Pets as Gifts: How to Choose a Keeper for Your Kids
A guide to which animals make the best (and safest) companions for a child
If a pet of her own is at the top of your child's holiday wish list, consider these facts before you give Santa the green light to deliver. Not all creatures, great or small, make good pets for wee ones.
Some best-bet pets
Cats and dogs. If your child is pining for a puppy or kitten, first ask yourself if he or she is old enough and responsible enough to help care for it (or whether you're willing to do the honors, even after your kid goes off to college). If a dog is on the wish list, know that finding the perfect pooch for your family may take some leg work. Non-aggressive breeds are ideal, for starters, but learning the temperament of the individual dog, not just the breed, is key.
Goldfish. Goldfish are a fine option, as long as you learn some basic facts about good goldfish care first. Otherwise, you could find yourself having to explain in no time at all why the fish is floating, not swimming — and then why it "disappeared."
Parakeets. These birds are social (so if you're thinking about buying one, think about buying two) and can be fun to watch, as long your child is old enough to understand that her new feathered friends may be frightened by sudden movements. And also as long as you understand you’ll likely be cleaning the cage. The seed dish will need to be changed daily, too. And someone should let the bird out every day or so for a little exercise, which means taking some precautions first.
Know before you buy
Gerbils and hamsters. A pocket pal may seem like the perfect pet for a pint-sized person, but keep in mind that they can carry salmonella. So be prepared to teach your child safe hamster handling. According to some experts, these critters may fare badly when given to little kids. The California Hamster Association (CHA), for example, is up to its ears in cast-off hamsters. Parents say kids get tired of the rodent, or cite the smell or tedium of cleaning the cage, according to CHA member Nicole Royer. “The novelty wears off, so they want the hamster to disappear,” she says.
Related: New Gerbil or Hamster?
Reptiles and amphibians. Frogs, geckos, chameleons and snakes are popular gifts for children. But because they can carry salmonella, federal health agencies frown on them as pets for kids under 5. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children in this age group shouldn’t even touch reptiles or amphibians or even items these animals come in contact with.
As for edgier animals like boas, pythons and other constrictor snakes, the Humane Society of the United States reminds us these are dangerous animals that have attacked even trained reptile handlers.
Turtles. Because of the risk of salmonella, skip buying a turtle if you have kids under 5. Older kids will need to be willing to wash their hands every time they touch the turtle or its cage. Those tiny, under-4-inch-long green turtles once sold in plastic tubs (along with a mini plastic palm tree) were banned in the United States more than 40 years ago but still crop up from time to time in pet stores. The title of a Food and Drug Administration article about them says it all: “Cute but contaminated with salmonella.”
Related: Hidden Dangers of Unusual Pets
Bunnies. Sure, they're cute and furry, but are you sure you want a rabbit for your kids? "Many parents see rabbits as low-maintenance starter pets for kids. Nothing could be further from the truth,” writes Mary E. Cotter, EdD, on the ASPCA website. Rabbits need a quiet environment and, according to the ASPCA, are delicate and fragile, making them unsuitable pets for small kids. They may scratch or bite kids who try to carry them around or “love them” too aggressively.