What is a good first pet for my child?

LAST UPDATED 31 JANUARY 2020

This article is written by one of Pet Circle's pet product and lifestyle gurus, Gemma Radcliffe and approved by our veterinary team

Choosing your child's first pet can be a super exciting experience and really pave the way for a compassionate, animal-loving young adult. I remember the fun myself and my two older sisters had picking out a trio of guinea pigs for the first time (mine was named Pen for some bizarre reason) - they were cute, "wheeking" little critters that also taught us the importance of responsible pet ownership.

However, in hindsight some of the pets we owned were not quite suitable for us when we were younger - including frogs, hermit crabs and yes, even certain fish species. So, how do you figure out if a pet is suitable for your child?

First off: age is important

Before we explore our list of possibilities, it's very important to consider the age of your child and how responsible they will be for their new pet. Very young children such as toddlers can frighten quiet cats, or risk injury from an over-enthusiastic pooch. Other animals require specialist care that young children may not understand or be able to cater for on their own. We'll recommend age groups for the following pets where we can, so you can choose the best critter for your child. Regardless of your child's age however, keep in mind that you as the parent should expect to be the primary carer for any pets that are brought into the home.

Guinea pigs

Recommended age: 5 and up
Lifespan: 5 - 10 years
As I mentioned in the beginning, guinea pigs were a very popular pet in my family and were a good starting point for learning how to properly take care of animals on our own - from refilling food dishes to cleaning out cages and providing the piggies with treats and so on. Generally hardier than most pocket pets, well-socialised guinea pigs are happy to be petted and occasionally picked up. Keep in mind that guinea pigs are very social, so it's best to adopt or purchase yours in pairs, and they will need a sizeable cage (we do not recommend purchasing one from a regular pet store) to make sure they can run about. Guinea pigs also require a fairly easy to follow diet of hay, pellets and fresh vegetables, but they do need a source of vitamin C, so you may need a supplement if the pellets you choose do not include added vitamin C.

Shop all guinea pig essentials here

Siamese Fighting Fish/Betta

Recommended age: 5 and up
Lifespan: Up to 5 years
Betta fish, also known as Siamese fighting fish, are a fantastic fish that may need a tiny bit more TLC than your average goldfish - but the payoff is a hardier, beautiful fish that's easy to look after. Betta - male or female - need to live alone and also require a filter, but having just one fish in a tank may be easier for a child to take care of, rather than a populated tank that requires more frequent cleaning and water changes.

We might also recommend tetra, guppies or hardy freshwater fish for beginner fish-keepers - however, we find Siamese fighting fish more appealing and easier to care for than these.

Shop all betta essentials here

Rats

Recommended age: 6 and up
Lifespan: 2 - 3 years
While mice may be too delicate for children, rats are a good choice due to the fact that they are intelligent, social and warm quickly to their humans. They are also unlikely to bite (unless very irritated) and are less likely to hurt themselves if they happen to be dropped. Like guinea pigs, rats should never live alone, so you'll need to adopt or buy more than just one. Male rats are often quite happy to chill out on your child's shoulder or curl up in their lap, are entertaining and can even be taught tricks! It is important however to teach your child the correct way to handle a rat: never allow them to pick their pet rat up by the tail.

Shop all rat essentials here

Budgerigar

Recommended age: 8 and up
Lifespan: 7 - 10 years
Budgerigars make fantastic pets for children: they're small, chatty, social, and can even be taught simple tricks! The more your child interacts with and works on their budgie, the tamer they will become, sitting on your child's shoulder or eating out of their hands. They should not be left to solely sit in a cage, however: allowing your budgie to roam about like any other pet (if they wish, and if it is safe to do so), and allowing them to return to their cage to sleep at night is recommended, and is so much kinder on your budgie than confining them to a small space. They are a pet better-suited to older children, as young children may not understand how to gently handle a bird, or may forget to close their cage doors.

Shop all budgie essentials here

Children's Python

Recommended age: 8 and up
Lifespan: 2 - 3 years
The Children's Python is actually named after the naturalist J.G. Children - but coincidentally, they're a great snake for kids as well. While children need to be 16 years or older to apply for a reptile license, their parent or guardian can apply on their behalf. Adult Children's Pythons are known to be generally docile, friendly and very relaxed around people, making them a great starter snake for budding herpetologist. Initial terrarium set up for a snake can be costly however, so keep that in mind, and you and your child need to be prepared to feed frozen mice (1 - 2 every seven days) to your new python.

Shop all snake essentials here

Axolotl

Recommended age: 10 and up
Lifespan: 10 years (average)
Also known as the Mexican Walking Fish, Axolotl are easier to keep than many reptiles or amphibians, as they do not require any specialty heating - in fact, they prefer cooler water, a tank out of direct sunlight, and a place to hide. They make fascinating pets for children and teach them the importance of environmental conservation: axolotls are very near extinct in their only natural habitat in the wild (Xochimilco Lake in Mexico). Feeding on brine shrimp, earthworms, blood worms, and small pieces of beef or liver, an axolotl's diet is simple and caring for such a unique pet is an absolute joy.

Shop axolotl subtrates here

Dog

Recommended age: 6 and up
Lifespan: Up to 15 years (depends on breed)
Every child wants a puppy. Every family wants a puppy. Everyone wants puppies. Puppies. But of course, a puppy grows into a dog, and a dog requires quite a bit of responsibility. Hence, we would recommend waiting for your child to be older than six years of age (preferably 10) before they consider adopting their first dog. It's likely that the dog won't belong solely to your child either - it will become a member of the family, and so all family members should consider pitching in when it comes to feeding, grooming, playing with and training your new dog. There are also dozens of breeds to choose from, so it's worth doing your research into which breeds are suitable for children (we have a few recommendations in our guide to choosing a dog breed), as some breeds may be disagreeable with unpredictable are attention-seeking young children.

Explore the dog shop

Cat

Recommended age: 7 and up
Lifespan: Up to 20 years (depends on breed)
Second only to dogs in pet popularity across Australia, cats are a family favourite for a plethora of reasons. In general, most cat breeds are suitable for older children, though many will hiss and be disagreeable if a young child pulls on their ears, tail, and so on. Some breeds are more people-oriented than others such as the Birman, Ragdoll and Maine Coon.

Explore the cat shop

What do we not recommend?

While it can be a little disheartening to say, some of the cutest pets are simply not ideal for children, especially very young children. These include:

  • Mice: Too small, fragile, and generally scared of humans unless properly handled at a young age
  • Goldfish: Debatable across fish-keeping hobbyists, goldfish are actually quite fragile and often seen as cheap, flush-it-down-the-toilet creatures that don't really help educate children on the value of a pet
  • Rabbits: Unless handled from a very young age, few rabbits are happy to be picked up - try explaining this to your toddler, who just wants to chase and pick up the fluffy bunny. We absolutely recommend rabbits as pets for older, better-informed kids, however!
  • Turtles, snakes, amphibians: We realise we recommended the Children's Python earlier on, but only for older children. Young'uns may want something to hold and cuddle, and not many reptiles enjoy this! That said, older children/teens will find the experience rewarding
  • Ferrets: Can be challenging even for adults! They can be rather nippy, and it might take just one nip to put your child off animals for a long time
  • Hermit Crabs: Although marketed to children, hermit crabs require very specific parameters in their tank that first-time pet owners may not be able to comprehend

There is lots to consider when it comes to your child's first pet. Always keep in mind not only the personality of your child, but also the temperament of the animal involved. With the right environment and care, children and animals can flourish together in a family.

Further reading

Want to read more? Check out our other articles:

New puppy guide

New kitten guide

How to set up a fish tank

How to ask your landlord for a pet

Siamese fighting fish facts

Shop All Pet Products