What makes a good pet for an 8 year old?

Q: My 8-year-old daughter would like to get a small pet to keep in her room.  Do you have a recommendation?

— Lindsay

A: Dear Lindsay,

A “pocket pet” is a great way for kids to get introduced to the responsibility of pet ownership. That being said, most 8 year olds quickly lose interest in cage cleaning, so I think it is most fair to the animal to think of getting a small pet for the family that lives in the child’s room. That way the expectation is that everyone is involved with making sure that the animal’s needs are met.  

When thinking about what type of pet to get, you need to have a conversation with your daughter as to what the most important aspect of the pet experience is. Does she want to hold the animal, or is designing a fun environment and watching the animal burrow and play the most important?

If your daughter is content to primarily watch her critter, then hamsters, gerbils or mice would be a good choice. Watching these creatures perform their natural behavior, like grooming, running, playing, and discovering new foods can be quiet entertaining. These pets generally do not like to be handled, however, and can bite.  It takes a lot of patient training to get one of these animals to sit on your hand for a treat. Many of these rodents do well in a simple aquarium. However, aquariums do not allow very good ventilation, so making sure that the cage is cleaned and washed at least once a week is very important. 

If your daughter wants to handle her pet, then a guinea pig or a rat would be a better choice. Both of these animals are very friendly and enjoy interactions with people.  Compared to smaller rodents, these pets need a fairly large cage. The large wire-sided cages most pet stores sell are a great choice. They don’t trap smell, and have good ventilation. Be warned, rats and guinea pigs will often spray their urine outside of the cage, so make sure that the cage is set on a surface that is easy to clean. 

For all of these critters, I recommend avoiding cedar chip shavings. The oil on the cedar chips smell great to us, but can injure their little lungs. Also important is to change their water frequently and that the water level in the bottle is checked daily.  If the water level isn’t going down, it could be a sign that there is a clog in the ball at the tip of the bottle. 

Pelleted food is better than choosing a diet that has a mixture of food items in it.  Like kids at a buffet, these little pets tend to choose the items that taste the best, like seeds, and leave the items that may have more nutrients. With pelleted food, all of the minerals and vitamins are dispersed in each pellet so the animal gets the proper nutrition. By the same token, avoid giving too many treats. It is fun to watch your little critter get excited for a yogurt chip, but treat items often have a lot of sugar in them and should only be given in small amounts.

Make sure that your daughter does some investigating to see if her future pet has any special needs. For example, guinea pigs require vitamin C on a daily basis to stay healthy.

Of all of these animals, I personally, enjoy rats the most. They love interacting with people, are smart and trainable, and watching their normal behavior is incredibly entertaining. My son has two female rats that have a wire cage on a large, short table. We often leave the cage door open for the rats to come out and explore. If my son leaves anything on the table, they immediately grab the item and carry it into their house. Lego helicopters, Pokémon cards, anything they can carry gets hoarded.  Just recently we were setting up an aquarium in my son’s room and we could not find the tank heater anywhere.  Sure enough, the rats had grabbed it and tucked it away. We’ve noticed that they love hoarding so much that instead of feeding them in a dish, we scatter their food on the table and then sit back and watch. They are very industrious in collecting all of the food and storing it in the cage for future use. I could go on and on about the rat, but if you can handle how their tail looks, they are my recommendation for a nice little pet. 

Dr. Teresa Hershey is a veterinarian at Westgate Pet Clinic in Linden Hills. Email her your pet questions at [email protected].