Beginner pets: Best and worst choices. Part 3 of 3

Posted in Philosophy at 1:06 am by ACR&S

This is a series looking at some overall questions about the concept of beginner pets.

This 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 kids. In Part Two I talked about how to do enough research to determine whether a certain pet is right for you, and also some considerations about figuring the costs of caring for a pet. In this part, I finally answer the questions of what animals don’t, and do, make good beginner pets.

What animals are NOT good beginner pets?

Surprisingly, most animals which are usually considered “good starter pets” are NOT.

Most of the exotics, including small birds, reptiles, and most small mammals, do not have simple basic needs. They require special, high-quality diets, which are often not available at small pet stores. The stuff sold at grocery stores will definitely kill them. All of these animals require supplementation with fresh foods (usually veggies), many reptiles require frozen, pre-killed foods (ranging from mealworms and crickets up to baby mice). This adds both expense and time to their upkeep requirements. All require much larger cages than are sold even by the major chain pet stores; the best cages usually have to be ordered off the internet.

Birds and rabbits also fail the time commitment test due to their social and exercise needs. Both species need to have plenty of out-of-cage exercise every day, as well as social interaction. In both cases, you also have to spend time and money rabbit- or bird-proofing the rooms that they will play in. Many an IPod has lost its charging cord due to a curious bird or bunny!

Due to medical expenses, all exotics fail the low cost test. A physical exam for a cat or dog, with no additional care, is in the $30-$50 range. For a guinea pig, rat, or bird to be seen at an exotics vet, you are talking a MINIMUM of $75-$100 for a basic visit with NO additional care. It’s for a reason which is exactly the same as in human medicine: a visit to a general practitioner is always cheaper than a visit to a specialist.

Surprisingly, fish and hermit crabs also don’t make the cut, because their environmental needs are not simple. Hermit crabs require carefully chosen substrates and water containers, not just the cheapest stuff you find at the pet store, and you must know how to carefully control their heat and humidity. They too require supplementation with fresh foods. You also have to treat their water and change it frequently. Some species require you to mix up special salt water (NOT using table salt!) in addition to providing treated fresh water. Goldfish are a species of carp, and are FILTHY animals; they require a pretty big tank (8-10 gallons for ONE) with a very strong filter, and frequent water changes. They are cold-water fish and their tanks must be kept below 72 degrees. Bettas (siamese fighting fish) also require a much bigger tank than people realize (5 gallon is considered a minimum), need a heater to keep their tank at a very narrow, warm, temperature range, and require frequent water changes, requiring a fairly large time commitment. Also, a mistake with a fish almost always results in death, and even if it is an animal with “more stem than brain”, that’s a pretty severe consequence for novice error.

If they are so bad, WHY are these animals all usually considered starter pets?

Simply because they much cheaper to buy/adopt than cats or dogs. A rabbit is $5 at the flea market, but a dog from the pound is nearly $50, therefore rabbits must be easier pets to care for! People equate low cost with easy, but they are considering ONLY the cost of the animal, not the cost of set up or of ongoing maintenance. Worse, to many people, these animals are considered disposable; if one dies, you just buy another. That mentality speaks for itself, and arguing with people who believe that is futile. Add to this mentality the fact that the “common knowledge” and the grocery store/pet store products for these animals are both usually completely wrong and inappropriate, and as a result, these animals typically only live to a third or less of their potential lifespan. That certainly makes them bad choices for a starter pet.

What animals don’t belong as pets at all?

Any animal for which we do not have the ability to provide a captive environment that includes everything that is needed to keep them healthy and happy.

Many people count parrots in this category; despite the fact that I own parrots, I often agree with them. Parrots, even the tiny ones like budgies/parakeets (and even some non-parrot birds, like zebra finches), can easily live over FIFTEEN years; some of the larger birds can live 50-100 years. Almost all parrots are highly social, and are happiest when housed with another bird or given huge amounts of daily interaction with their human families. They require huge cages (compared to what the pet stores sell) and high-quality, pelleted food.

Parrots are also not domesticated animals. Most birds being sold today, have parents or grandparents who were wild-caught. They have not been bred to captive life for generations, so they are terribly sensitive to environmental and social disruption. Their reaction is usually to develop behavioral problems such as screaming, biting, and destruction, or even self-mutilation. It’s often said that a parrot has the intelligence of a two-year old child, without the ability to learn consequences or grow out of that selfish, me-me-me stage.

Due to all of these problems, parrots are among the hardest pet to care for, with the lowest success rate. One source claims that only 25% of parrots are cared for correctly, and that the average parrot is re-homed 15 to 20 times in its lifetime. For this reason, not only are they bad starter pets, they are bad pets all around for probably 99% of people.

Another animal which I believe should not be owned as a pet is hermit crabs. They can’t be bred in captivity, so all of them are wild caught. If we cannot breed them in captivity, we obviously cannot provide a captive environment which contains all that they require. Also, hermit crabs can live over 30 years if you do it right, but that is SO difficult that only a handful of people have managed to keep their crab alive more than 10 years. Most people kill their crabs (unintentionally) within six to twelve months of purchase. I feel that an animal which can only be wild-caught, and which is so hard to care for that most die shortly after capture, should not be kept in captivity.

Look at it this way: the average owner doesn’t have the ability to care for a great white shark, but because those are harder to come by and larger than crabs, not so many people make the erroneous assumption that they are an easy pet. If hermit crabs were 8′ long and capturing them required a large boat and a 10 man diving team, most people would recognize that they make terrible pets, too.

So what animals DO make good starter pets?

Again, let’s reiterate. The criteria for being a good beginner pet is an animal 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

There’s one more consideration we haven’t discussed, and that’s the suitability of the animal to being a pet. Most people who want a pet want some level of interaction from that animal. Most people prefer an animal which enjoys being handled and played with, and will respond to its owner in a positive way. So in selecting my top three beginner pets, I’ve taken this additional requirement into consideration.

The animal which meets all of these requirements the best is a cat. A second choice would be a pair of rats.

Why is a cat a good beginner pet?

Simple Basic Needs: A+

They need water. Most people can’t screw that up and it’s easy to come by.

They need food. Almost all cat foods are acceptable – while the very cheapest canned junk or grocery store brand food can lead to problems late in life (tooth decay and kidney/UTI issues), most cats do fine on any of the slightly better brands recommended by the cat’s vet. The primary consideration here is to go with something that has no grain or by-product fillers – unlike dogs, cats are obligate carnivores and do not need to eat plant material in any form. But they don’t need supplements, fresh foods, or a variety of food products like a guinea pig or rat does.

They need litter and a litterbox. 99.9% of cats do fine on the first box and litter brand that their owner buys; changes like adding boxes or switching litter is typically done to make the owner more comfortable, not the cat (by resolving issues like odor, tracking, or sticking-to-the-butt). They are much easier to train and better about litterbox habits than rabbits typically are.

They need toys and socialization. Cats will often make their own toys, and tell you if they are lonely, yet they are independent enough to amuse themselves. Contrast this with a rabbit, who desperately needs socialization, but cannot speak up to say so, and may confuse the owner by displaying their frustration as aggression.

They need regular medical care. Unlike most small exotic mammals, a cat can get good care from ANY vet. They do hide try to their illnesses, but not as much as prey animals do. Even a fairly inobservant owner will notice when something is wrong as long as they pay attention to the cat’s normal activity level, food intake, and poop output.

Low Time Commitment: A+

You don’t have to make extra trips to a specialty store to buy their food. You don’t have to spend hours each day supervising them at play or taking them for walkies. It takes about 15 minutes a day to plunk down food and scoop the litterbox. They sleep 11-14 hours per day, meaning they are self-sufficient for nearly all of the time you are asleep and at work. If you get one which is highly social and demanding of attention, you can get a second cat and they will keep each other entertained.

Low Average Cost of Care: A+

Food, litter, and healthcare are the primary ongoing expenses for a cat, all of which are readily available everywhere as described above, making them fairly inexpensive.

The primary over-looked costs in cat care come from two sources: destruction of property (scratching the good chair, peeing on the hall carpet, cat hairs on your good suit) and preventative healthcare (higher-end food to prevent kidney and tooth problems, regular dental cleanings, and flea/tick control). If you factor in for these items, you’re probably at about $1000 per year, which is no more expensive than caring for a guinea pig, with fewer requirements.

Little Harm from Simple Mistakes: A+

The three main illnesses to which cats are prone (dental disease, urinary tract infection/kidney disease, and parasite infestation) are all due to neglecting basic medical care. Fortunately, all are easily reversible through treatment and often just through dietary management. Compare this to guinea pigs, who can literally die of seizures from mite infestations, or birds, who can be killed by the fumes from candles, paint, or teflon cookware.

Suitability: A+

Cats display all of the most commonly desired pet traits: they are glad to see you, they like to be petted and cuddled, they can be trained to do interesting tricks, and they enjoy interactive playtime. Most small mammals only tolerate handling, but never actually come to enjoy it. Additionally, cats don’t tend to bite (like dogs or rabbits) or make too much noise (like birds or dogs) or develop severe behavioral derangements (like dogs, birds, rabbits, hamsters, and sometimes rats).

Why is a pair of rats a good beginner pet?

Normally, I would stop with cats, since I think the evidence paints them as the ideal beginner pet. However, many people are either allergic to cats, or require a pet which can be confined to one room. So I feel obliged to offer a second choice for the cat haters. Note that I score rats as FAR less suitable than a cat on nearly all of our measures. Just because I will grudgingly accord rats second place in this rating, doesn’t mean they are at all comparable to the ease of owning a cat.

Simple Basic Needs: B-

While more complex than cats, rats’ needs are easier to meet than those of most small animals.

They need water, in a bottle which is refilled daily and sanitized at least weekly.

They need food, consisting of high-quality “lab blocks” supplemented with fruits, veggies, and protein. Lab blocks either need to be bought from a larger pet store, or ordered online. Fortunately, if you yourself eat a healthy diet, your rats’ supplementation can simply be a little of your own food. If you primarily eat junk food, you’ll want to buy some fruits and veggies (even frozen peas and carrots are a good treat). And hey, maybe it’ll get you eating healthier, too!

Rats need a cage and bedding. Cages should be as large as possible to allow plenty of toys and environmental enrichment. Cages usually do have to be bought online or at specialty stores, though. This is a well-liked cage source among rat fanciers.

Bedding needs to be cleaned frequently (spot cleaning daily, with a total cage clean weekly), but the best bedding is available both online and at almost all pet supply stores.

They need toys and socialization. Rats are easy to provide toys for – boxes, tubes, paper, cloth hammocks – anything that can be gnawed, crawled through, or swung from is a good toy for a rat. Parrot toys are a great store-bought toy if you don’t want to get creative and make your own. Additionally, by getting a bonded pair of rats, you are also guaranteeing them adequate socialization.

They need regular medical care. Rats will require the services of an exotics vet, which is more expensive than for cats. Many rats develop age related health problems such as tumors and arthritis, and the treatment of these disease will need to be factored into the costs when being considered by a prospective owner. Most rats need 1-2 tumors removed during the first year or so of life, after this they are usually too old to survive the surgery.

It’s also becoming more common to perform preventative surgeries (specifically, spay and neuter) on rats in order to reduce the horribly high incidence of some types of mammary and reproductive tumors. These surgeries may be around $200, and will need to be done early in the rat’s life, so it needs to be considered part of the startup costs.

Low Time Commitment: B+

Rats do require slightly greater time than cats. Cleaning a cage takes longer than cleaning a litterbox, and providing fresh food takes longer than just dumping in some chow. There’s also a greater set-up commitment since many of their supplies may need to be bought on-line.

One factor in their advantage is that rats typically only live 2-3 years, making them among the shortest lived of all common pet animals (only hamsters have similarly short life spans). This makes pet rats an excellent choice for someone whose life is unsettled – a college student or newlywed – who may not want the burden of having a pet a few years down the road. Even if the daily time commitment becomes burdensome, it won’t last that long overall.

Low Average Cost of Care: C+

Apart from the startup cost of the cage (which can be fairly expensive), the primary cost of care for a rat is going to be vet care. Most rats do develop some sort of illness or tumor, and need more-than-usual vetcare during their lives. Unfortunately, due to their small size and short lifespan, many illnesses can only be treated by euthanasia. The plus side is that this does save money over protracted veterinary treatment.

Little Harm from Simple Mistakes: C+

Rats are less flexible to mistakes than cats. They are prone to development of respiratory illnesses. Owners need to be aware of the symptoms and plan to monitor their pets daily. Heatstroke and poisoning (due to eating toxic foods, or getting into household chemicals) are two other common problems. Awareness of your rat’s location and environment can prevent these, and fast access to a veterinarian can often help prevent death.

Suitability: A

Rats who have been socialized appropriately while young are very interactive pets. They respond to your presence, ask to be allowed out to play, enjoy cuddling and gentle petting or sleeping in a shirt pocket, and are easily trained to do an amazing variety of party tricks (as long as food is involved). They are also very “human” acting, which makes them a great favorite with children.

However, some rats are less social than others. You may have to resign yourself to pets who dislike handling. Many who seem social as young animals develop a dislike of handling later in life (especially if they have developed chronic pain conditions like arthritis). They may bite unexpectedly and with comparatively more damage than a cat (rabbit, guinea pig, and bird bites tend to be just as bad).

If you are considering your first pet, hope this guide has been helpful to you. Animal care is NOT a commitment that should be entered into lightly. If you made it all the way through, you’re will to do a lot of reading, so that’s a good sign! If this guide has made you think twice about getting a pet, that’s even better! You are one of the rare intelligent people who is conscious of the need to do right by an animal.


  1. Moriah said,

    November 22, 2008 at 10:26 am

    One more thing about cats. For food (well the whole website) this is the best website that I have found: http://catinfo.org/
    Any litter won’t do, it needs to be unscented and hard clumping, and preferably little to no dust. Cats smelling is a lot more sensitive then ours is. As well as the litter box needs to be large enough for your cat to turn around in, and needs scooped out at least twice a day.

  2. Moriah said,

    November 22, 2008 at 10:30 am

    One other thing: canned food can be left out for up to 12 hours.

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    December 2, 2008 at 3:04 am

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  4. Nikki said,

    December 14, 2008 at 3:37 pm

    Why is it that when selling a beta, the containers that they are sold in are tiny, and they survive in these until they are bought. They also have specifically named fish tanks for betas and goldfish, that are much smaller than 5-10 gallons?

  5. ACR&S said,

    December 15, 2008 at 8:40 am

    Nikki: Thank you for your comment, this is an excellent question.

    The bettas appear to “survive” in these tiny bowls, mostly because you don’t see the dozens of dead bettas that are found and removed before the store opens in the morning! Just because an animal can survive a month or two in these conditions doesn’t mean they are good for a long, healthy life – many bettas die within a month or two of coming home as well. Contrast this to a betta bought from a hobby breeder or a high end aquarium supply store – these are fish which have been kept in an appropriate container their whole lives, and they often live three years or more.

    The reason pet stores sell inappropriate sized tanks marketed for these fish is the same reason they still sell cedar wood marketed for rodents, or seeds marketed for rabbits: the consumer wants to believe that pets can be maintained using the cheapest, smallest environments, and the manufacturers would rather endanger the animals than waste money educating (and potentially lose) customers. Animals are commodities and products which are manipulated to increase the bottom line – nothing more.

  6. kinso said,

    March 18, 2009 at 8:51 am

    ia a herment crab a good beginer pet?

  7. Christina @ Complete Goldfish Care said,

    April 6, 2012 at 5:52 pm

    I agree – goldfish can get pretty messy. Though I’d even suggest a 20 gallon tank for one, just to cut those frequent water changes down to once a week (any aquarium less than a 20 gallons would require multiple water changes per week for good water quality).

    You’d be amazed at how many goldfish die each year just because they aren’t kept in a proper aquarium environment. Or, maybe you wouldn’t be surprised. 😉

    Great read!


  8. Zachary said,

    February 27, 2013 at 5:52 pm

    I have 3 hermit crabs and I take care of peoples hermit crabs I treat them with care hermit crabs are not a great starter pet because you have to change their water so much and have the right heat and humidity. Hermit crabs are only good pets if your willing to get up every morning and take care of them.

  9. Allie said,

    October 22, 2013 at 2:35 pm

    I highly disagree with you about Bettas. They are obviously happier when in a larger aquarium, but it is not required for them to survive. I had a Betta that lived five years in a small, unheated aquarium. You buy them an aquarium, some food, maybe some bloodworms, and you never have to spend money on them again. Just clean their tank once a month. I have discovered that the best way to kill a Betta is actually to give them too much attention.