You might think that small pets equals less hassle. While in some respects that’s true, don’t be fooled into thinking that the more diminutive proportions of rabbits, hamsters, and their kind means they’re any less of a commitment than a dog or a cat.
And choosing the best small pet for your kids is a decision that shouldn't be rushed. Ultimately, they still require accommodation (which will need regular cleaning), food and water, health checks and medicine, grooming and, equally importantly, love and attention. That said, small mammals do come with some distinct advantages. They require less space, almost never need to venture outside, and demand far less of your time than, say, a dog. Perhaps their greatest appeal is their variety, with each type suiting a particular lifestyle.
Rabbits, ferrets and guinea pigs are a better option for those looking for a long-term member of the family. At the other end of the scale, mice, hamsters and gerbils are best suited to a first-time pet for a young teen given their shorter lifespans. Another major consideration before you head to the pet store is whether you want a diurnal or nocturnal critter. Degus and gerbils are most active during the day, while hamsters, rats and mice tend to liven up at night. Think carefully about which lifestyle will best suit your own to avoid later regrets, or a serious lack of sleep.
Small mammals may be less demanding than larger pets in terms of direct engagement, but they still need some degree of daily interaction – certain types more than others. Rats and ferrets, for instance, are highly intelligent and affectionate creatures that are happiest with lots of mental stimulation and contact. Rabbits, on the other hand, prefer to come to you for attention and to be able to move away when they choose. Hamsters are typically more independent and prefer less handling.
Remember, if you have young children, it’s absolutely crucial that an adult or elder sibling is there to supervise interaction at all times to avoid the pet getting unintentionally stressed and perhaps scratching or biting because they’re frightened.
This desert dweller is a great pet for kids. Although similar in appearance to hamsters, gerbils are surprisingly distinct in terms of their habits and behaviours. Not least of all, they’re diurnal (active during the day), so they’re far more entertaining for younger children, who will be sleeping when hamsters come to life. Gerbils do need a companion or two, however, and they love to dig, so expect a bit of mess.
Gerbillinae: (various species)
Lifespan: 2–4+ years
Adult weight: 1.8–3.5oz
Like rabbits, guinea pigs are natural group animals that need to live with at least one other of their kind. Their accommodation should offer lots of space to run, places to hide and, if possible, some lawn to graze on (you can find a little collapsible pen for them to take them outside and let them roam - but make sure they can't escape). They enjoy interaction with humans, so you should factor in some daily time to be with them. Typically reaching five or six years old, guinea pigs are a good in-between option between shorter-lived rodents like mice and longer-lived alternatives like chinchillas.
Lifespan: 4–6+ years
Adult weight: 2.2lb
Mice require very little, making them a perfect candidate for smaller homes. If you keep a couple or a small group, they’re fairly self-sufficient socially too – just avoid putting males together as they will fight. Given their undemanding nature and short lifespan of one to two years, mice make a fantastic first pet for older children.
Mus musculus domesticus
Lifespan: 1–2 years
Adult weight: 0.4–1.4oz
These furry mammals, originally from South America, can live as long as 15 to 20 years in captivity, so make sure you’re in it for the long haul. And they’re most active at night, so keep that in mind if your child wants a pet that will be active and alert during human waking hours. That said, chinchillas are fairly low maintenance in terms of their demand for attention; so long as they have food, water, a dust bath and things to gnaw on, they’ll keep themselves amused.
Lifespan: 8–20 years
Adult weight: 17.6–24.7oz
While some of the larger ‘small and furries’ benefit from outdoor accommodation, hamsters can live indoors all year round so are ideal for apartments or houses without gardens. They’re also happy to live on their own, which helps to keep costs down. Do bear in mind that these animals are naturally nocturnal so they can make a lot of noise at night. Think carefully before positioning their cage in a bedroom!
Cricetinae (various species)
Lifespan: 2–3 years
Adult weight: 5.3oz
They still have something of a bad rep, but the humble rat can be a very loving and surprisingly smart member of your family, one capable of learning numerous tricks – in fact, some people call them the ‘dogs of the rodent world’. Despite what you might expect, they’re also among the cleanest pets, though they do have a distinct odour that may not be for you.
Rattus norvegicus domestica
Lifespan: 2–3 years
Adult weight: 12.3–23.9oz
Not sure if you’re looking at a rat, a chinchilla, or a hamster? It could well be a degu – a rodent native to Chile. These are very active critters and therefore appreciate lots of recreational accessories in their homes. Although happy to be handled, a word of warning: never pick up or pull on a degu’s tail. As a self-defence mechanism, they’ve evolved to be able to shed this appendage and that would certainly cause quite a fright!
Lifespan: 6–8+ years
Adult weight: 6–10.6oz
Rabbits are some of the most demanding small mammal pets, so never rush into buying one. As social creatures, they’re happiest living in small groups, so you should be prepared to take on at least two. They also require plenty of space for exercise and can live for well over a decade. The flipside to their lengthy lifespans means that they can truly become long-term members of your family home, developing distinct personalities and providing years of affection. Rabbits are a better option for adults and older children as they’re naturally timid and not keen on being cuddled, which given how cute they are can be difficult for younger children to understand.
Lifespan: 8–12 years
Adult weight: 2.2–4.4lb
With a keen intelligence and insatiable curiosity, ferrets demand several hours out of their cages every day, ideally with one or two hours of interaction with their owner(s). While fairly labour-intensive pets – they also require regular grooming and teeth brushing – their affectionate personalities and entertaining antics tend to make up for all the hard work.
Mustela putorius furo
Lifespan: 7–10 years
Adult weight: 1.5–4.4lb
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