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starter pets for kidsWelcoming a pet into your family’s home is a big commitment that can yield big rewards—especially for your kids. Pets can teach responsibility, increase physical activity, and even reduce anxiety. Most important of all, they offer companionship: “Animals love unconditionally, which is a wonderful thing for kids to learn,” says integrative veterinarian Cathy Alinovi, DVM, of Lafayette, Indiana. Popular options like cats and dogs are great choices for many families, but other, more unexpected animals can also be amazing first pets for kids, says Colin McDermott, VDM, a Helen E. Swearer Fellow of Aquarium Science and Veterinary Medicine at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, and an expert in exotic pets. Here are three options that Drs. Alinovi and McDermott recommend exploring for your family:

Pet Pick: Guinea Pigs

Why Kids Love Them: Guinea pigs are surprisingly affectionate and easy to manage,” says Dr. McDermott. Kids also get a kick out of all the noises the animals make—from squeals to whinnies!

What You’ll Need: Guinea pigs need an enclosure with a solid bottom and soft bedding, like cotton or paper. They eat mostly hay and veggies and require a vitamin C supplement, says Dr. McDermott.

How Kids Can Help: “They tend to be a little messy,” says Dr. McDermott, so cleaning the cage can be a good job for older kids, along with keeping it stocked with hay and water.

Pet Pick: Rabbits

Why Kids Love Them: These cuddly creatures are affectionate and playful, says Dr. Alinovi, and they can live for up to 15 years. Breed choice is a personal preference, she says, but Mini Lops are small and tend to be laid-back.

What You’ll Need: Rabbits need a large home. Most people opt for a dog crate that’s lined with plastic and has shredded paper as bedding. Fill the crate with Timothy hay for snacking, since rabbits also need to eat constantly, says Dr. McDermott.

How Kids Can Help: Children can learn to clean up after rabbits and provide fresh food and water. They can also help the rabbits get exercise by playing with them around the house or in a fenced-in outdoor area.

Pet Pick: Domestic Rats

Why Kids Love Them: Rats make great pets. (Yes, really!) They’re friendly, smart, affectionate, and very clean. “They will run around and walk on your shoulders or sit with your children as they do their homework and then go back into their cage at night,” Dr. Alinovi says. “They’re really an ideal pet.”

What You’ll Need: It’s best to adopt these social critters in pairs—preferably two females for first-time owners. An ideal home consists of a large wire cage with a plastic bottom that’s covered with old T-shirts for bedding. The rats also need toys and things to chew on, like cardboard.

How Kids Can Help: Besides cleaning their cage and replacing food (store-bought pellets are recommended) and water, kids can do what they do best—play! Rats need mental stimulation and enjoy a challenge. One fun idea from Dr. McDermott: Create a maze for the animals out of old boxes and cardboard tubes.

Do Your Research

Many people will buy a small pet on impulse because it’s cute and not as expensive as a dog or cat, says Dr. McDermott. But it’s better to research options with your kids online and talk to other pet owners about what animals are a fit for your family’s lifestyle.

Find a Vet

Since the animals on this list are considered exotic, make sure there’s a veterinarian in your area who specializes in your pet’s needs. Use the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association’s database (ahvma.org) and search by “exotic” to find a specialist near you.

Choose Adoption

It’s not only for cats and dogs! There are a lot of rescue groups dedicated to smaller, more exotic pets. Steer clear of pet stores since the animals sold there might have come from breeders who use unhealthy methods, says Dr. Alinovi.

Animals to Avoid

Not all animals make the best first pet, especially for kids. Steer clear of hamsters (they bite!); reptiles, like turtles, since they can carry bacteria and need very specialized care; and fish, since kids can overfeed and kill them relatively easily.

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