The Best Pets for Kids If You Don’t Want a Dog or Cat

What little kid isn’t obsessed with animals? Many children probably pick a favorite animal shortly after learning how to walk and talk, and soon they’ll want a pet of their own. But maybe you’re not ready to bring a dog or cat into your household. After all, they’re about as much work as a human child, and you already have your hands full there. Where does that leave you?

There’s a whole world of small animals that make excellent pets for kids. These animals teach kids invaluable lessons about companionship and responsibility. They make shy children come out of their shells and provide hours of entertainment. So which animal is right for you? Here are some of the best choices for a family with children.

1. Parakeets

six parakeets on a branch

Parakeets are one of the best pets for kids. | iStock.com/Bazilfoto

Best for: Ages 5 and up

Parakeets make excellent pets for kids. These little birds pack in personality as colorful as their feathers. With a bit of training on both the child’s and the bird’s part, parakeets are very gentle and easy to handle, The Spruce reports. And they can learn all sorts of songs and words from their human companions.

These birds live about 10 years, so make sure you’re ready to commit. They’re very social, too. If they will be left alone for hours at a time, consider getting a second parakeet.

2. Rats

gray rat

Rats are intelligent, social animals. | iStock.com/Cynoclub

Best for: Ages 8 and up

According to Healthline, “Rats make excellent pets due to their intelligence, larger size, and enjoyment of human companionship.” But the Humane Society of the United States cautions you to avoid them if you have young children, who “often lack fine motor control and self-restraint, which means they may inadvertently drop a rat, squeeze them, or scare them into biting.”

But if you can provide the right environment, you’ll find yourself more attached to a rat than you ever thought possible. These little rodents bond with their families and are even smart enough to learn tricks. Plus, they are generally quiet (though active at night) and probably stay cleaner than a human child.

3. Fish

Red betta fish

A betta fish will provide hours of entertainment for a kid. | iStock.com/Picstyle99

Best for: All ages

Have a little Finding Nemo fan on your hands? Well, lots of aquatic pets are appealing to children, but many require very complicated — and expensive — setups. So we recommend a simple betta fish. These guys are anything but simple in looks, with their vibrant colors and swishy tails. Also, they’re typically pretty hardy, living up to three years with the proper care and environment. Hopefully that means you won’t have to run to the pet store to stealthily replace a deceased fish any time soon.

4. Finches and canaries

three zebra finches

Zebra finches are perfect for the bird-watcher in your child. | iStock.com/einegraphic

Best for: All ages

Does your kid love bird-watching? Bring some finches or canaries into your house, and your child will have a constant source of entertainment. These little birds are entertaining to watch and generally a hands-off pet. (They’re very delicate, and you must handle them with caution.) According to The Spruce, they “make good pets for very young children because they are beautiful, fascinating to watch, and provide soothing ‘music’ with their soft chirps and chatter.”

Both finches and canaries are generally easy to care for. They prefer to have another bird friend of the same sex (you don’t need any more kids in the house), and you should place them in the largest cage you can afford with plenty of toys to keep them happy. They can learn to mimic some human sounds and whistles, though mostly they’ll wow you with their own songs.

5. Hamsters

Hamster running in a wheel

It’s fairly simple to care for a hamster. | iStock.com/AlexKalashnikov

Best for: Ages 8 and up

Animal Planet suggests waiting until your child is a little older before getting a hamster. For one, they are small in stature, making them a bit fragile in young hands. But also, they’re nocturnal — meaning they’re typically up at night and asleep during the day — and they might not take too kindly to a young child waking them up during the day to play. Hamsters live two to three years and prefer to reside alone, though they do enjoy their human companions.

6. Geckos

leopard gecko on person's palm

Leopard geckos are a popular exotic pet. | Carl Court/Getty Images

Best for: Ages 10 and up

So your kid saw a Geico commercial, and now he wants a gecko. It’s actually a pretty popular pet, especially the leopard gecko with its cool pattern of spots. However, Animal Planet recommends geckos for children 10 and older because they’re usually shy and require patience with handling.

Plus, these little lizards can live up to 20 years, so be sure you want to make that kind of commitment. And you’ll have to purchase all sorts of creepy-crawly bugs to feed them. But if you take the plunge, these little guys are incredibly interesting to watch — though they might not have a charming accent.

7. Guinea pigs

guinea pig in basket

Guinea pigs love their owners’ company. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Best for: All ages

Guinea pigs make a great starter pet for children of any age. They’re very social and love human company. They require a varied diet of pellets, hay, and fresh vegetables. But they can get obese without adequate exercise. (They make pig-like grunting noises when they’re on the hefty side.) With proper care, they’ll live five to 10 years.

8. Turtles

box turtle in water

Turtles are best for older children who know proper handling. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Best for: Ages 8 and up

Let’s just get this out of the way: Turtles carry salmonella, which obviously poses a risk to your family. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends no turtles for children under age 5, and Animal Planet takes it one step further, saying no turtles for children under age 8. Basically, they have to be old enough to know sanitary handling practices, such as washing hands and any surface the turtle touches. That being said, these little slowpokes make interesting, generally low-maintenance pets for kids.

9. Rabbits

person holding rabbit

In a way, rabbits are like a cross between a cat and a dog. | Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images

Best for: Ages 8 and up

What kid doesn’t love a little fluffy bunny? But don’t even think about getting one for your child for Easter. Rabbits require a great deal of work, and many are abandoned shortly after the holiday excitement wears off. However, if you decide one is right for you, they make excellent pets for kids.

Animal Planet even says they’re sort of like a cross between a cat and a dog because they can learn to come when called, will walk on a leash, and use a litter box. They require ample exercise and high-quality food. And they can live up to 10 years, so it’s practically like committing to a dog or cat, too.

10. Cockatiels

three cockatiels sitting on wood

A cockatiel will become your best friend. | iStock.com/cynoclub

Best for: Ages 5 and up

Cockatiels are parakeets’ slightly larger cousin, but they’re still much smaller than macaws or cockatoos, making them appropriate pets for kids. These friendly little birds develop close bonds with their families and are excellent at mimicking whistles and words (though some say parakeets are the better talkers).

With the proper diet and environment, these birds live about 20 years, so they are a long-term responsibility. (But you’re a parent, so you already understand long-term commitment, right?) In a cockatiel, you’ll have a companion full of personality, and you won’t even have to take it for a walk or scoop its litter.

11. Ants

an ant crawls on a leaf

Yes, you can have ants for pets. | Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Best for: All ages

Did you have an ant farm growing up? These things have been around for a long time — and for good reason. They’re incredibly easy to set up and maintain. (Just don’t drop them, or you’ll have an ant situation on your hands.) They’re also a simple way to teach your kids about pet ownership. Plus, you might be just as enthralled as your child is watching these ants construct their little colony.

12. Hermit crabs

hermit crab with blue striped shell

Your child will have fun learning about hermit crabs and picking out shells for them as they grow. | William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

Best for: All ages

Is your child always crabby? Maybe he just wants a crab. These little crustaceans make for interesting pets. They’re surprisingly active and as curious about their environment as your kids will be about them. With the proper tank and feeding, they can actually live for about 30 years. (Hopefully your human child is out of the house by then.)

They do have very specific water and humidity requirements, so if you don’t think you could get their conditions right, this probably is a pet to skip. Otherwise, this is a delightful and educational little creature for your kids.

13. Chickens

a free-range chicken exits the coop

Chickens can teach children several life lessons. | Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images

Best for: Ages 5 and up

So we’re giving you smaller pet options for your kids in lieu of cats and dogs, and now we’re telling you to go start a farm? Stay with us here. Many communities now permit backyard chicken coops. And often the practice is surprisingly easy and rewarding. (What kid doesn’t love cheesy scrambled eggs?)

According to HGTV, once you’ve set up your coop and selected your chickens, the hard part is over. Then, HGTV says, “In a well-equipped chicken coop, the hardest thing you’ll have to do, most days, is remember to collect the eggs.”

Our favorite chicken variety is an Easter Egger, which actually lays eggs in different colorful shades. They’re usually friendly to children. Keeping chickens also teaches kids a great lesson about responsibility (add egg collection to your chore chart) and where food comes from.

14. Shelter animals

American Staffordshire terrier lying in grass

Humane societies are a great way to get your fill of animals without any ownership responsibility. | iStock.com/sanjagrujic

Best for: Age varies depending on program

Not ready to bring any pet into your house just yet? No problem. You can still allow your child to experience an animal bond by volunteering at your local humane society. Shelters offer many educational programs for kids. And there are clever child-friendly volunteer opportunities, such as this Humane Society of Missouri program where kids read to the homeless dogs and cats to provide them with some attention and socialization.

Plus, shelters often permit children of a certain age (with an adult guardian) to do hands-on work with animals. It’s a great way to get your animal fix without having to bring one into your home — though we can’t promise your child won’t beg you to adopt all the shelter animals.

How to choose the right pet

kid reading to stuffed dog

Are you ready to care for a new pet, or will a stuffed animal suffice? | Amazon

Yes, there’s nothing like the joy on a kid’s face when you finally give in and agree to get a pet. But before you take the plunge, PetMD recommends you consider these questions:

  • Can you commit to caring for the pet for its lifespan?
  • Does the pet realistically fit into your family?
  • Can you provide the proper environment?
  • Do you have a vet, and can you afford the bills?
  • Are you willing to do the work (because you can’t expect your kid to do it)?

Kids Health also suggests that you don’t make any impulsive decisions, and definitely don’t purchase a pet as a holiday or birthday gift for your child if you haven’t completely thought it through first. The novelty will soon wear off, and you’ll be stuck with the responsibility. (In fact, always assume the responsibility will fall to you.) An alternative is to wrap pet supplies as a gift, with the promise that you’ll pick out the animal as a family at a later date once you’re prepared.

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