Looking after a pet can be an important part of a child’s development. Done right, pet ownership can teach them about taking responsibility, about caring for those who need you, about friendship and, eventually, about what happens when our time is up.

But, sadly, it is not always done right and one of the major reasons why small pets are surrendered to rescue centres is because a child has ‘lost interest’ in the animal/s. This always seems doubly sad to me as, not only has the animal lost its home, but the child has been taught that it’s ok to abandon their responsibilities when the novelty wears off.

So we urge parents to think carefully before acquiring a pet for their child. Are you willing to insist that your child continues to care for the pet even if they lose interest? Are you willing to work with your child to help them form a bond if the pet is initially nervous? Are you willing to take care of the pet if your child doesn’t? Will the pets be part of the family – loved, valued and cared for by all, not just one child who might soon get bored?

This shouldn’t really need to be said but please never get your child as a present. Birthdays, Easter and Christmas are busy noisy times in most households which can make it very stressful for a new pet. Your child will be getting lots of new things and it is easy for the needs of a pet to be overlooked. Most importantly, giving a pet as a present encourages a mentality that they are possessions or toys with a comparable value to the Furby they got last year but haven’t played with for 10 months. Any decision to bring an animal into your household should be made as a family following careful consideration and lots of discussion about the responsibilities involved.

To reduce the likelihood of any issues developing we also urge parents to think carefully about the type of animal they get. Some animals which are traditionally thought of as children’s pets are, in reality, not especially suitable for children. You’ll find more detail in the care sheets on our website but below we have listed the sort of animals you might be considering and a quick guide to their suitability for children.

Hamsters

The first thing to know about hamsters is that they are quite strictly nocturnal. This means that they will usually be waking up around the time that small children are going to bed. This can lead to the hamster being quite grumpy if they are disturbed during the day when your child is awake. We recommend hamsters are only suitable pets for children aged at least ten years old. There are several types of hamster available as pets in the UK. The most recognisable is the Syrian hamster but there are also dwarf hamsters who, as their name suggests are quite a bit smaller. They also tend to be faster and a little harder for a child to handle than Syrian hamsters.

Gerbils

Gerbils are generally crepuscular in habit meaning they are active at dawn and dusk so their waking habits should fit in quite well with a child. They are, however, quite sensitive to noise and very agile so can be challenging for a young child to handle. If their tails are handled roughly they can ‘deglove’ – the skin comes away from the bone – which can be very distressing for a child to witness. We would only recommend gerbils for children aged at least 10 years old.

Mice

Mice are naturally nocturnal but will adapt to their owners lifestyle so will generally be happy to be awake when your child is. Although they are smaller than hamsters and gerbils, they are generally slower and easier for them to handle. Mice are not that easy to find in the UK so you may need to look around to find a suitable source of well socialised mice. In general a well socialised pair or group of mice should be suitable pets for sensible children aged 8 or over.

Rats

Rats are naturally nocturnal but will adapt to their owners lifestyle so will generally be happy to be awake when your child is. Their relatively larger size can make them easier to handle than hamsters and gerbils but also means they are stronger so, if reluctant to be handled, can be quite a handful for a small child. It’s worth knowing that males are often more chilled out than females so may be better suited to children. Rats do need quite a bit of space – we recommend no less than 8 cubic feet for a pair – so their cages might be quite large to keep in a small bedroom. A well socialised pair of rats should be suitable pets for sensible children aged 8 or over.

Degus

Degus are a relatively new pet and, as such, are not as well domesticated as other more common species. Although it is very possible for them to be made very tame with the right handling, this is best done by an adult. An untamed degu will not enjoy being picked up by a child and they can deliver a strong bite. If their tails are handled roughly they can ‘deglove’ – the skin comes away from the bone – which can be very distressing for a child to witness. Degus are sensitive to loud noises so need a calm, quiet environment. They also need quite a bit of space – we recommend no less than 8 cubic feet for a pair – so their cages might quite large to keep in a small bedroom. Degus can live up to 8 years which is a big commitment for a young child. We do not recommend degus as pets for children under 16 years of age.

Chinchillas

Chinchillas are a species who naturally move by bouncing and skipping about. They are not an animal who will want to sit on your child’s lap and be cuddled and stroked. They are sensitive and prone to stress so would not cope well with a child’s erratic and jubilant handling. Chinchillas need a great deal of space – we recommend at least 12 cubic feet for a pair – so their cages might be too large to keep in a small bedroom. They can live up to 20 years so you do need to consider the chinchilla’s care even past when your child might leave home! We do not recommend chinchillas as pets for children under 16 years of age.

Rabbits

Although rabbits do not fall within the remit of our website, they are well worth mentioning here as they are one of the most popular pets for children. Rabbits are sensitive prey animals who do not generally like to be picked up and cuddled. The traditional hutch at the bottom of the garden presents enormous welfare challenges for these sociable, active, intelligent creatures. Rabbits can be great pets but are not suitable animals for a child to take responsibility for. We recommend carefully researching their care needs with an organisation such as The Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund (http://www.rabbitwelfare.co.uk) before making a decision to bring a pair (since they must have company) into your life.

Guinea pigs

Guinea pigs are active during the day, relatively sedentary and can rather enjoy sitting on a lap and being stroked so can make great pets for children. It is worth considering that their needs are more complex than the traditional approach though. A small hutch in the garden will not provide the space guinea pigs need and will be too cold for them in winter. You will need to be able to bring them indoors during the winter and they need a cage of at least a square metre for a pair. Guinea pigs are outside the remit of our website so we recommend researching their care thoroughly with an organisation such as your local guinea pig rescue before deciding whether they are right for your family.

In summary, we do not recommend that children younger than 8 are given responsibility for a pet and that all pets are ‘family’ pets who are cared for by the adults and the children are allowed to help with their care and handle them under supervision. As some general rules we recommend that

  • Pets are kept in communal family areas, not the child’s bedroom. This is so that their interaction can always be supervised by an adult and so that the pet is part of the family.
  • Children are not allowed to get the animals out of the cage themselves – this is the point at which the animal is most likely to be nervous and to bite.
  • Children only handle the animals one at a time while seated and all handling is supervised by an adult.
  • Whatever you decide, please read the guides to acquiring and caring for your pet on our website. Getting your pet from the right source (i.e. one where they will have been well socialised from a young age) will make a huge difference to how easy to handle they are and a properly cared for pet is a happier, easier pet for your child.