So, you’ve finally decided to get a family pet. Perhaps the children have been asking for ages but you’re not quite sure which pet is best for your family.
Dogs and cats are the UK’s most popular pets. The Pet Food Manufacturers Association found that 60% of households with at least one pet had either a cat or dog (33% Dogs and 27% Cats) in 2021.
But that doesn't necessarily mean they're the right choice for you. Some other good pets for kids include rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, and birds.
Why pets are good for children
Pets are great at helping children with their learning and development. Positive and rewarding experience for children include:
Helps teach children responsibility and compassion
Boost children’s self-esteem
Provides comfort, joy and affection
Provides companionship and reduces loneliness
Living a healthier lifestyle
Being surrounded by pets from a young age will help children become comfortable around animals and this familiarity will hopefully stay with them into adulthood.
Is a cat or dog right for my family?
Choosing a cat or dog isn’t about which one is better. What’s more important is thinking about which pet is right for your family.
Cats and dogs both offer love, affection, and companionships for children and adults. They’re both great additions to family life and have a positive impact the health, wellbeing of family members.
Just listen to these parents talk about the amazing benefits their cats and dogs have brought to their own families:
If you’re finding it difficult to choose between the two, it’s important to remember that cats and dogs have different characteristics so your choice will be influenced by your family’s circumstances and lifestyle. Think about your home and how much you can afford for food, pet care and pet insurance.
Cats are more independent while dogs generally need more stimulation and attention. If your home has limited space or you lead a busy lifestyle, an independent cat might be a better choice than a dog.
Dogs need to be walked each day so if you’re not an ‘outdoorsy’ kind or person a family a dog might not be right for you.
Dogs are a better choice if your home has a garden or if you enjoy spending time outdoors in parks and open spaces like the countryside.
If you’ve decided that it’s a dog you want for your family, the choice can be made even more difficult due to the wide range of different breeds available.
Owning a small dog breed such as a Pug or Yorkshire Terrier will be a very different experience for your family than a large breed like a German Shepherd.
Look for a breed that’s good-natured, fun, friendly and with a well-balanced temperament.
If you like the idea of family life that includes both cats and dogs, family-oriented breeds such as Cocker Spaniels, Collies and Labradors have a reputation for getting along with both children and cats.
Choosing a breed that’s right for your family is important but the temperament and personality of each individual dog should also be taken into consideration.
Making time for pets and children
When choosing a pet, you’ll need to consider the needs of the pet alongside those of your children. Sometimes this can be difficult to balance both.
Puppies and kittens might not be the best option if you have very young children such as a baby or toddlers. They will both need to be trained and shown a lot of care.
If you have young children, you may not have the necessary time and energy to dedicate to them and a new pet.
In the case of kittens, they’re at an age where they’re still learning how to use their claws which makes them more likely to play rough and they could hurt small children.
Young children can sometimes associate cats and dogs with soft toys and teddy bears. At this age, it’s important to teach children to treat their pets with respect and compassion.
If you want a pet as a companion for your children, it’s usually better to wait until they’re old enough to take on some responsibility in caring for the animal. From the age of five is normally a good age for children to begin this.
The best small pets for children
Dogs and cats aren't your only option.
You might not have the space for a large pet which is why you should consider smaller animals as an alternative to a cat or dog. Here are some of the best small animals to choose from:
Hamsters have always been a popular small pet choice as they’re easy to care for and can be trained to use litter.
However, they can be quite aggressive (particularly females) and can dislike being handled more than other rodents. Hamsters are nocturnal, which means they sleep during the day and are more active at night.
Depending on the breed, hamsters can live to between two-three years which is quite short compared to popular pets like cats and dogs but common for small mammals.
Guinea pigs are generally an excellent choice for children. They have a gentle and sociable nature and are calm and easy to handle once they’re familiar with you.
They’re very active creatures and only need sleep for short periods of the day. This will give children plenty of time to play and interact with them.
You should consider getting another guinea pig as a companion, so they don’t get lonely. Guinea pigs have a longer life span than some other small animals and can live to around five to seven years.
They require more time and effort than hamsters and gerbils because of their bigger appetite for hay and vegetables.
Gerbils are a popular small pet choice that are easy to handle and take care of. Gerbils are often chosen by parents as a first pet for their children. They offer children the chance to learn about responsibility and taking care of a pet.
They’re more sociable than hamsters and tend to live happier healthier lives when they have a companion to live with. So you might want to consider having two gerbils together rather than one on their own.
Gerbils like hamsters are both omnivores (meaning they feed on both plants and animals, like insects). They have short life spans of usually no more than two years.
If a rodent is your pet of choice, then rats are often considered a better option than hamsters or gerbils. Rats normally live for around two years, but some may live for longer.
Rats are smart, sociable and tend to form strong bonds with their owners. It’s a good idea to get two rats of the same sex so that they have company. They’re nocturnal creatures which means they’re more active at night and dusk.
Your rats should have regular playtime outside of their cages but you must make sure the room they’re in is secure as they can easily get through gaps that you might not think is possible.
“Most rodents are nocturnal so they shouldn’t be disturbed in the daytime. That means it’s important to do a mini health checks and make sure you see them each day to check they’re fit and healthy, says Sarah Dawson our Veterinary Relationship Manager.
"Small furry animals can get poorly or develop issues very quickly, and they may go unnoticed because they hide themselves away. It’s ok to give them a small prod sometimes to make sure they’re ok.”
Rabbits are another popular alternative to cats and dogs but are perhaps better suited to older children.
Some rabbits don’t enjoy being handled and cuddled while others are perfectly happy to be held. It all depends very much upon the breed and individual personality of the rabbit.
Rabbits are prey animals in the wild. This means they can be anxious and uncomfortable with loud noises, being handled too roughly or chased.
In the wrong environment, rabbits can easily become stressed and aggressive. Vets often advise that rabbits are spayed or neutered to reduce aggression.
Rabbits can make great family pets but it’s important to remember that owning a rabbit is more challenging and that they need different care and attention compared with other popular small pets.
Whichever small pet you choose, they offer children the chance to learn how to be responsible pet owners by:
Cleaning out play pens and cages
Topping up food and water
Brushing and grooming
Checking on the health of their pets
You should be able to insure most small pets too which will make sure you can afford any vet bills. Get pet insurance for birds, mammals, reptiles and more.
Before deciding on a family pet, always make sure you do plenty of research and make sure you consider the costs of food and vet bills over their entire lifespan.