Starter Pets That Can Help Your Child Learn the Basics of Pet Care

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All over Charlotte, kids are pleading with their parents for a puppy or a kitty this holiday. For some parents, the answer is, “Why don’t we try a hamster?” Or perhaps a gerbil, a hermit crab or a fish.

Small animal pets can be a good fit for busy families on a budget while providing a way for children to learn the basics of pet care. Before making a decision, think about cost, care, time commitment, pet personality and life span.

Pocket Pets

Small mammal pets, often called “pocket pets,” are entertaining and endearing. Hamsters, gerbils, mice, rats and guinea pigs are some of the easier pocket pets.

According to Dr. Leland McLaughlin of Freedom Animal Hospital, guinea pigs and rats are very social and need regular attention from their owners. Hamsters, gerbils and mice need less interaction. Most pocket pets will enjoy supervised exploring, but be prepared to clean up after them.

Startup costs for a basic pocket pet setup will run about $100. Yearly costs for food and supplies are about $300 for most pocket pets, and closer to $500 for guinea pigs. Pocket pets only need to see a vet if they show signs of illness. Vet visits run about $45 plus the cost of any tests or treatment.

Your pet will eat specially formulated food, small amounts of fruit and vegetables, and occasional treats. You will need to clean the cage and change the bedding once or twice a week, and spot clean daily.

Hamsters and mice live about one to three years, rats two to three years, gerbils three to four years, and guinea pigs five to seven years.

Creepy Crawlies

Among pets that crawl, hermit crabs and Madagascar hissing cockroaches make easy pets. Both will adjust to handling, but they don’t require a lot of attention and are unlikely to need vet care.

A hermit crab setup is about $50 to start and about $50 a year. They eat hermit crab food and fresh fruits and veggies. Wash the food and water bowls daily, and clean the cage every few months. They live about five to 15 years or more.

Madagascar hissing cockroaches are fascinating insects that make a characteristic hissing sound when disturbed. Startup costs are about $45, and yearly costs are minimal. They eat dry dog or mouse food and a little fruit. Change the water weekly and the bedding occasionally. They live about two to five years.


McLaughlin suggests fish as a good starter pet. A complete setup for goldfish or other cold-water varieties costs about $200 to $250, and food runs about $15 to $20 a year. You will need to keep the tank and filter clean and replace part of the water regularly.

Your New Family Member

When you’re ready, you can find your pocket pet at an animal shelter, breeder or pet store. Pet stores sell hermit crabs and fish, but you may have to order your hissing cockroach online.

Remember, while children can help, an adult should be the primary caregiver of any pet.

Finally, if it’s the right decision, it’s time to welcome your new family member.

Is your family pet ready? You should be able to answer “yes” to all these questions:

Can you afford the initial and ongoing costs?
Are you ready for the responsibility?
Do you know how to keep your pet healthy?
Will someone be able to care for your pet when you go on vacation?

Kathy Sorrow is a freelance writer. She is a mom of two boys and Frisco the cat.

Related Links:

> Pros and Cons of Eligible Family Pets
> Keeping Your Pet Safe During the Holidays
> Keeping Kids Safe Around Pets