Many parents reach the point where their child starts asking for a pet of their own, and many companion rodents and other small animals are often thought of as good "starter pets" for children. There are several important factors to take into consideration before bringing a new small pet home.
Your New Pet must be the Family's Pet and not the Child's Pet
As tempting as it is to get your child a hamster it is best that you stress from the beginning that this is a pet that will be shared by the whole family. Particularly when you have multiple animals, it is not always a good idea to get 'One for each child' as there can be arguements that break out over who gets which animal, don't touch my guinea pig, and similar arguements. Instead, you can emphasis that a child is specifically responsible for helping with the care of a particular animal, but continue to stress that these are 'everyone's pets' and not just theirs.
Your New Pet is under Your care, Not the Child's.
As the parent, you are ultimately responsible for your child and in turn, your child's pet. Do not bring a new small animal into your home under the assumption that a young child will be responsible for their care and wellbeing. There are many, many children who are convinced that they are ready to take on the responsibility of a small animal, only to find that cleaning cages and filling food bowls is not all it cracked up to be.
You must be prepared to care for the animal in the event that your child loses interest. Set realistic expectations of your child based on their age and capabilities. It can be a great way to teach your child responsibility by having them help care for the animal, but ultimately it is not acceptable to assume that a five year old will be capable of taking care of a pair of guinea pigs or another small animal all by themselves.
Set an Example. Keep Your Pet.
Do not start a trend of viewing pets as disposable toys. When you adopt a pet, you must make a commitment to keep that pet through the rest of it's life, through any medical care and harsh circumstances. Barring a medical condition that forces you to be rid of the pet or extraordinary life circumstances, keeping the animal through thick and thin will teach your children an invaluable life lesson that transcends humane practices with animals and will positively effect your child throughout their life.
It is a particularly bad idea to let your child "grow" out of pets, and we do not believe it is a healthy ideal to teach a child that friends are disposable when you get tired of them. Do not let your child "trade up" to a different type of species of pet until they have established that they can be responsible for care and socializing of their current pet, and do not get rid of an older pet if you are bringing a new one into the household.
One of the most common reasons an animal is surrendered to a shelter or rescue is that a parent did not want to care for a pet after the child lost interest. If you think this might be a risk for your child, we highly suggest starting with a pet rock or electronic pet that will not have to suffer if it is no longer wanted later on down the road.
Set an Example. Involve your child in the Adoption Process
Many people steer away from adoption versus purchasing at a pet store because the process is unfamiliar and daunting to them. By letting your child become involved in the adoption process you help set the trend from where they will get their pets later in life. Setting the example to adopt now not only saves your new pet's life, but many more down the line.
Pick out the animal yourself, don't let your child do it
Children, and indeed still some adults, are attracted to the 'flashy' options. Maybe there's a beautiful, long haired teddy bear hamster that you would like to adopt, but it's not very friendly. Or you could adopt a plain looking, short coated hamster, that while less attention-getting will be a better pet because of it's friendly and outgoing nature. You know your children and their personalities and are best suited to find a pet that they can interact with. Another leading reason for animals to end up in shelters is mismatched personalities. Pick out the animal before you bring your children for adoption, and encourage them to stay focused on that animal by being positive about the choice. Encouraging words like, "I found the sweetest guinea pig that you're going to love," and "I think she's going to love being part of our family" will help your child be excited about the new family member.
You should not look for a new animal based on color, gender, or age when looking to add a small pet for a child. The absolutely most important factor is finding an animal with a very gentle disposition that will give your child a positive experience with that species.
Stress Care of the animal, be involved
While the care of the animal falls solely on your shoulders, this does not mean you should discount this valuable lesson in responsibility with your child. Make time to spend playing with your child and the pet every day, it is time that benefits everyone involved. Make 'Cage Cleaning Day' a fun event. Placing the pet in a safe place while you clean the cage together, your child will feel helpful by assisting you in removing soiled bedding, rinsing surfaces, emptying food bowls and cleaning water bottles. With very young children, you can further enforce the behavior of animal care by praising them and telling them how happy the pet is thanks to their care.
Make it Fun!
A lot of kids will unfortunately lose interest in their pets and the mentality of 'Is that all it does?' can certainly be avoided. Take your children shopping with you for animal toys, ask them to help you customize the cage, set up playtimes with the animals. Secure a room for your pets to free-range in and ask your children to help you find and take out anything dangerous, cover wires and holes they can escape in. Have a fun activity and ask your child to help you set up a rodent playground with cardboard boxes, tunnels and hidden snacks. You can have craft time that involves making safe animal toys for your pets, and healthy animal treats. Let your child mix home-made food for your rodents (follow a proper recipe for good nutrition) and encourage them to feed the pets every day with their special food. Encourage them to teach their pet simple tricks, even if it's as basic as standing on their hind legs for a treat.
Small children should never be left unattended with pets as injury to either party can occur. Stress early on the need to be gentle and attentive to small pets. It is best that you have small children seated on the floor before handing them a pet to play with, and just in case (because accidents do happen) make sure they're in a rodent proofed area in case the animal escapes from them.
Certain pets make better pets for small children to handle then others. We generally look to the following age chart:
Age 0 - 4: Should not be allowed to hold small animals. Can be allowed to pet very tame guinea pigs and rats.
Age 5 - 7: Should not be allowed to handle mice, dwarf hamsters, gerbils or any 'quick' small animals that can easily escape or be injured by small hands. Guinea Pigs, Syrian Hamsters, and Rats can be held while seated on the floor.
Age 8 - 11: Should not handle nippy species such as mice or dwarf hamsters which could nip and cause a child to drop them. Very tame guinea pigs, rats, syrian hamsters and gerbils can be handled.
Age 12 - 14: Can handle all species of animals with proper supervision with exception to chinchillas
Age 15+: Can handle all species of animals including chinchillas
Why do we use this age chart? For the safety of all parties involved. Children who mishandle and are subsequently bitten by a small animal can develop a strong fear of the animal that will carry into adulthood. Very young children who lack the motor skills can easily, accidentally, injure a pet. Children who forget to use quiet voices can startle a small animal, or who can startle may drop and injure an animal who will then become fearful of humans.
We recommend chinchillas to the older demographic due to the fact many, many chinchillas aren't very cuddly. They have plenty of energy and like to run rather then being held and carried around. Older children who are better able to understand this also have the patience to work with an animal to form a bond with it, which in turn makes a chinchilla who is more willing to be calmly held.