These days there so many different small furry pets that kids just love. From mice to rats, hamsters to gerbils, when your child inevitably starts to ask for a furry pet of their own, which of the various options should you consider?
It’s no easy decision because although hamsters may still be the quintessential child’s pet, many would argue that some of the alternatives actually make better pets.
Everyone has individual preferences, so making a decision you can live with for a few years can be a minefield.
If this is the situation you find yourself in right now, this article is for you. Let’s dive in and consider 4 of the most popular small rodents — this will be an impartial look at their strengths and weaknesses so you’ll be armed with the right information.
1. Syrian Hamsters
To most children, the hamster is the “classic” small furry pet and the one that, for whatever reason, has become the most popular. The wide range of accessories — most notably Rotastak’s assortment of child-friendly cages (affiliate link) — may well be part of the appeal.
Syrian hamsters are solitary animals who will fight (sometimes to the death) if they’re kept together. A lone pet like this may be good news if you have only 1 child; this can mean less mess, less expense and an easier time taming your new pet.
For parents with more than 1 child, though, each of whom is set on getting his or her own pet, it can mean added expense as you’ll need a cage for each hamster as well as having to double up on water bottles, food bowl, nesting boxes and so on. In these cases, choosing more social pets that will happily live together may make life easier (and cheaper) for you.
Two more potential downsides of hamsters and kids:
- Although many children like to have their pet’s cage in their room, most hamsters are nocturnal. Most likely, then, these pets will be up all night, scratching, gnawing and running in their wheel. For light sleepers, a hamster can quickly become a source of insomnia.
- As someone who has had hamsters for more than a decade, I should also mention that hamsters are the small animal most likely to bite (at least in my experience). They have poor eyesight and, if in doubt, will bite anything that might be a threat. They can also be pretty belligerent when woken up from a deep sleep.
Although hamsters normally calm down with age, be aware that younger specimens are prone to biting. If you opt for a hamster, be prepared for the chance of some blood or a few tears as your hamster and child get to know each other. And remember that you, as a parent, won’t be immune to such treatment!
Mice are highly social animals and can also be surprisingly active. As a result, despite their diminutive size, mice will require at least as much space as a Syrian hamster.
Take note that because of their social nature, no mouse should be kept alone if possible. Instead, aim to take 2 or 3 same-sex mice of a similar age. In this way they will not only be happier, but also watching them play and explore together is far more enjoyable.
Mice are also far more acrobatic than hamsters and will climb, jump and swing on toys placed into the cage generally, making them much better pets to watch than hamsters. This surefootedness can also make handling them a pleasure as they clamber about your person.
Mice are far less likely than a hamster to bite, making them overall more satisfactory for handling by a child.
In fairness, there are at least 2 real downsides to mice as pets:
- They can smell quite bad. Although males are typically more “odorous” than the females, any cage of mice has a characteristic odor to it. Anything more than a few days without cleaning can make for quite an unpleasant experience — especially in a small bedroom.
- A problem some people have with mice are their tails. For some reason, a surprising number of people find that the sight of a mouse’s hairless tail sends them weak at the knees. Although this has no real effect on their suitability as pets, remember that as a parent, you’ll probably end up doing most of the handling and cleaning once the novelty has worn off.
In contrast to what many people think, rats aren’t just “big mice.” While superficially they may appear so, rats offer quite a different experience to young people. For example, although they do possess the same hairless tail, they are scrupulously clean animals — meaning a virtually scent-free cage.
Rats are also one of the most intelligent of the small rodents, which can make them particularly fun as pets. They will, for example, get to know individual members of your family and can even be taught some basic tricks with patience.
Almost never biting, rats soon become close to their people. Because of their size, it’s not uncommon for tame rats to behave more like a domestic cat – curling up on their human’s lap for a tickle and a stroke.
Among rodent keepers, those with rats arguably become the most passionate about their pets.
This video shows pet rats Linda, Lizzie and Timmsy to provide an idea of what rats are like to have as pets, and it also shows some of their training:
However even rats aren’t perfect. One big downside: As one of the larger furry pets available, they will need a sizable cage to move around in. Remember that although taking your pet out for regular exercise is important, it certainly doesn’t excuse or make up for an undersized home.
For those parents who break into a cold sweat at the sight of a hairless tail, the gerbil’s fluffy tail will come as a welcome discovery.
The gerbil is also the pet rodent least likely to bite. Having bred dozens of them over the past few years, I have yet to suffer a single bite — even from gerbils in stressful situations.
Thanks to their obsession with digging, gerbils can be fantastic fun to watch as they create new burrows and hides. As social animals, 2 or 3 same-sex gerbils can make one of the best displays for people who like to watch their pets as often as handle them.
Downsides to gerbils as pets:
- It is worth noting that gerbils are the small animal most prone to gnawing objects around their cage — or even the cage itself. Only glass and metal are safe. Anything made from plastic such as water bottles, food bowls or toys will be rapidly turned to dust by your excitable pets, so they do require some specialist caging to keep them safe from harm.
- Although gerbils rarely bite, they are some of the quickest rodents around. Older children may well enjoy handling gerbils, but the youngest of pet keepers may struggle to keep them under control as they bound around energetically.
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This article was written by Paige Hawin, who currently shares her home with 2 adorable rats, Cosmo and Dibs. She works with pet travel company PBS Pet Travel.