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Small pets for small people – how to you choose the right one?

Written By: Jane Davidson RVN

Surprise, surprise, it’s my day off and guess what I’ve been doing?

Well, writing, as is my usual way to spend a day off, but also at the vets. Not working but taking the dogs in for a few things. While we were there myself and the vet chatted about pet shops.

Pet shops can be a blessing and a curse for vets and vet nurses. They often sell things that are useful to pet owners but that vet practices don’t have the time and space to carry. They may have a bigger variety of food or a better range of cat litter – a personal bugbear of mine is finding the right cat litter for my cat! It’s bulky, there’s loads of different types and every cat likes something different – Vet practices can’t offer everything pet related!

A good local pet shop is often very helpful. However there is also the issue of the products they carry that we wouldn’t recommend, as well as the advice they give, which can be well meant but can also sometimes be not very helpful. I’m lucky that my local pet shop only occasionally sells pets and one of the first times I was shopping there, I heard the shop staff give some great advice about not having gerbils as pets! Which I totally agreed with!

In many places this advice is often centred on the sale of, and suitability of, pets for children or families. Choosing a pet for a busy household can be quite hard. Do you get something the children can care for themselves or a family pet that the parents need to take the main responsibility for? Where is good to get fair and balanced information?

Well, clearly as a vet nurse I’m going to say ‘the vets’ but if you think about it rationally, we’re the ones who will see you with your pet if anything goes wrong and, while I’m sure some cynical people would think we love seeing really sick pets to make money, we’d really rather make money from preventative care and genuine accidents than situations that could have been avoided with a little planning.


Maybe your vet nurse could help?

Sadly, only 4% of people seek advice at a vet practice before getting a pet and I’d love to see this increase. Some vets do offer pet planning or pre-pet parties and I’ve written about this great idea before, and this is where the vet nurse comes in. Cheaper than a vet consultation (and sometimes even free) you get a set time to come and ask questions and advice on what pets are best for families and children, plus an idea of the care involved in different species.

While pet shops do offer information, many still don’t offer the best advice for you or the pet. Small hutches and cages are still sold that compromise welfare, hamsters are sold in pairs even where many breeds of them are solitary creatures. I’m not going to dwell on the poor advice out there but offer my top 3 ideas on the ideal pets for children, that they can care for mainly by themselves from around the age of 8 years old.



Pets for children

I’m going to come right out and say it –



If you’re looking for a cage dwelling pet then rats are a really good option. Their larger body size makes them easier to handle for children, they are easier to tame and generally happier to be handled than gerbils or hamsters. Hamsters are nocturnal, so not always keen for daytime activity, and gerbils tend to do everything at 100mph, including running, jumping and digging. Degus, while popular at the moment, are similar to gerbils in temperament so although slightly larger are not ideal pets.

Rats are intelligent and can be trained to respond to their name. They are naturally inquisitive and keen to sit and check out their surroundings. The RSPCA has some helpful advice on how best to care for your rat.

Oh, and they are cute! Their tails aren’t scaly and have very fine fur on them, and they have the best ears!


Rabbits OR guinea pigs

These are ever popular children’s pets and rabbits are the third most common pet in the UK after cats and dogs. However, they are both high maintenance pets and could cost as much as a cat to look after, according to the annual Blue Cross survey of pet ownership.

They will require outdoor and indoor care depending on the weather and it’s well worth checking the space they need and their dietary requirements with the Rabbit Welfare Charity. They need more space and care than you might think.

In fact, at a recent training event I went to about rabbits, it was noted that the traditional hutch was a Victorian invention to allow people to keep rabbits in the newly developing city garden to fatten them up to eat!

Also, you CANNOT keep rabbits or guinea pigs on their own, but they should live with their own kind as they are not good companions for each other – it’s either rabbits OR guinea pigs.


Non-furry pets

Finally as a child’s pet it’s always worth considering pets that don’t have fur – allergies can be very serious and I’ve often worked with people seeking to re-home their newly acquired pet as someone in the house is allergic and they hadn’t realised.

Reptiles can make great pets and although they will need specialist housing, with the smaller pets such as geckos this needn’t be something that takes up an entire room.

Lizards and snakes all have their own personalities and may not want to be handled very much, so they are different from owning a ‘cuddly’ pet. But they do provide the caring and learning aspects of pet owning and can be great pets.

As with all pets you need to do your research before getting any type of reptile and a good starting place are the RSPCA pages, as they cover the most common types of reptile pets, but also point out the things to definitely NOT buy – no matter how exotic or pretty they are! The page on corn snakes is helpful and, as these are quite an active breed of snake that don’t grow too large, they are popular as pets.


Now, where do I get my pet from?

That’s my top 3, including the currently popular rabbits and guinea pigs, the often ignored but lovely rat and a non-furry option too.

Now where to get these pets? I’m going to say it’s rehoming all they way, specially with children’s pets. You will get honest advice and a better history of the pets behaviour and suitability to your needs.

The RSPCA, Wood Green Animal shelter, the Blue Cross and more all have many more types of pets to rehome than just cats and dogs. These pets need a home, you have a home to give and want to make the right decision for you and your children. Speak to your vet nurse, get their advice and then find a charity to help you. You never know the vet practice may already know of a great place that can help.

Then head to the pet shop for the treats and toys the vet nurse and the charity recommend, that’s what pet shops are best at.


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