Having grown up on a farm, animals had always been a part of my life. As a toddler, Mom and Dad started me out with feeding new born calves and added to those responsibilities as I got older. By the time I was in first grade, carrying for all our smaller farm animals was one of my morning routines
Learning to care for farm animals of all types taught my siblings and I important values such as responsibility, patience and gentleness. For young (and even older) children, household pets not only provide companionship but also are a means for teaching these valuable life skills.
So what animals make ideal first pets for a child? Choosing from the several dozen or so animals our family has had over the past 26 years, here’s what we discovered made the best pets for young children between the ages of 3 and 5.
Kitten. When our youngest daughter was about four years old, we adopted an 8-week-old kitten from the shelter. Kittens have high entertainment value for a young child. They prance, they scamper, love to chase balls of yarn and will play nonstop. Kittens are also easy for young children to care for in that they don’t require special feeding and are litter box trained by 6-8 weeks.
Ease of care is a big reason why kittens make great first pets. As a mom, I also appreciated how kittens (although not cats) tend to be much more good-natured when it comes to a bit of rough housing now and then. Kittens regard hugs and mild tail tugging as play time, and won’t attack a small child if provoked.
Betta fish. Fish aren’t the cuddliest of pets, but for teaching a young child responsibility, a betta fits the bill. Bettas (also known as Japanese fighting fish) are beautifully colored, fun to watch and take very little maintenance. Bettas make ideal first pets for young kids who live in apartments or don’t have the time (or attention span) needed to take care of a mammal or bird.
I prefer a betta as opposed to others kinds of tropical fish because bettas can survive in a plain old bowl without any sort of filtering system or heater. The extent of aquarium maintenance required is switching out the water about every two weeks, a job for Mom and Dad. The “fun” part for young children is feeding the betta twice a day and decorating the fish bowl with pretty rocks and other aquarium accessories.
Rats. When one of our sons turned 5, we bought him an adult rat for his birthday, which is another good choice of a first pet for a child who is at least 4 years of age. Rats are quite playful and will keep a small child entertained with their climbing and nesting antics and rolling around the floor in plastic exercise balls. Rats also are the most trainable of all the pocket pets and can be taught tricks and carried around on the shoulder, unlike guinea pigs and hamsters. Rats also don’t seem to bite or claw frantically when held, another big plus.
While cleaning out the cage may require a little help from an adult, the rest of a rat’s care – feeding, watering, and playtime – are tasks easily managed by a young child.