This is often where the “starter pet” trade-off comes into play. “We’ll get you a (fill in the blank), and if you do well with that, then we’ll consider adopting a dog or cat.”
The trick, of course, is that you don’t want something that’s going to take a lot of care to keep alive, but which the family is not necessarily going to get overly attached to. Note: If it’s cute and fluffy, everyone is going to get attached anyway.
Pets and kids
It isn’t an entirely one-way street with kids having pets, though. Time and again, studies show that having pets around is actually good for children. Among the benefits are a reduction in allergies, learning empathy, getting practice at being a caregiver in preparation for their own future parenthood, learning responsibility, and developing self-esteem.
Some pets can even help children learn how to read — by being good listeners. How? Have the child read out loud to the pet with no one else around. The pet will pay attention without judging, teaching your child how to read with confidence.
But before the family makes the more than decade-long commitment to a dog or cat, it’s time to see how an easier-to-keep animal does in the household.
The following small animals are easy to maintain and generally have relatively short lifespans when compared to cats or dogs, although there are exceptions. In each case, consider both the kind of pet your child wants and the real-life logistics of what you’ll need to create its living environment.
Keep it simple, with freshwater fish that don’t require much in the way of special environments. Two that are easy to take care of are bettas and goldfish.
The former are very flashy, but are known as fighting fish for a reason — they cannot be kept with other bettas because they are very territorial and they can and will severely injure or kill each other if placed in the same tank.
A single betta needs about a two-gallon tank kept at 75 to 80°F (24 to 27°C), and with some nice hiding spaces, like a ceramic cave or aquatic plants. The best diet is commercial food designed for Bettas, which they will eat from the surface.
Bettas can have tank mates, including some fish, but the rule here is that you’ll want at least five of the non-Bettas in a species that tends to shoal, meaning they stay together in a group. Of course, if you add more fish, you’ll need at least a ten-gallon tank. For non-fish “roomies,” you can stay with a five-gallon tank populated with various species of snails or ghost shrimp.
Goldfish are less likely to fight but require a lot more room — as in a twenty-gallon tank. Goldfish will grow to fit their environment, and some common ones can reach up to two feet long.
Goldfish do not require heated water like Bettas do, but they should have a lot in their environment to entertain them, like real or artificial plants, and typical aquarium ornaments, like the ubiquitous ceramic castle, miniature deep-sea diver or pirate’s chest.
Typical lifespan: Bettas, 2 to 5 years; goldfish, 10 to 15 years, but some types can live up to 30.
Don’t confuse guinea pigs with hamsters because they are not the same thing. The big difference is that hamsters are nocturnal, meaning active at night, while guinea pigs are diurnal, or active during the day.
This means that hamsters are going to want to sleep while your kids are active and vice versa, but guinea pigs run on a human schedule. You’ll also need to dedicate a bit of space to their habitat, with a minimum size having a base of 30 by 36 inches (76 by 91 cm).
This habitat will also require a 1 to 2 inch (2.5 to 5 cm) deep layer of bedding made of high-quality paper, crumbled paper, or wood shavings — but avoid cedar. You’ll also need hay, food, treats, a water bowl, plenty of chewies, and a daily vitamin C supplement.
Like dogs and cats, guinea pigs prefer regularity in their schedule, so they’re good practice for learning how to create a routine for a pet. They’re also social. While they may hide out by crawling inside of something in their home, when people come around, they’ll come out and say hello.
Typical lifespan: 7 to 8 years (vs. 1 to 2 for hamsters).
There are actually over a hundred kinds of parakeets, but the most common comes from Australia. Outside of America they are more commonly called budgies, which is short for budgerigar. Parakeets are very social, so you should always get them in pairs.
A parakeet’s cage should be at least 18 by 14 by 22 inches (46 by 35.5 by 56 cm) for a single bird, and double that size for two. Make sure that the bars are close enough together that your parakeets can’t get stuck between them, and that they are not made of zinc or lead (toxic) or bamboo (temptingly chewable.)
As for accommodations within the cage, you’ll want at least three perches per bird at different levels and a swing, which they find amusing. You’ll need two metal food bowls, one or two bird waterers, bedding and a cuttlebone. The latter is not only a source of calcium but will help your bird polish their beak and provide entertainment.
Speaking of entertainment, don’t forget to give your parakeet plenty of toys and make sure that they’re colorful. They’re fond of toys with bells attached and toys they can climb. You might also consider adding a small mirror or two to their environment.
While not as chatty as their larger relatives, parrots, parakeets can still learn to imitate household noises and people’s voices, with males being the more talkative and imitative.
Typical lifespan: 6 to 12 years, although a monk parakeet can reach 20 to 30.
Specifically, the western fence lizard, known colloquially as the blue-belly lizard because of the bright blue and black markings on their underside. They live mostly in western states, especially California, and if you keep a careful eye out, you can spot them in the wild most anywhere. They are surprisingly easy to domesticate and become very docile to handling once they’ve gotten used to you.
They do well in groups and thrive in a twenty-gallon terrarium. You’ll need to fill the bottom with bedding consisting of three inches of dirt, soil, or sand. This is because they will bury themselves at night to sleep. This is an instinct to protect themselves from prey.
Don’t be alarmed if, on their first evening, you walk past an apparently empty enclosure and think they’ve escaped. They’ll pop back up in the morning when it’s feeding time.
You do need a screen or cover on top of the tank so that the lizards can’t climb out, as well as a heat lamp and basking platform to keep them warm. The lamp should be placed about four inches below the lid of the tank, and aimed only at the basking platform, with other parts of the enclosure kept cooler and moist. To ensure this, add live plants, which will keep up the humidity. Also, turn off the heat lamp at night.
Lizards will eat ants, crickets, spiders, and mealworms. They will also catch any flies that manage to get into their enclosure.
Typical lifespan: Up to 5 years.
You may remember these from your childhood, and your parents and grandparents probably do, too. Conceived of as pets in 1957, they are essentially brine shrimp but they have the ability to go into suspended animation in the absence of water.
It was this detail that led Harold von Braunhut to heavily market them to kids via cheap comic book ads beginning in the very early 1960s. Dehydrated, the shrimp could survive indefinitely, but magically come to life when added to water.
And yes, Sea-Monkeys are still around, and they still look nothing like the comic book illustrations used to hype them. Originally priced at just 49 cents ($4.35 in current dollars), you can now get the basic starter kit with tank from Amazon for $12.99, although the original company has a deluxe Executive Kit for only $100.
So why include Sea-Monkeys on this list? It’s because they’re relatively inexpensive, take up very little room, and if your child can follow a few simple instructions, relatively error-proof in rehydrating. Plus, they can also learn a couple of tricks, believe it or not.
Just don’t be fooled into thinking that they look or act like anything other than tiny shrimp.
Typical lifespan: 1 year for individuals, but a colony can live for up to 5.
“Low-maintenance” can be relative
If you think that there are a couple of obvious omissions on this list, you’d be right. I was originally inclined to include rabbits and chameleons because I have known people who’ve had both and they didn’t seem to be that hard to take care of.
My research quickly put paid to that notion. Chameleons can easily suffer from stress and anxiety and are also very territorial and aggressive, so, like Bettas, need to be the only one of their kind around.
They also don’t automatically change colors depending on what you put behind them. In fact, they don’t change for camouflage at all. It’s for heat regulation and communication with other chameleons.
Meanwhile, rabbits are notoriously high-maintenance, with special dietary requirements, a need for daily health checks, and a tendency to chew through and destroy everything.
So consider these latter two to not be ideal, easy-to-care-for pets for children or adults. But do take a look at the rest of the list and make your choice, again based on your child’s preference as well as what you’re physically able to accommodate in your home.
A specific choice of a low-maintenance pet may also depend on your child’s age, with fish and Sea-Monkeys being preferable for younger children and guinea pigs and parakeets more suited for older tweens. Careful with the timing, though, because you’re very likely to end up becoming your parakeets’ parent when your child heads off to college.
All-in-all, though, these are all good choices at a practice run for bringing in a new family member in the form of a dog or cat, and in the meantime will not only prepare your child for it but enrich their lives as well. No matter which of these pets you choose, you’re all bound to have a pawsitive experience.
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