Choosing a pet for your child

There comes a time in many a parent's life when their child utters the inevitable question, 'Can I have a pet?' From dogs to reptiles, pets can make wonderful furry friends to children as well as teaching them about responsibility, but get the wrong animal and you may end up regretting it.

choosing a pet for your child

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If your doe-eyed little one has popped the question, here's a run-down of the possibilities to help you choose the right pet for the job.

Small furries
Diminutive creatures like hamsters, mice and gerbils have been popular children's pets for many years. Because they take up very little space and don't require quite the level of attention that a dog or cat would, they are often chosen for young owners. And since they live for somewhere between two and three years, they are ideal as starter pets.

Hamsters, though amenable if handled early and gently, have a tendency to nip so are not the pet for a nervous child. They are solitary animals and should not be housed in pairs so if you intend to get more than one, you'll need double the cage space. It's also worth bearing in mind that they are nocturnal and can make a considerable noise while your child is trying to sleep.

A better option for little ones comes in the form of mice, gerbils or rats. As sociable animals, any of the above are happy in pairs and will keep your child entertained during waking hours. The much-maligned rat is in fact ideal for children as it rarely bites if handled from an early age and can even be taught to do tricks.

If you opt for a small, furry friend for your young children, however, it's important to supervise handling, particularly in the early stages, as they can easily be injured or frightened by a heavy-handed youngster.

Hutch dwellers
Similarly easy to keep but requiring more space are the guinea pigs and rabbits of the world. Both live for between four and seven years as long as they are well cared for and both are gentle creatures. They can be shy though and as such, although they are more robust than smaller animals, should be handled with care and may take some time to feel safe with their new owner.

Either will live happily in a hutch in the garden or an outbuilding, provided they have enough hay and a quiet place to sleep during the winter. and a secure run for the warmer weather. Rabbits can even be litter trained fairly easily and live within the family home but do be aware that you'll need to chew-proof your home first!

Chinchillas, while appealing, require a good sized cage and it's worth noting that they can live up to 20 years so a serious commitment is necessary.

Once again, supervised handling, particularly for very young children, is essential - those strong hind legs on your pet rabbit can result in a painful kick.

When it comes to quiet pets, you can't go wrong with fish. Relatively easy to maintain and a relaxing addition to the family home, fish represent the perfect pet if you want to avoid the mess and aroma of furry animals. These fascinating water-dwelling creatures are ideally suited to calm, scientifically-minded kids but may quickly be ignored if your child is really after a pet to play with or cuddle. Bear in mind too that the tank, water temperature and PH balance should be carefully maintained - a job that will more than likely fall to you.

Dogs and cats
Both dogs and cats can make wonderful pets, not only for children but for the whole family. Needless to say, our canine and feline friends do need a reasonably high level of attention and care, and vets bills can quickly mount up, so making the decision to buy one for your child is not one to be taken lightly.

A pet dog will remain faithful and affectionate to its owners and will fast become a real member of the family. But they need regular daily exercise and feeding, not to mention training, and are therefore a big commitment for both parent and child. That said, they're called man's best friend for a reason and could be your child's constant companion. Just be sure to take the time to research breeds - large breed young dogs can be very boisterous and easily bowl over a small child and it is essential that you choose a breed that matches your lifestyle in terms of exercise requirements and temperament.

For busy families with a little less time to devote to a pet, a cat may prove a more suitable choice. Happy to be left if you're working mums and dads and fiercely independent, feline friends require a little less attention than their canine counterparts but many will happily play and snuggle up when they feel the need.

Of course, like any animal, if not handled properly they can lash out so may not be the right choice for very young children. But for older kids, these free spirits make clever and charming companions.

What pet did you have as a child? Leave your comments below...