What makes a good beginner pet? Part 1 of 3

Posted in Philosophy, Uncategorized at 12:28 am by ACR&S

I recently participated in an interesting on-line discussion about “starter pets”. I get asked about guinea pigs and rabbits as starter pets quite often, but I usually address these questions on a species-by-species basis. However, I think it would be good to look at some overall questions about the concept of beginner pets.

This is Part One of a three-part series. In this part, I talk about how we define beginner pets, and considerations for beginner pets for adults and for kids.

What defines “good beginner pet”?

Many novice owners who are seeing a good beginner pet have never cared for another organism before, and may need to be taught even the “obvious” things about an animal’s basic needs (like how often to change the animal’s water). So they want an animal who has relatively simple basic needs. This can either mean that they don’t need things like specially controlled environments (like amphibians), or just that their food and environmental needs are commonly available at any store, and don’t need to be ordered on-line or bought from a specialist.

Occasionally, a novice may have helped care for family pets in the past, but they have time constraints (college students), so they might not mind an animal having more complex basic needs, but they want to be able to provide a low time commitment to caring for the animal.

In almost all cases, money is often a concern, so cheap to care for becomes part of the definition.

Most novice owners also recognize that, by definition, a beginner will make mistakes, and they want a pet who won’t be harmed by these mistakes. This component is often the most important to non-novices: one of my vets defined a good beginner pet as, “An animal which can’t be seriously damaged by minor mistakes made through ignorance.”

So, taking all of these considerations into account, a good beginner pet is one which:

  • Has simple-to-meet basic needs
  • Has a low time commitment
  • Has a low average/expected cost of care
  • Cannot be harmed by simple mistakes

What about beginner pets for children?

The answer to this question depends very much on what the parent means by a pet “for the child”.

Do you mean a pet that the kid can do 100% of the chores, with no supervision? There is no such pet. Get them a plant or a pet brick instead. The selfish, ignorant decision by parents to use an animal to “teach responsibility” is literally the #1 reason small animals die or end up in shelters:

Courtesy of Cavy Spirit

I think it’s unfair to both the child and the pet to make pet care a burdensome task for a child. So there’s never an appropriate age to “make” a kid “learn responsibility”, not when another being’s life is at stake.

Now, if a child WANTS a pet, and claims to understand the responsibility involved, I still think it depends on how much the parents are planning to be involved. If your kid makes a mistake in care, or gets bored and whines that they don’t want to take care of the pet anymore, the parent MUST to be willing to make it a learning experience. By this I mean they must explain the ramifications of any mistakes, and if necessary, to be willing take over all the responsibilities without going the “well then we’re getting rid of it” route. There’s hardly a worse lesson to teach a child, than the idea that animals are disposable.

When I was growing up, we had “family” pets where, rather than teaching responsibility by forcing us to practice animal care, my parents demonstrated responsibility, by teaching that commitment to care was a prerequisite to enjoying an animal. For example, we weren’t allowed to take the dogs out on unaccompanied walks unless we had helped with their care every day for 3-4 days in a row. If we got bored, or busy with other childhood commitments – well, too bad, no walkies for us that week. This form of modeling responsibility I respected, even as a kid, and I think is an excellent way to do it.

So if by “good beginner pet for a child” you mean a pet that the adult will be, in word and deed, wholly responsible for, but the child will be “told” the pet is his and will be allowed to do a lot of the care, under supervision: Any pet that the parent can care for, is fine for a child to help with.

Now there’s one exception to this. You also have to consider the age of the child when allowing them to be around any animal (supervised OR unsupervised). Before a child should be allowed to participate in the care of an animal, the child needs to understand consequences (don’t poke the cat in the eye, don’t feed the dog your chocolate bar EVEN once), needs to be able to follow instructions (the cat gets one half-cup of CAT food, not a giant pile of dog food), and also needs to be old enough to have some control of their reactions.

I mention this last item, because a fairly young child may be able to follow a supervised cleaning/feeding schedule, but how old do they have to be to not instinctively react in ways that could harm an animal? When you’re holding something and it nips you (even gently), what’s the instinctive reaction? To open your hands and drop it. A fall from as little as 12″ can break a guinea pig’s leg (it’s happened to me). I’ve also seen kids get mouthed by puppies, and react by trying to hit the puppy. The kids mostly weren’t being malicious, they were just trying to push away the noxious stimulus of the perceived bite.

So even if the parent plans to supervise closely and take ultimate responsibility for animal care, a child should STILL not handle a pet without close adult supervision, unless they are old enough to be able to withstand a surprise nip without reacting harmfully towards the animal.

Tune in next time for Part Two, where I’ll talk about how to do enough research to determine whether a certain pet is right for you, and also some considerations about the costs of caring for a pet.


  1. Searching for happy endings » Beginner pets: Doing the research. Part 2 of 3 said,

    August 22, 2008 at 1:31 am

    […] Part One I talked about how we define beginner pets, and considerations for beginner pets for adults and for […]

  2. Searching for happy endings » Beginner pets: Best and worst choices. Part 3 of 3 said,

    August 26, 2008 at 1:32 am

    […] is Part Three of a three-part series. In Part One I talked about how we define beginner pets, and considerations for beginner pets for adults and for […]