The Best Pets for Kids of All Ages

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

best pets for kids

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  • Pets teach children responsibility, compassion and respect, and may help lower incidences of allergies and anxiety
  • Most children aren’t ready for a pet until they’re 5 or older, and even then parents will need to assist in the pet’s daily care and supervise interactions
  • Younger children may do well with small pets such as hermit crabs or fish
  • Preteens can get more involved in the day-to-day care of pets and may enjoy animals that are interactive and companionable, such as rats, guinea pigs or certain species of birds, such as budgies, canaries and finches
  • Older children can enjoy caring for a wide variety of pets, from cats and dogs to rabbits or exotic pets like bearded dragons, corn snakes or other reptiles

The benefits of pet ownership for children are immense, from teaching them a sense of responsibility to giving them a source of unconditional love. There’s evidence that exposure to pets in infancy has a protective effect against allergies later on in life,1 and owning certain pets, such as dogs, may lower a child’s risk of suffering from anxiety.2

There are life lessons to be learned from pet ownership as well, like trust, compassion, respect and coping with bereavement. Perhaps because of these many upsides, many children enjoy having pets in their lives. It’s estimated that while 4 in 10 children are born into a family with pets, up to 90% will live with a pet at some point during their childhood.3

Choosing the right pet for your child can make all the difference between having a successful first experience with animals or a stressful one, and there are certain pets that make sense for different age groups of children.

Factors to Consider Before Getting a Pet for a Child

First off, parents must understand that ultimately, the care for the animal is their responsibility, and if the child does not follow through, they will need to step in for its care. Depending on the pet, parents will also likely end up being the sole caretakers when a child leaves the house.

Assuming this is understood, it’s usually children over the age of 5 who begin to show real interest in a dog, cat or other animal. That’s a good thing, because children younger than 5 can’t be expected to handle the responsibility of caring for a pet. If your child is 5 or older, begin by considering what type of pet he or she would most enjoy and bond with (and what pet you can commit to co-parenting throughout its life).

For some children, hands-on interactions are important while others may prefer a more exotic pet, even if it means less, or no, cuddle time.

Practical considerations, such as whether you have enough space in your home, and whether the animal is nocturnal, especially fragile or safe for a child, should also be considered. Then, set expectations ahead of time regarding caretaking responsibilities, so children are clear about what they’re taking on.

Best Pets for Young Children

For children ages 5 (perhaps as young as 4) to 7, consider a small animal such as a hermit crab, which are fascinating to watch but don’t require a tremendous time commitment. If you are looking for a less hands-on pet, fish can make great pets.

That being said, proper care for a pet fish requires careful attention to water quality, temperature and environmental enrichment, even for a goldfish, so parents will need to help.

Because infants and young children are at increased risk of salmonella, some pets, including turtles, lizards, snakes, frogs and salamanders should be considered after the child understands the personal hygiene involved in avoiding infections.

Best Pets for Preteens

Children between the ages of 8 and 12 can get more involved in the day-to-day care of pets and may enjoy animals that are interactive and companionable. Rats may be an ideal option, as they’re capable of cuddling, coming when called, learning tricks and bonding with you much like a dog or cat does, but require only a fraction of the space.

Rats do require daily interactions, feeding (including preparation of fresh foods) and exercise, but they can be great pets for children who aren’t ready to commit to the needs of a dog but desire the same level of companionship.

Certain species of birds, like budgies, canaries and finches, can also be good pets for preteens, as they’re social and bond closely with humans. They’re also fun to train and they pick up tricks quickly, making them highly interactive.

That being said, do not fall for the misconception that a bird is “less work” than caring for a dog or cat. Birds need daily mental stimulation, environmental enrichment and specialized diets, making them just as “high maintenance” as a dog or cat, if not more so. They can be great pets for children, provided a parent is willing to take part in the care. Birds also have long lifespans — another factor to take into consideration.

Guinea pigs can also make good pets for children in this age group. They’re cute, furry and generally enjoy being around humans. Guinea pigs are social creatures and thrive in small groups of two or more. They need spacious habitats outfitted with hiding and napping places, safe wood to chew and guinea pig toys.

Best Pets for Teens

Older children can enjoy caring for a wide variety of pets, from cats and dogs to rabbits or exotic pets like bearded dragons, corn snakes or other reptiles.4 Older children can be active participants in choosing what type of pet they’re most interested in and learning how to actively provide for its needs.

If your child prefers a quiet, unique pet, even a tortoise can be a great option, especially if a pet with a long lifespan is desired. Cats and dogs have much to offer teens in the way of companionship and self-esteem, and older children can participate in daily walks, cleaning of litterboxes and feeding.

Rabbits make good pets for older children as well, as they’re fragile and can be easily startled, making them best for children who know how to handle them calmly and gently. Once a child is a teenager, you can have a discussion about different pets and let your child help choose the right one for them.

No matter which type of pet you ultimately decide on, look at shelters and rescue organizations in your area for an adoptable animal. Almost every type of animal now has specialty rescue organizations (from turtles and snakes to birds and guinea pigs) so consider looking into providing a forever home to an unwanted pet, before looking elsewhere.